Student Engagement and ACT Prep

It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure out that high school juniors would rather spend their Tuesday afternoons with someone other than their ACT tutor. Most students trudge reluctantly to their ACT sessions, longing for the sweet, sweet ennui that is modern American teens’ increasingly digitized leisure time.

A choice few students find ACT prep energizing, but they are the sort of children who got quizzed on state capitals at age four while all of the other kids were on the playground playing monster tag. So what is a tutor to do with this situation? It’s not like the ACT can be made fun, exactly. Right?

Over the years, I’ve found that student engagement in ACT prep is more than possible; it’s required. Let’s be honest: the content isn’t riveting, so the tutor should try to be. I’ve found that building a relationship with students not only makes the entire experience more pleasant, but it also builds loyalty and crucially improves students’ test scores.

How? Teenagers, and people in general, are above all things interested in themselves. There’s really nothing wrong with that, and it helps to capitalize on that knowledge in session. I’m genuinely interested in my students’ lives, in part because they generally live more exciting lives than I do.

Most of my students are the best at something. I’ve worked with a nationally recognized recorder player, an acrobat, a student interning with a professor to produce original physics research on windmill efficiency, a film score composer, and countless athletes performing at the national level. Like I said, lives more interesting than mine.

Because I care, because I have a terrible memory, and because I know it helps our work together, I jot down the following things when I first meet with a student: grade level, school, sports/activities and top three colleges they’d like to attend. Knowing this information allows me to ask them how things are going at the beginning of a session and to enjoy a few minutes chatting with my student before we get started. I usually find out a few other things along the course of our work together, and by session three or so the two of us can banter about one subject or another.

This rapport-building extends into our ACT prep work as well. I really try to adequately congratulate my students if they’ve done something better or something new. It is important for them to know that they are improving and that I’m paying attention. They have to tell themselves that they are going to improve their score.

During the course of our work together, I want my students to start to write a narrative for themselves. It goes something like this: I didn’t do as well as I wanted on my earlier test, but now I’m doing really well in session, and that means I’m going to do better on the next test.

Part of that narrative comes from me. I’m working in session to convince the student that they’ve got something that no other kid has in their corner: me. Kids understand that tutoring is no longer a stigma, but an advantage. I’m a ringer, so to speak. They bring me in to help them be better than they ever thought they could be.

Here are some things I do to help build a relationship with students and build their score. I get to know my students. I check in with them every session about what’s going on in their lives. I keep track of their progress and show them the upswing. I’m a good enough tutor now that I can confidently improve most any student’s score, and I’ve been at this long enough to recognize the rare occasion when I can’t.

While it may not seem like it, the relationship with the student is paramount. It is equally important to the ACT content. No relationship, no improvement in score.