How to become a tutor: my story and what you can learn from it
Last updated: September 28, 2018
My story: how I became a professional tutor
Let me take you back to January, 2016. I was on my brother’s couch in the middle of Cambridge, MA. It was a cold, snowy winter, and I was stuck. I knew what I wanted: to start my own tutoring business. I knew what I didn’t want, which is what I had just left: to work for a tutoring company.
But the gap between what I wanted and where I was seemed insurmountable. All I had was a laptop and a knack for taking tests. Was that enough?
Fast-forward to today. I am a GMAT, GRE, and LSAT tutor with perfect ratings on Google My Business and Yelp. My schedule is filled to the point that I am literally turning people away. Even when I raise rates (now well over $100/hr for every exam I teach), my schedule is still filled up.
This website is about how I got from my brother’s couch to where I am today. It’s everything I learned about running a tutoring business: getting clients, advertising, teaching, etc. It’s the resource that I wish existed back then, so I wouldn’t have had such a painful learning experience.
The resources on this website are in-depth and nuanced. There are no get rich schemes here, no shortcuts to the top of the mountain. Being a successful tutor means that you’re a successful businessman and a good teacher, and both of those are hard. I would advise you take your time to read through these resources carefully, again and again.
But, if you are looking for an overview, it follows below.
How to become a tutor part-time tomorrow, for free
The tutoring business is a good business because it’s almost solely knowledge-based. You don’t need any licences or permits. The only materials you need are homework problems. And any revenue you take home is almost pure profit, because there are very low expenses.
That being said, if you want to become a tutor tomorrow, there are a few things you’ll need immediately. You’ll need a niche, a way to get your first clients, a website, and materials. Let’s cover each of these in turn.
1. Your tutoring niche
Every tutor needs a niche. That’s incredibly important, and tutors forget that at their peril. I understand why people don’t think that: aren’t you more likely to get clients if you can offer them anything they want?
Short answer, no. Picking a niche (or a few niches) allows you to become a specialist. You can become a subject matter expert: not just in the subject itself, but in what surrounds the subject. For instance, I teach GRE, which is an exam required for almost all graduate schools. When people get GRE tutoring from me, they aren’t just looking to get a good score on the GRE. They’re looking to get into a good graduate program, which will eventually lead them to their goal career.
Because of this, I’ve developed a working knowledge of the graduate application process, as well as how it can relate to career goals. Not only can I help my students with the GRE with my specialized knowledge, but I can also help them in a broader sense. I can help them get to where they want to be.
Another reason that tutors need to find a niche (or a few) is that it communicates to the student that you’re a subject matter expert. To explain why that’s important, let me offer an analogy: near my house, there’s a restaurant that offers pizza, burgers, and Indian food. I’m not kidding. That’s what they advertise.
I can understand why they chose to advertise themselves this way. Much like most tutors, they thought they could cover a broad range, and get as many people as possible. Their belief was that whether people are looking for burgers, pizza, or Indian food, their restaurant could still be a destination.
Needless to say, this restaurant is almost always empty, and it frankly confuses me how it’s still open. It’s right next to my house, but I’ve never gone. Why? Because I don’t trust any restaurant that claims to be able to handle all those types of food. A restaurant can’t become experts at everything, because cooking is too difficult.
Likewise, people trust me as a tutor because I have a few tests that I am evidently an expert in. I got great scores in the test, and I’ve tutored scores of people in the strategies of the test. I have successfully communicated my expertise.
So, you may be wondering what you should choose as your niche. For me, I chose as my niches tests that were gateways to people’s goals. If I tutored philosophy, which is one of my passions, I would only be able to find clients who had an academic interest. It’s hard to convince people to give you money as an academic interest, especially as a long-term thing. After all, most people would quickly find more compelling ways to use their money.
But, because I tutor these “gateway” tests, I have aligned myself with their long term goals. As long as people trust me as a tutor, they will see me as a crucial tool to getting where they need to be. I become as indispensable as their goals are, and my pay is reflected accordingly.
Your niche should also be in a gateway to people’s goals. If people trust you, then you should be indispensable for them to achieve their goals. It makes selling your services much easier.
2. A way to get your first tutoring clients
Getting your first clients is hard. You need to get people’s attention, and you need them to trust you. But, trust is a Catch 22: nobody trusts you because you’re inexperienced, but you can’t get any experience because nobody trusts you.
