As you may have heard, June SAT scores are back. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking to improve your score this summer and thinking about what might be possible. Maybe you want to crack 1800…or 2000…or even 2300. You’ve got about three months, which is plenty of time to accomplish…something. If you’re unhappy with what you’ve managed to accomplish on your own, you might be thinking about thinking about taking a class or working with a tutor, or maybe you’re just planning to keep plugging away on your own. Regardless of your (or your child’s) situation, however, there are some things you should keep in mind.

So a little reality check. Some of this is going to sound awfully blunt, and probably more than a little harsh, but here are some things to keep in mind:

The SAT is hard.

Good grades are no guarantee of a high score.

Your score is the result of what you know, whether you can apply that knowledge instantaneously and under pressure, and how well you manage yourself on the particular test you happen to get; it is not something you are entitled to because you attend a particular school or have spent x amount of time or money being tutored, or even because you work hard.

Most people will, by definition, score somewhere around average.

If there really were tricks you could use to ace the exam, lots of people would get perfect scores instead of about 300 out of 1.5 million.

However hard you think you are working, there are other students out there who are putting in much, much more. If you want to equal — or surpass them — you need to be willing to work just as hard.

You are being compared to hundreds of thousands of your peers, including the very top students in the United States and some in other countries; the curve is designed to reflect that.

A tutor is not a miracle worker.

There is a skill level below which short-term strategy-based prep is usually not effective. A score below 600 after a significant amount of prep is usually a good indicator that there are a number of fundamentals missing, although higher scorers are often missing particular key skills (e.g. identifying the topic of a passage) to various degrees.

If you are missing skills, getting to the next level will require a huge amount of work, whether your score goal is 1600, 2000, or 2400. It’s as much about where you’re starting from as it is about where you want to go.

The SAT does not work like tests in school. It’s designed to gauge how well you can apply your knowledge, not whether you can simply cram in a bunch of words and formulas, to be forgotten as soon as you walk out of the exam room. If you haven’t mastered skills to the point where they’re automatic, you will not be able to apply them — or even be able to figure out when to apply them — to the test.

Today’s eleventh and twelfth grade textbooks are written at the same level that ninth grade textbooks were written at fifty years ago. If you don’t read anything other than textbooks and Sparknotes summaries, with the occasional Wikipedia article thrown in, you will most likely not be prepared for Critical Reading.

No tutor can compensate for two or five or ten years of accumulated deficits in a couple of months, never mind four or five sessions, and it is not fair or realistic to expect one to do so. A student who doesn’t know words like “surrender” and “compromise” and “permanent,” or who has reached the age of 17 without being able to consistently recognize the difference between a sentence and a fragment, is going to hit a wall unless they are willing to spend huge  amounts of time filling in some of those gaps on their own.

Now that I’m starting see lots of students who are missing important middle-school vocabulary and some who are missing basic elementary school vocabulary, I realize that Stanley Kaplan knew what he was talking about when he said that SAT prep should begin in kindergarten.

While the majority of my students improve, sometimes very dramatically, some of them do not; occasionally, their scores even go down. And students who come to me for a handful of sessions with middling scores, genuine knowledge gaps, and an unrealistic sense of just how much work they’ll need to put in to get the next level, rarely see any significant progress. (Note: taking three or four practice tests doesn’t count for much when there are people taking twenty or thirty…or more.) On the other hand, someone who has all the basics in place and just needs a little push to get to the next level might get where they want to be in a session or two. I’ve seen it happen more than once, but those people really did have things pretty much in order to start with.

I do my best to be really clear about just what I can and cannot likely accomplish in a given timeframe, but it’s a very fine line between being honest and being discouraging. I don’t want to turn away someone I could genuinely end up helping. I’ve seen enough kids pull off huge and unexpected jumps to know that it’s not my place to judge what someone is or is not ultimately capable of doing, but I don’t want to encourage people to harbor unrealistic expectations either.

I realize, by the way, that I probably shouldn’t admit all of this publicly — doing so can’t possibly be good for business — but given how convinced everyone seems to be about the existence of quick fixes, I feel responsible for saying something.

At some level, I think that the test-prep industry’s claim that there really are little “tricks” has become so ingrained in people’s psyches that they don’t fully grasp just how hard it is to raise a score, especially a Critical Reading score, until they see that 490 or 550 or 570 staring at them — again — from the computer screen. It seems impossible that they should have done what seemed (to them) like a huge amount of work and paid a lot of money, only to end up right back where they started. They don’t understand just how precisely the test has been calibrated to keep producing the same results. They hire a tutor because they think there really is some sort of magic shortcut (more than one parent has said I must know “all the tricks,” wink-wink, nudge-nudge) and are consequently very rudely shocked by just how hard they or their child will have to work to break through to the next threshold.

No matter how upfront I am about the limits of my abilities, though, I still feel responsible (and vaguely disingenuous, even though I’ve made it clear that I can promise nothing) when a student doesn’t improve. Then I start to wonder whether other tutors really do have secrets that I don’t know about.

Believe or not, I’m not trying to discourage anyone who’s less than over-the-moon about their SAT or ACT score. If you’re planning to study for this summer (and yes, I will post some actual test tips, not just whine about the decrepit state of the American school system, although I might have to get a few more posts about that in before I move on), by all means, you might actually succeed in raising your score hundreds of points.

Occasionally, like yesterday, I’ll get an email from a kid who did nothing other than work through my books and practice diligently, but who nevertheless managed to raise his CR and Writing scores by 400 points. Emails like that make my day, actually my week. They reassure me that people who put in the work actually can improve by that much, regardless of what the College Board claims.

Basically, you get out what you put in, tutor or no tutor. Most of my best students, the ones who make the 100, 150+ point improvements per section, have been incredibly self-driven. They experimented with strategies, hunted down old exams on the Internet, and read Oliver Sacks for pleasure; and when they came to me with questions, it was because they had worked through things as far as they possible could and were genuinely stuck. The ones who were dragged by their parents, who would clearly rather have been somewhere else… Well, some of them actually improved rather impressively, too (didn’t think I was going to say that, did you?), but they did stop short of their potential. The ones who did the work in only the most perfunctory manner, however, the ones who showed no interest in really understanding the test, and who expected me to give them a secret that would allow them to reach their goal without really having to think…Would you really be surprised if I told you that they almost always ended up disappointed?

So don’t think that improving is impossible. Lots of people do it, sometimes by quite a bit. But don’t expect a 200-point improvement to fall in your lap either. Or, for that matter, be hand delivered to you on a silver platter.