The Three Test Prep Options That MatterIf you want serious score improvements on your SAT or ACT, there are only three options to consider: one-on-one tutoring, classroom courses, and online courses.
There are countless books, flashcard sets, practice drill websites, etc. for SAT & ACT prep, but these alone won’t do much to improve your scores – they’re supplements to a good SAT prep system or ACT prep system. Without guidance on what to do on a day-to-day, step-by-step basis, students can’t expect much of a score improvement. You need a coherent, step-by-step system to improve your test scores – anything that doesn’t provide it isn’t even worth considering.
Below, I’ll run you through the three major options you should consider. We’ll take a look at the pros, cons, and suggestions for each prep type. By the time you’re through with this quick guide, you’ll have a much better understanding of how to make the proper SAT/ACT prep decision.
One-On-One SAT Tutoring
Research has repeatedly shown that one-on-one instruction is the best way to learn anything – not just SAT & ACT strategy, but anything. One-on-one tutoring provides flexibility, adaptability, and individualized attention – key ingredients in any great educational program. However, while one-on-one tutors can be remarkably effective, they come with their own fair share of problems:
+Customized tutoring programs
+Effective use of time
+Flexible scheduling and lesson programs
+Hands-on, experience-based education
+Potential for true personal rapport
–Extremely high prices (anywhere from $900-$60,000 for a full prep program)
–Total lack of consistency among tutors and firms
–Potential for unreliable scheduling and lesson plans
–Potential lack of chemistry
–Lack of standardization in lesson plans
–Limited availability among the best tutors
When you get a good tutor, you can change your entire college outlook, achieving enormous score improvements in the shortest period of time possible. But getting a good tutor is easier said than done. If you’re going to go for one-on-one tutoring, your selectivity is of the utmost importance.
Suggestions and Key Lessons:
1. No two tutors are the same – do your research before you hire a tutor.
2. On-paper credentials do not mean that your tutor can teach – make sure your tutors have an individual track record of success. Going to an Ivy League school and getting 99th percentile scores are both impressive feats, but you need to make sure that your tutor can help you to accomplish those feats. Doing and teaching are not the same thing.
3. Testimonials and references are essential – NEVER hire a tutor without speaking to past clients.
4. Get on the phone – make sure you trust your tutor, ask him/her all your questions, and establish rapport before you begin working together.
5. Avoid large firms. Remember: you’re not working with a company – you’re working with one person. People aren’t brand names. You’re much better off working with individuals than you are working with companies, who often do little if any vetting of their instructors’ teaching abilities.
SAT Classroom Courses
When most people think of test prep, they think of SAT classes. Due to their enormous advertising budgets, the biggest players in the test prep space have made SAT and ACT classes practically synonymous with SAT and ACT prep. Test prep classes are extremely profitable for these firms – they can charge $1,000+ a seat, fill a class with 20 students, and pay a single teacher $30/hour to teach it. SAT & ACT classes make these firms a fortune – which feeds ever larger marketing budgets. Unfortunately for their students, ACT and SAT classes are by far the worst option for test prep in terms of experience, expense, and, most importantly, results.
+Good curriculum. Most large firms do have excellent tips and tricks at their disposal.
+“Peace of mind” – many parents would rather go with the “devil they know” than try other, lesser-known options.
–Horrendous price-to-improvement ratio: for upwards of $1,000, most classroom-based courses deliver an average of only 10 to 20 points of improvement on the SAT and 0-1 points on the ACT – the same results you’d get from prepping on your own.
–Lack of any individualized attention, curriculum, or lesson plans.
–Inconsistent and under-trained teachers.
–Distracting classroom environments (one former teacher described SAT classes as a “sea of text-messaging phones”).
–Lack of feedback and extracurricular teacher support.
–Homework geared for the “average student,” rather than for each student taking the course.
–Inconvenient, inflexible locations and schedules, coupled with travel time and costs.
–Total lack of accountability.
As you might be able to tell, I’m not a huge proponent of classroom courses. You’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to drive to a packed room and have someone read a book to you. You’re better off buying the book yourself and saving the money.
Suggestions and Key Lessons:
1. Save your money – avoid ACT and SAT classroom courses at all costs.
In my 15,000+ hours of experience with these tests, I have literally never come across a student or parent who was happy with their ACT & SAT classes. Ever. In fact, a significant percentage of my one-on-one clients come to me after horrendous ACT & SAT classroom experiences. These classes don’t work, and they’re giving the entire test prep industry a bad name. Save your money – and, more importantly, save your time.
Online ACT and SAT Programs
Ten years ago, online ACT and SAT prep programs weren’t even an option. Now, they’re quickly becoming one of the major choices considered by parents and students alike. Online test prep courses combine the individualized curriculum of a one-on-one tutor with the convenience and cost-savings of online study. If you pick the right online program, you can improve your score by hundreds of points without ever changing out of your pajamas. However, like everything else in the world, not all online programs are created equal:
+Ultimate convenience – prep from the comfort of your own home on your schedule.
+High improvement-to-cost ratios. Most courses cost only a few hundred dollars, and outperform ACT and SAT classroom courses across the board.
+Individualized lesson plans. Students can pick and choose the lessons and practice exercises that target their weakest areas while skipping the lessons that won’t help them to improve.
+High time flexibility – most good programs allow students to spread their lessons over months, or take hyper-accelerated lessons when need be.
+Low time risk – students can quickly and easily access online course efficacy – if the courses aren’t working quickly enough, students can immediately switch to a new option without investing too much time into these courses (and any reputable course will allow for a refund – do not sign up for any online course that doesn’t offer a guarantee).
–Lack of “personal touch” – some students prefer having a real, live human being to teach them.
–Motivation gap – some students aren’t motivated enough to complete online programs on their own without having someone else push them through.
–Constant influx of new players – there are new options on the market seemingly every day. Great for the state of innovation in the industry, but bad for parents and students who need to make a clear decision.
–Materials Without Curriculum – many online courses have lots of excellent practice problems and videos, but little in the way of real, step-by-step curriculum.
Suggestions and Key Lessons:
1. Never buy an online test prep course without a full, no-questions-asked guarantee. If they don’t stand by their course, don’t waste your time or money.
2. Make sure your online course isn’t just a set of videos and practice problems – it needs to be an actual system, including step-by-step guidance and lesson plans, to get you the score improvements you are looking for.
3. Be wary of any online courses that offer their own proprietary practice tests – they’ll never be as accurate or helpful as those provided by the College Board & ACT. Proprietary materials are often sold as a bonus, but are usually ineffective, unrealistic, and damaging to student progress.
4. These courses are best for students who are already motivated to do well – if you need to nag your child to get homework done, online courses won’t provide the discipline required to make it through.
5. Above all else, look at your online SAT or ACT course’s results – bells, whistles, and great graphic design are all fantastic – but the only thing that matters is score improvement. If the course you’re looking at doesn’t create high student score improvements, and if those improvements aren’t published and verified by a reliable third party, avoid it at all costs.
Online SAT and ACT courses are convenient, relatively inexpensive, and can be very effective. They’re also a great place to start, since you can use them for just a few minutes a day to start building your foundation without devoting yourself to a particular tutor or more expensive program.