All About Academic Coaching

Academic coaching doesn’t just help students get better grades; it helps them achieve success in all aspects of their academic life.

Signet’s academic coaching program is a unique blend of traditional coaching methodology and personalized mentorship based on our decade-plus of experience as a top tutoring company.

Many parents and students are interested in academic coaching but aren’t quite sure what it is or how it might benefit them. In this post, we’ll break down what academic coaching is (and isn’t), who it can (and can’t) help, and how it is different from other systems of one-on-one support.

What is Academic Coaching?

Academic coaching is working with students in a student-driven way to improve skills that are related to success in school but are not subject-specific. These include motivation, organization, completing assignments, studying effectively, and generally “meeting one’s potential.” Regardless of high school course or college major, mastering these aspects of being a student is incredibly important.

Coaching is student-led, which means we work with students to set goals that are meaningful to them, then co-create strategies and plans for helping them reach those goals. Although our main focus is on academics, goals sometimes extend into other realms as well, as other aspects of life very often impact academic performance.

Over time, by helping students learn more about themselves and acquire new strategies to meet their goals, academic coaching helps students become independent thinkers. Moreover, students become more efficient learners, no matter what they choose to pursue, and they’ll carry these skills with them throughout their lives. That makes academic coaching not only valuable for students, but incredibly rewarding for coaches and parents.

Is Coaching Just Tutoring or Therapy?

We often get questions about how academic coaching is different from tutoring or therapy. We’ll address three common comparisons here, while noting that there is certainly overlap between each of these modalities:

Academic Coaching vs. Tutoring: The biggest difference is that tutoring is subject-specific, while academic coaching addresses skills that apply to any subject. With that said, Signet’s approach to tutoring has always encompassed the student as a whole person (one of our core values is to “Teach Students, Not Subjects”). Another major difference is that tutoring is often tutor-led and -directed, while coaching is much more student-driven. For example, in tutoring, we say, “Here’s what I’d like you to do before our next session to become better at _____.” In coaching, we say, “What would you like to accomplish to take the next step towards your goal?”

Academic Coaching vs. Therapy: Therapy tends to emphasize deep underlying causes for behaviors. It is often focused on unpacking past events to bring clarity and catalyze change. Coaching is more future-focused and emphasizes action to help students tackle problems. Depending on the student, academic coaching and therapy may be excellent complements to one another.

Academic Coaching vs. Life Coaching: Students work with a life coach to address struggles in activities of daily living, rather than academic-specific challenges. While the coaching methodology is still employed, academic coaching uses an educational lens and framework to help students set and achieve their academic goals.

The Signet Coaching Methodology

Signet’s coaching methodology has two parts:

  1. A student-driven approach, which is fairly standard in contemporary coaching; and
  2. The Five Academic Keys, the secret sauce that makes our academic coaching unique.

Student-Driven Approach: Signet’s academic coaches have all been professionally trained in a traditional non-directive coaching methodology. That’s a fancy way of saying we put students in the driver’s seat. As we mentioned earlier, our coaches’ job is to help students understand what they want and how to most effectively get there.

The student-led approach is effective for a few reasons:

    • It helps students buy into the process. Nobody likes being told what to do, including high schoolers. When students have the autonomy to make their own decisions, they are far more willing to try out new strategies.
    • A student’s desires come first. By starting with what students want, coaches can help students set goals that feel meaningful. Moving toward these goals is fueled by internal motivation.
    • Solutions are tailored to each student’s circumstances. A student with recurring challenges has probably already tried a number of solutions. Usually, those solutions don’t stick because they aren’t customized; they don’t make sense in the student’s individual context.
    • It allows us to get to the root cause of a student’s challenges. No two students are exactly alike, and even students who present with the same challenge may have very different underlying causes. For example, not turning in homework on time might be caused by an organizational issue (difficulty keeping track of assignments) or by perfectionism (difficulty completing assignments because the work never seems good enough). By identifying the root cause of the problem, academic coaches can work with students to co-create strategies that will be more effective in ultimately resolving the issue.

