Full disclosure: We’re part of The Princeton Review, and we have some strong opinions about just how wonderful their courses and tutoring are. But it’s easy for students (and the parents who foot the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure. No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.
1. Beware of prep peer pressure. Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.
About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A ‘B’ student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep? Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up. If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.
There’s one important caveat to this piece of advice. If you’re going to be pursuing merit scholarships at colleges, you should see whether your top choice schools use test scores in awarding this money. Sometimes your scores are good enough for admissions, but not high enough to earn scholarship money so you want to ensure that you know both pieces of information.
2. You get out what you put in. This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self-improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.
3. Spend wisely. There are many low cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be using those 25 hours. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t. If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.