It’s back to school time… which is right about when high school juniors and their parents often start to think about prep options for the SAT or ACT. In recognition of that fact, I’m planning to devote the next few posts to issues involving tutoring and classes: what to know, what to ask, and how to decide which option is right for you.

While there are many factors to consider when choosing a tutor, there are a handful of warning signs that should cause you to run in the opposite direction. As a “second-round” tutor whose students often worked with one or more tutors before me, I had ample opportunity to learn about all manners of ineffective teaching.

I’d like to cover one of the biggest red flags here.

So, the number one thing that an SAT or ACT tutor should NOT say when teaching grammar is (drumroll, please)… “Just use your ear.”

(Or: “Just try to hear if it sounds right.” Or, when commas are involved: “Does it feel like you need a pause there?” Or any equivalent statement.)

For the record, there are exceptions, most notably idiom questions, which can only be answered by ear. In addition, some constructions, particularly on the ACT, sound so obviously and overwhelmingly wrong that parsing the exact nature of their incorrectness is a waste of time.

But as a general rule, anyone who encourages students to rely on their ears at the expense of actually learning the grammatical rules tested is not qualified to be tutoring these tests, or at least the English/Writing sections.

First, that statement is based on the assumption that students are capable of identifying correct answers by ear. If that were the case, however, those students probably wouldn’t need tutoring in the first place! 

Second, although English is obviously more subjective than math, the reality is that standardized test grammar is closer to the latter than it is to the former. The SAT and the ACT cover a specific set of grammatical concepts, which are consistently tested in more or less the same format. Some of these concepts may be more flexible in real life, but these tests are not concerned with real-world exceptions and nuances.

The exact context in which concepts are presented will of course change, and concepts might be combined in slightly novel ways, but for the most part, things are quite straightforward. If you’ve assimilated the rules thoroughly and understand how to apply them, you get the questions right; if you haven’t, you don’t.

Commas, for example, are correctly used in four primary instances: before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or but) to join two independent clauses; before an independent clause preceded by a dependent clause; to set off non-essential clauses that can be removed from a sentence without affecting its essential meaning; and between the items in a list.

Sometimes, it may seem natural to insert a pause in these situations, but that is ultimately irrelevant. The issue is not whether a pause make sense, but whether a comma is grammatically required.

Even students who are exceptionally well-read and who can rely on their ears in most situations can almost always benefit from studying the logic behind questions they understand intuitively.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any tutor would ever encourage a student to think of answers to math questions in terms of whether they seemed natural (“Does five feel like a right answer to you?”), yet this attitude is surprisingly common when grammar is concerned.

Part of the problem is that tutors who are natural high-scorers may themselves not be fully aware of why right answers are right and wrong answers are wrong. People who are able to successfully rely on their ears are often unaware of just how much understanding they take for granted. 

Regardless of the reason, this approach is also extraordinarily unhelpful and likely to result in considerable frustration, scores that improve only marginally if at all, and possibly months (and months) of wasted time and money.

So if you’re a parent considering hiring a tutoring for your child, it’s worth your while to ask one simple question: how, exactly, do you cover the English/Writing section?

The answer might be very telling.