The Signet Five Academic Keys: The second piece of our coaching method—the framework of Signet’s Five Keys—comes from our observation of thousands of students over more than a decade. We’ve determined that the most successful students are those who have strength in five key areas. Although we allow students to approach challenges at their own pace with their own processes, our coaches look at a student’s challenges through the Five Keys Framework. The theory is that if students strengthen their skills in each of these domains, they will ultimately become better overall students.

When appropriate, coaches will use this framework to recommend a strategy or tool to help a student facing a particular challenge. Students don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they face a challenge, though they do have to decide which strategies are most valuable for them. The Five Academic Keys framework is what distinguishes Signet’s academic coaching from other programs out there.

The Five Academic Keys are:

    • Vision. This means having a picture of the future that you want. This could be tomorrow or 10 years from now, but you need to see or desire something clearly in order to move toward it. We help students tell a “story” about themselves and their academic life in a way that improves motivation and keeps them moving forward.
    • Time. All students need to understand how to manage their time effectively to move toward their goals. This is achieved by creating awareness around how they spend their time, and it often involves setting up a time management system with a calendar or planner.
    • Tasks. Closely related to time, task management emphasizes figuring out what needs to be done and then doing it. Many students don’t have a clear process for accomplishing tasks. Others are only able to get their work done at the last minute. Still others need help breaking down larger projects that feel overwhelming. Prioritizing and learning to say no also play a role in task management.
    • Stuff. Students need processes that help them manage both their physical stuff (books, folders, papers, etc.) and their digital stuff (files, recordings, downloads, and documents). Integrating physical and digital class materials to prepare for a final exam, for example, is a challenge unique to a new generation of students.
    • Routines. This key is all about utilizing the loops, habits, and patterns created by our brains to help us accomplish our goals. If established mindfully, routines are a kind of superpower; the wrong routines, however, can be kryptonite. Deploying beneficial routines can reduce the amount of decision-making and stress around many areas of a student’s life.

Although we’ve laid out the Five Academic Keys in a nice, logical sequence, we should note that’s not how they necessarily show up in coaching. Academic coaching is not a formulaic process. The things we work on with students don’t progress in a linear fashion; they come up based on the specific goals, desires, or concerns that students bring to coaching. But over time, we will generally work with students to strengthen most if not all of the Five Academic Keys.

Although coaching doesn’t follow a curriculum, academic coaches do provide accountability and continuity from session to session. Students will set one to three academic goals for themselves and continue to work on those goals to ensure they are making forward progress. Coaches will support students and contribute ideas and tools as appropriate to give students more options for dealing with issues and concerns. Although students often make progress quickly, real, lasting change generally takes 6-18 months.

Who Benefits from Academic Coaching?

The good news is just about any student can see some benefit from working with an academic coach. However, there are two occasions when students may have more need for academic coaching than most:

To Improve Performance: Underperforming students are the most likely to be identified as needing additional support. They may:

    • Have chronically low grades
    • Lack motivation*
    • Struggle in multiple classes rather than just one subject area
    • Procrastinate on assignments
    • Display a lack of consistency; i.e. have “highs” and “lows” throughout the semester
    • Be dealing with mild to moderate ADHD, executive functions challenges, or other learning differences
    • Get easily distracted and have difficulty staying on track

*Parents often attribute a student’s shortcomings to a lack of motivation. In reality, there are often other difficulties a student hasn’t expressed, and when those concerns are dealt with, the motivation issue disappears.

To Enhance Experience: Often overlooked but equally important, these students have good grades but may be dealing with other school-related struggles or feel underchallenged. They may:

    • Be high-performing but constantly stressed
    • Feel disorganized
    • Need tools to manage a perfectionist mindset
    • Find the college process overwhelming and want to talk to a neutral third party
    • Face challenges due to a learning disability despite otherwise high performance
    • Feel school is “boring” but not know how to engage elsewhere
    • Want to push outside of their comfort zone

There are, however, a few kinds of students who will not benefit from working with an academic coach:

Students with no motivation. We can work with students who have low motivation, but they have to be ready and willing participants in the coaching process. If there is a deep lack of motivation, therapy may be a better starting point.