Let’s cover getting people’s attention first, and then we’ll talk about trust. In order to get people’s attention, you need to get your message out in front of people who are looking for tutors. Blindly posting up flyers doesn’t work: believe me, I’ve tried.
There are a few ways you can find the right people. The first is online, through communities of people who are working on whatever niche that you’ve chosen. This might be on Reddit, Quora, or some dedicated forum. If they’re looking for help, then they might want your help.
Be careful though: if you follow this route, then don’t spam. Your goal isn’t just to get your name out, it’s to convince these people that you are helpful and trustworthy. Nobody will trust you if you just blindly advertise, without paying attention to what people are actually looking for.
Another way to find the right people can be through schools, if your niche is an academic subject. For instance, if you specialize in teaching children to read, you may want to leave flyers on the windshield of cars outside of an elementary school. Parents of children in elementary schools will likely be concerned already with teaching their children to read, and you can help them with that.
Finally, the last way you can reach the right people is through classifieds of all sorts, including Craigslist (which now costs $5/post, but…that’s basically free). In other words, you can let the right people find you.
Regardless of how you reach people, though, they need to trust you immediately when they do come across you. Your entire message should be this: “I am a hard-working, honest, effective tutor”.
Unfortunately, if you put in those words, you sound like you’re naive at best, a conman at worst. Instead, your trustworthiness needs to come across in your presentation of 3 elements:
1. Credentials (test scores, academic degrees, etc.)
2. Affiliations (employers or schools that you’ve gone to)
3. Social proof (testimonials and reviews)
In the beginning, you won’t have social proof, which is a tough burden to overcome. The way I overcame it was by offering 4 hours of free tutoring in exchange for a testimonial. It solved the trust problem and the social proof problem in one stroke.
3. A tutoring website
A tutor, especially a new one, does not have a storefront. This is probably an obvious thing to say. You may be wondering why I remind you of this.
Well, it’s because without a storefront, you lack a presence, literally. There’s no way for someone to accidentally discover you by walking past you. Even if someone meets you in person, they can’t know that you’re a tutor just by looking at you.
This is a disadvantage. Businesses with storefronts get customers all the time by people walking by. Even if the customer doesn’t enter immediately, they know the business is there. Even more so, they can judge the business by its storefront, and decide whether or not to trust it.
If you create a website, that can be your virtual storefront. You can design a website to invite people to see it through advertising and to make yourself more visible on the web. It is the virtual representation of your tutoring business, with all that entails.
So what should that entail? Same thing as before. Your website should communicate that you are a subject matter specialist, and someone who a client can trust to get them the score that they need.
The trust comes from the same thing as before:
- Social proof
But, if people discover your website organically (so you don’t lead them to it), you’ll need to incorporate two other things in it, too.
- Logistics (location, what you teach, and how much you charge)
- Contact information (email, phone number, contact form)
To make this easy for you, I’ve created a free tutoring WordPress theme, which is essentially a template. You just fill in the relevant keywords and replace the images. You will need web-hosting if you don’t have it already, though.
If you create your own website, it’s important to remember that people on the Internet are, generally speaking, lazy (except for you). They will quickly scan your website to decide if you’re trustworthy. They will come to an opinion in 20 seconds. If they want to contact you after that, they will spend a total of 10 seconds trying to contact you.
Make sure they come to the right opinion and make it easy for them to contact you. Nobody is going to spend more than a minute trying to do either. If you make it difficult, they will exit your website.
Materials are your only investment. That being said, you don’t need to go crazy with it. It’s more important that you develop the knowledge to use the materials that you have well, rather than go crazy and get a bunch of materials.
At this point in my tutoring career, I have a few books that I assign homework from, and then I also use the Internet. I make my students purchase their own books if they want to use them.
No student is going to work their way through multiple textbooks when they’re studying, either for an exam for a subject. As such, you don’t need multiple textbooks. My advice instead would be to invest the time creating a guide for the students to use the material well. It’ll also be good practice for you in developing your specialization.
How to create a tutoring business and become a full-time tutor
Before you can think about creating a long term tutoring business, you should first follow the steps above about how to become a tutor part-time. Land your first few clients and get some money in your bank account.
But, once you do that, return to this website as a resource. Creating a tutoring business (i.e. having tutoring as your only income) is difficult, and requires more thought. For that, I’d recommend you follow the links below.