One Size Doesn’t Fit All In SAT/ACT Prep

Generally, there are five broad types of preparation for the SAT/ACT college entrance tests. #1: Some high schools provide workshops led by teachers or outside consultants, with content ranging from brief overviews of test formats and sample questions to comprehensive coverage. In my opinion these are definitely worth checking out, since convenient, low-cost (or free) test prep is always a good thing. Provided they are offered sufficiently in advance of your testing dates, you should have time to pursue other strategies should that prove necessary.

#2: Another inexpensive route is to prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there in the $20 – $40 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. These include official guides produced by the testing companies, such as The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board, and The Real ACT Prep Guide. I tend to like the Barron guidebooks (How to Prepare for the SAT) for their breadth of coverage, user-friendly formats and CD-Rom inserts. Most guidebooks provide full diagnostic tests, in-depth section reviews, and plenty of sample questions, math problems and vocabulary words. They also cover test-taking strategies, which are quite different between the SAT and ACT.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored reasonably well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline necessary to diligently and regularly prepare in the weeks leading up to the exam date. Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the national on-line test prep programs (#3), such as Kaplan Online, Princeton Review Online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica Online. These programs are more expensive, ranging from $500 – $800.

The national companies were previously best known for comprehensive classroom-based workshop review programs (#4), and these are still popular. The workshop setting may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. These days the range of offerings from the national companies are extensive, and make full use of learning and communication technologies.

Finally, there are local private tutors (#5), some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be unethical of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (always check credentials and references). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, determining in advance the number of hours can control costs, as most tutors charge on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook and /or online materials as they work with students, so there may be positive triangulation from going this route.

Some final notes: while the college application process has become more competitive and stressful in recent years, several changes in college policies have mitigated the effects somewhat. Increasing numbers of schools have diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process, and there are now several hundred test-optional colleges, including many that are highly selective. These schools place more weight on GPAs and letters of recommendation, and may request samples of graded work from the applicant. For some time students have been able to test multiple times with the assurance that colleges will only consider their highest sets of scores, and some schools practice “superscoring,” meaning they allow students to mix the highest sub-scores from different testing sessions. Students with documented learning differences have the option of requesting testing accommodations, such as extended time, and are well advised to work with a tutor who understands their issues.

Lisa Ransdell, Ph. D., is an independent educational consultant based in Denver, CO. She is a college faculty member, former higher education administrator, and president of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC:

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