Students with more severe learning or mental health challenges. Some families reach out to a coach when what they need is a therapist or a specialist for a particular learning disability. We can help parents identify when this is the case and make the appropriate referrals to trusted colleagues when necessary.

Students in crisis mode. Students in crisis mode often badly need academic coaching, but generally we do not recommend starting coaching until students are no longer in an emergency state. Crisis mode—often a result of being extremely behind, or of deeper emotional or learning challenges—is an acute situation requiring acute attention, whereas coaching is a long-term process. For students in crisis mode, we can refer to the appropriate professionals and/or put together a strong team of tutors to help them get through their acute challenges. Following that, we can begin academic coaching to help students avoid similar situations in the future.

Parents who have a predetermined agenda. Although parents may be the ones who hire the coach, we always consider our students the clients. Coaching is determined by a student’s goals and desires, and while we take parental wishes into account, we don’t promise parents that we’ll deliver specific outcomes. I like to say that parents hire us because they want to help their student move forward in life, but they don’t get to dictate the direction.

Getting Started With Academic Coaching

Now that we’ve given you a comprehensive overview of academic coaching, let’s look at a few of the nuts and bolts. Our coaching process is pretty simple:

Initial intake. We begin with an intake session with the student (and parents, if the student is not yet an adult). In the intake session, we will:

    • Understand why the student is seeking academic coaching
    • Learn about specific academic challenges the student is facing
    • Start to create a picture of what the student wants to gain from coaching and how to move forward
    • Get parental feedback as needed to make sure everybody is on the same page regarding expectations

One-on-one sessions. After the initial intake, we’ll work exclusively with the student (without the parent) during coaching sessions. In these sessions, we will:

    • Discover more about the student’s situation
    • Formulate one to three clear academic goals for the student
    • Work toward the student’s goals, skill-building and troubleshooting along the way
    • Reflect on what’s been working and what needs to improve

Periodic Check-ins. Every few months, usually when one or more of a student’s goals have been met, we’ll check back in with students and parents together. This allows us to keep everyone in the loop regarding a student’s progress, and if continued coaching makes sense, to get feedback before the student sets new academic goals.

Can’t Students and Parents Just Do This At Home?

The short answer to this question is: Yes. Maybe. Well, sort of.

Academic coaches have a few advantages over parents when it comes to working with students:

    • Professional Training. All of Signet’s academic coaches are professionally trained in coaching methodology and in Signet’s academic approach. This includes learning how to get difficult teenagers to open up.
    • No Agenda. Like it or not, parents have hopes and dreams for their kids, and this often affects the way they interact with students around academics. Coaches, on the other hand, want students to be successful on their own terms; they have no specific outcomes in mind.
    • Neutral Third Party. Simply put, coaches don’t have the same long history (and sometimes emotional baggage) with students that parents do. This makes it easier for a coach to set emotion aside and bring a non-judgmental approach to the conversation.


As Owner and CEO of Signet, my interest in academic coaching comes out of my personal experience. As an organizationally challenged individual, I struggled for years to manage a busy schedule, meet deadlines, and check my “shiny object syndrome” to stay focused. It was only through patient mentorship and learning specific strategies that I use on a daily basis that I’ve been able to do the things I’ve dreamt of doing.

After many years of doing subject-specific tutoring, I began to share some of what I had discovered about staying organized and moving toward goals with my students. I found it deeply rewarding, and my students seemed to benefit tremendously. Given its enormous power for facilitating broad, positive change, it’s my dream to connect great coaches with students who are ready to take their academic lives to a new level.

We hope this post has been helpful in breaking down what academic coaching is, whom it can help, and how Signet’s approach may differ from that of other organizations. The right coaching relationship can improve students’ performance, enhance their satisfaction with school, and set them up to be successful in whatever future achievements they pursue.

Wondering if academic coaching is the right fit? Contact us today to set up a consultation with one of our academic coaches.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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