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:

Stalking the Admission Essay

What’s the best way to approach the admission essay required by most selective colleges? First, directly address the prompt, whatever it may be; second, be yourself.

If you’re a wit, be witty; if you’re artistic, be creative; if you’re a deep thinker, go deep. If you’re serious about environmentalism and the prompt permits such a discussion, by all means share your passion for the subject. Also visualize in your mind’s eye the poor admissions’ counselor sitting at her or his desk with a stack of perhaps 60 applications to read, and imagine yours in the number 57 position.  Will your essay capture the attention of this beleaguered soul, or will it lead to a deeper glazing of the eyes?

What you should NOT do is compose an essay in which you tell the college why they would be lucky to have you, or submit an essay that reads like an application for employment, where you reel off accomplishment after accomplishment.

Here is an excerpt from a funny one-time college essay that has acquired iconic status over the years. Enough folks have read it that you shouldn’t remotely consider using it as a model, but it’s good for a chuckle. I found it again recently in the Answer Sheet Blog in the Washington Post. Apparently the author was a fellow named Hugh Gallagher, now a professional writer (naturally!).


“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

“I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

“Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

“I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

“I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

“I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

“But I have not yet gone to college.”