Masterclass Test Prep

with Tom Ito, M.A., the ultimate SAT and ACT tutor serving Orange County

Short Version: The ACT is easier to prepare for right now. My recommendation is to prep for the ACT. Most of the skills are transferrable to the SAT, so you can always try the SAT as well.

Long Version:

Reason 1: The difference between the correct and incorrect answers are more subtle on the SAT. Oftentimes, students will get down to two answers and struggle between them. It’s often crystal clear on the ACT why the wrong answers are wrong. That’s not always the case on the SAT. I have over 20 years of experience looking at standardized test questions and answers and some of the reasons behind the correct/incorrect answers on the SAT still perplex me. This probably happens because the SAT is still new (see next reason).

Reason 2: The SAT completely revamped their test in 2016 since they were losing to the ACT. More people were taking the ACT because, you guessed it, it was easier to prep for and do well on. The SAT pretty much copied the ACT format. The sections on the new SAT are almost identical to the ACT. They said that they got rid of the vocab requirement (they didn’t), got rid of the wrong answer penalty, and made the essay optional (just like the ACT). The main problem with the SAT being a new test is that it feels unstable. They’re always tweaking things and it’s hard to truly expect what’s going to be on it. On the other hand, the ACT has been a stable test for a while now. When we take tests from the last 5 years, it’s consistently testing the same skills. Because of this, it’s easier to prepare for common patterns and have a good idea of what score to expect when taking the actual test.

Reason 3: No Science section. That’s a good thing right?? You would think so since a lot of students are initially fearful of the Science section on the ACT. The SAT actually takes the passages and question types from the ACT Science section and throws them into the Reading and Math portions of their test. I think they did this so they can tell the colleges that they still test the same skills as the ACT, and at the same time tell the students and parents, “Hey our test is friendlier since you don’t have to take a Science section!”. Now you know.

Reason 4: No calculator and free response Math questions. Graphing calculators are incredibly powerful and can do amazing things. Not having access to that for half of the math portion requires students to study more formulas/concepts compared to the ACT. The free response sections are harder as well since you can’t utilize the answer choices (or guess with a decent chance of getting the answer correct) when in trouble.

Reason 5: The timing is slower. Again you would think that this is a good thing. However, they make the test harder (see above) in order to compensate for that. The goal of these tests is to produce a nice normal distribution of scores (with most people scoring around the average). They can’t make the test easy without sacrificing the utility of the test when it comes to admissions. Students get faster at taking tests when they know how to efficiently approach common question types and are confident in why the wrong answers are wrong. Because both of those factors are more controllable on the ACT, the faster paced ACT is actually easier to control than the slower, but harder, SAT.

Hope that helps. I’ll keep adding more things if I think of anything else. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.


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I haven’t updated this page in a while, but I have definitely been blessed with some amazing students since my recent updates. I had THREE students get perfect 36s on their ACTs (congrats to Matt, Drew, and Grant!) and many more students with amazing scores (including a 1560 and a 1580 by Nick and Katy, respectively). I’m looking forward to working with more amazing students in the years to come. Don’t worry if your scores aren’t this high though. The most important thing is to get better from where you are right now. Some of my favorite success stories involve students who start low and go up 6+ points. Your only competition is yourself!

Congrats to my online students Alexa for getting a 2370 on the SAT (her superscore is a 2400!) and Rebecca for getting a 32 on the ACT (up 6 points!). Alexa lives in Boston and Rebecca lives in Ireland, so we only worked on Skype.

Some people think that online tutoring is less effective than in person tutorials. That’s definitely not the case when you have great students like these girls. I’m proud of you both!

The other day, I met a tutor that offers such an amazing and unique product that I had to create this Tutor Spotlight. Clarissa is the founder of Magic Pen Kids, which provides two services. First, Clarissa teaches students how to express themselves through writing and helps students become better creative writers, essay writers, and literary critics. This service alone is invaluable to students of all grade levels. What makes Clarissa’s program truly unique, however, is its secondary goal of helping students find their passion and goals.

Clarissa writes:

I have a way of identifying your children’s passions and finding the contests and unusual service projects they can spearhead to make them feel special and their lives, meaningful.

Clarissa fosters a process of self discovery in her students, illuminates intrinsic values/goals, and works to provide a means to actualize these values/goals. As a result, her students have gone on to receive prestigious awards, become published authors, speak at TED conferences, and create non-profit organizations.

It takes a special tutor to be able to offer such a service, and I would highly recommend any of my students, or their siblings, to talk to Clarissa. Perhaps she can put a “magic pen” in your hands and lead you in the (ever-important) process of self-actualization. Learn more about Clarissa at

Over the last week I’ve received the following text messages:

1. “i got in to stanford!!!!!!! its all thanks to you tom”

-This student went from a 1750 to a 2360 by working HARD! She is my highest scoring student of all time (tied with another guy that got a 2360 on the same day!).

