For almost 25 years, I have been engaged in the process of preparing high school students to take college entrance exams. I started out by offering live-lecture test-preparation courses to rowdy groups of juniors and seniors through community education. After the Internet got up and running, I converted the live-lecture curriculum to a format that was friendly for online users. I have written books on test preparation, and I have provided one-on-one tutoring to help students improve their SAT and ACT scores. My experiences have given me insight into which types of training work best for which students.

Before I continue, though, let me reveal my bias. I have not found any reason for students (or their parents) to spend thousands of dollars and gobs of class time to prepare for the SAT, ACT, and other entrance exams. Therefore, I’m not a big fan of the nationally-known, private test-prep companies. It’s not that they don’t provide quality services; it’s just that students can get the same (or better) preparation by spending less money and logging fewer hours in a classroom. For instance, for the same tuition that many national companies charge for their test prep classes, a student could enjoy one-on-one attention from a private tutor.

Here’s how the various types of test preparation compare:

Books: This is usually the least expensive and most flexible of the test prep formats, but it requires discipline and commitment from the student (or constant nagging from the parent). There’s no guidance from a live instructor. Prepping from books fits best for highly-disciplined and well-motivated students who are already pretty good test-takers and want to maximize their already stellar test scores. Books also provide an excellent introduction to the test prep process. Check out The Real ACT Prep Guide (published by Peterson’s), The Official SAT Study Guide (published by the College Board), SAT II U.S. History For Dummies, SAT II Biology For Dummies, and SAT II Math For Dummies (published by Wiley). Cost – $10-$30.

Online Courses: Anyone with Internet access can attend these courses, some of which offer the possibility of personalized instruction for a relatively inexpensive price. Online courses are best for the committed student who wants more personal attention than is available from a book. Online courses are available from Education to Go, The College Board, and the ACT official website. Cost – varies from around $50 to $200+.

Live Lecture Courses: When you take a live course, you enjoy the guidance of an instructor, the ability to ask questions, and a structured format with assignments to encourage active participation. Live courses can be more expensive than books and online courses, and students are locked into a set schedule. Students who require a little bit of structure to commit to test preparation and those who learn well in groups and feel comfortable asking questions benefit most from this format. In addition to courses offered by costly national private test prep companies, less expensive options are often available through community colleges, school districts, and college continuing education departments. Cost – varies from around $50 – $800+.

Private Tutorials: Although it’s generally the most expensive option, one-on-one instruction offers personalized attention, customized instruction specific to the needs of the individual student, and convenient scheduling. Students who need instruction in particular areas of the tests, are taking SAT subject tests, have learning differences, or thrive on personal attention (pretty much everyone!), benefit greatly from test prep tutorials. The most cost effective tutors are usually high school teachers trained in test preparation or independent college consultants who specialized in test prep. National private companies, like Sylvan, are more expensive. Cost – hourly rates can range from $50 to over $200.

Regardless of the format, the best test preparation option should include the following elements:

  • Instruction in how to approach test-taking, including a discussion of how to analyze reading passages and eliminate wrong answer choices
  • A review of math that includes numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, coordinate geometry, probability, and trigonometry (for the ACT)
  • A review of English usage and punctuation
  • Practice on actual test questions from previous exams with thorough explanations of the answers
  • Instructors who relate well to students and understand the test-taking process

For assistance with picking the perfect prep for you, contact Lisa Hatch at College Primers,

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