Should I Take a Test Preparation Course?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - March 26th, 2013

While some colleges have gone test-optional, the majority of schools will most definitely look at your SAT or ACT score in their admission decisions. Colleges list the minimum requirements they expect incoming students to meet on their admission Web pages. When you’re making up your college short list, you’ll be checking the minimum SAT/ACT score each college expects.

That said, should you take a SAT/ACT test prep course? These courses, both classroom and online, can cost plenty both in time and money. Most test prep courses are intense, with hours of classroom teaching, homework and practice exams. The class will cover testing strategies, and give advice on answering different types of questions. You’ll finish the class with a far greater awareness of what’s expected and improved test-taking ability. Your scores on the tests are highly likely to improve as well.

How Many Points?

Many test prep companies boast that their test prep courses will raise your score by 100 points on the SAT. However, what studies by the College Board and the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reveal is that taking a test prep course will raise your score by eight points on the verbal and 18 points on the math score in the College Board study. The NACAC study a decade later revealed that SAT test prep courses raised scores about 10 points on critical reading and 20 points on the math. Test prep courses can cost anywhere from $150 to $1,500 depending on the course, and a mere 26 to 30 point rise in the scores might not seem worth the expense.

At selective colleges, even a slightly higher test score could make a difference in admission decisions as well as in financial aid decisions regarding merit scholarships. Getting the highest SAT/ACT scores should be one of your goals in preparing for college, but it doesn’t mean you have to sign up for the most expensive test prep courses out there.

Benefits

Taking a test preparation course has multiple benefits. You’ll gain familiarity with the test, and you’ll learn the material. You’ll take many practice tests and your timing will improve, which is important in a timed test. You’ll get better at taking tests, any test for that matter. Both the SAT and the ACT test your test-taking ability as well as test you on the actual math, reading and writing material. You’ll gain in confidence, to the point where your level of anxiety on test day may be immaterial.

Cost

The cost of test preparation can be anything from free to thousands of dollars with everything in between. A good test prep textbook with sample exams can cost $20 to $35. You can find online courses for as little as $300, and up to $600 or $1,000. A test prep tutor can cost even more. If you are shooting for the most selective schools, and you have the money to spare, both the online and the classroom based test prep courses will deliver on the benefits listed above. Your scores will definitely improve, but probably not by 100 points.

Options

Still, a variety of ways to buck up your SAT/ACT score are available, many of them free. Kaplan, for example, offers many free or inexpensive tools to help you prep for the test. Kaplan also offers more intensive and expensive classes for the most ambitious or those most in need of extensive assistance.

If you look around the Web, you’ll find many ways to practice on both the SAT and ACT. Full practice exams are offered, some with an analysis of your score. There are SAT/ACT test prep books if you’re someone who learns easily from a book. Test prep classes are offered online and in brick and mortar classrooms. High schools often buy discounted test prep courses and then offer them to students for free. They also give workshops on taking the tests.

With such a rich variety of ways to do test prep on your own, often free or cheap, does anyone need to take one of the expensive test prep courses? The answer depends on each student’s goals. If Harvard is a student’s ultimate dream college, yes, he might want to pay out the big bucks and do his best on an intensive, disciplined course with a lot of teacher student interaction. If your goal is more modest, to improve your test scores enough to get into one of the colleges on your list, then feel free to look into all the options available.

If nothing else, students should spend some time doing SAT and ACT practice questions online. Practice SAT questions can be found at College Board. ACT provides practice questions on its student page. Doing these practice test questions can familiarize you with what the test questions will look like and ease your anxiety on test day.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.