2. “2 for 2 on college acceptance. hard work does pay off”

-We’re still waiting to hear from more schools too. This student learned so much about self-discipline during our training that I know that he’s going to succeed no matter where he ends up.

3. “Tom, thank you so much for all your support. You’ve not only helped me with the SAT, but with life as well. I just got accepted into Claremont Mckenna college early decision!!! You’re a boss, we need to all get dinner soon. Thanks Tom”

-This guy was a little lazy at first (we can laugh about that now), but he pushed through his limits, overcame personal issues, and came out a champion!

4. “Although those hours of ACT prep were probably the worst of my life, they all paid off!! I got into Emory!! Thank you sooo much Tom, you actually changed my life”

-I was hard on this student a lot because she was pretty stubborn at times. We figured out a compromise and she suddenly blossomed. It’s especially rewarding since we got through some major challenges and came out so successful.

I’m very very proud of all of these students. Getting news like this from my students makes me realize how much I love my job and my life. Keep up the good work everyone!!!

The standard 24 hour SAT and ACT program runs for 12 weeks (or 12 meetings). The next ACT is on 9/11/10, and the next SAT is on 10/9/10. ACT students need to start asap in order to meet weekly before the test. SAT students need to begin weekly meetings in mid July in order to complete the 12 week training. It is possible to start later, but it’s better to have more time between meetings so you have time to complete the assignments and digest the new material.

Last year, 56 students wanted to work with me but was unable to, because I was fully booked. I usually get fully booked by mid August, so please sign up for the fall tests as soon as possible.

Please contact me if you want to register or if you want more information.

The following articles are amazing! You can learn grammar and laugh at the same time. Who thought it was possible? 🙂

The first article is “The Alot is Better Than You at Everything” at Hyperbole and a Half. This one teaches you the difference between “a lot” and “alot”. It also made me cry from laughing so much, but that’s another story.

The second article is “How To Use An Apostrophe” at The Oatmeal. Everyone should read this. It talks about singular and plural possessives and contractions. I love the pictures on this site.

The third article is “How to use a semicolon; The most feared punctuation on earth.” at The Oatmeal. Similar to the apostrophe articles, but about semicolons. Very cool.

Learning should be fun. Hope you enjoy it!

The short answer is “now”.

Many students wait until the fall of their Senior year to study for the SAT. They are often overwhelmed with responsibilities: such as school, college applications, and sports. On top of that these Seniors are usually left with one opportunity to take the test, which is fine if they do well, but troublesome if they don’t since they are left with very few options.

Preparing for the SAT takes about two and a half months for the above average student. It often takes longer for students to reach their full potential. It’s standard for students to take the test two to three times so it’s important that each attempt is made after good preparation. This way the students can grow during each attempt and eventually get the highest score that they can possibly get.

SAT preparation is a two step process. The first step is to learn the content and the best approaches for taking the test. I recommend one or two meetings a week during this step in order to keep students on track and to facilitate retention. Most test preparation programs focus most of their time on this step. Unfortunately, content knowledge is only a small part of standardized testing, and students are often ill prepared for the reality of the testing environment.

The second step is to drill the material repeatedly so the new knowledge and techniques are reliable and accessible in a high pressure situation. Standardized tests are popular because they prey on “standard” student responses. Students often have to learn non-standard approaches in order to increase their scores. They learn the best approaches and techniques during the first step, but it is important for them to practice it repeatedly before the approaches become natural and repeatable. The second phase of the test preparation process usually consists of weekly meetings, homework drills, and mock tests.

Different students progress at different speeds. Therefore I highly recommend that students start preparing for the SAT and ACT as early as possible. Even Sophomores can benefit from some early preparation, such as working on critical reading skills and increasing their vocabulary.

Students can, and should, start studying for these crucial tests right now. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about what you should be doing in order to reach your highest potential on the SAT and/or the ACT.

Every term, I get a few students who have already been through a preparation course but didn’t see the score improvements that they expected. After a few hours of working with these students the students often say, “Wow I wish I knew that before” which inevitably leads to “I wish I had you from the beginning.” These students often show improvements after a few meetings. However, I too wish that I had them from the beginning so I could have spent the full time to develop them and stabilize the new approaches so they can reach their maximum potential.

Experienced teachers know what’s important and what’s not. We have developed the ability to determine exactly what the student needs and how to teach it to them in the most efficient manner. The SAT is not like a school test in which a student can just regurgitate content that was memorized the night before. It requires specific understand of the various tricks and traps that the test makers lay and how to beat them.

Invest in your (or your child’s) future. We don’t want a silly test to limit one’s options in life. As the old adage state, “buy cheap, buy twice”. Please feel free to contact me at any time if you have any questions. Most students have infinite potential if they’re given the right opportunities.