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SAT/ACT Testing – What’s the Right Way to Prepare?

As school begins, many students start to think about the next round of college admissions-related testing – the SAT and the ACT.  For high school seniors, there are several options this fall – SAT tests in October, November and December (click here to see all SAT test dates and register!)  The ACT will offer tests in September, October and December (click here to see ACT test dates and register!)

Seniors who have not yet taken either test should really plan on taking it twice, if possible.  “The more you take the test,” says test-prep expert Andy Wheeler, “the better you are going to do on it.”  Many educational experts recommend that students take both the SAT and the ACT, as they are very different styles of tests, and test different knowledge.  For seniors who haven’t taken either yet, it may be a little late to prepare appropriately for both.  [Parents of juniors – it’s not too early to start thinking about testing this year – fall or winter – before AP tests and finals consume your student in the spring!]

So what’s the best way to prep for the SAT and the ACT?  There are many resources out there, ranging from free to very expensive.  There are also free SAT and ACT prep resources on the tests’ respective websites, for students who are disciplined and able to study on their own.

Many test prep companies offer online courses or in-person small group classes.  Locally, I have worked with the Princeton Review [here’s their website and here’s their college admissions blog], Catalyst Prep and Veritas Prep, and all offer a number of options for students, including both classes and personal tutoring.  Some offer discounted prices for students who would like to study with just one other person (see Catalyst’s “Prep With a Friend” pricing for example).  Impressively, Veritas Prep offers a money-back guarantee if students’ scores do not increase from previous tests or practices.

Some students are better suited to working one-on-one with private tutors, and I have worked with several whom I highly recommend (including Wheeler Test Prep in the San Fernando Valley and Launch Education Group in Santa Monica).

I met last week with Floyd Mendez, Tutoring Manager for the Princeton Review’s local Westwood office, and we talked about how students can best prepare for the SAT, and how much parents should expect it to cost (many parents ask me this).  Princeton Review offers different levels of tutoring, based on the experience of the tutor, and the price can range from $150 to $330 per hour.  If possible, you should budget for once-per-week tutoring for three months in advance of the test, and students should expect to do one to two hours of test-prep homework in addition to the time they spend each week with their tutor.  Package rates for 12, 18 and 24 hours are available and unused time can be “rolled over” and used for alternate test prep and academic tutoring.

Wheeler, who has been preparing students for standardized tests for over 15 years, says that while you may pay a little more for individualized attention, the results will likely be better than with a group class or self-study.  Tutors will hold students accountable for homework and can measure how successfully a student will be able to work through the test.  He reminds us that the goal of SAT tutoring is not really to achieve mastery of the subject:  “We have different goals than their teachers,” Andy told me.  “Our goal is for the student to get the answer right.  We don’t care how they get there.”  So SAT tutors work with students on test-taking strategies in addition to the actual subject matter, helping them figure out how to tell which of the five multiple-choice answers are wrong and eliminate them.  Wheeler’s tutors focus on helping students read more carefully and see the nuances between the answer choices.

Parents often ask me if their student should “take the test cold” without preparing first.  Doing this would give you a baseline score against which to compare future improvement – but there’s no reason to take a test cold and have the score on file, as some colleges do require students to submit ALL test scores when they apply.  Instead, take a proctored practice exam – Princeton Review offers free practice tests weekly, and Andy Wheeler offers them once a month.  These are REAL SAT and ACT tests that have been given in the past several years, and they are scored the exact same way the real tests are scored.  Princeton Review also has a hybrid SAT/ACT test from which they can help a student determine which test is better for them; this eliminates the need for students to sit for two four-hour practice tests.

In the end, test scores matter most of the time (there are schools that do not require students to submit test scores, but that’s another article!) and taking the tests more than once is perfectly acceptable.  Studying and preparing is good too!  And planning ahead – like taking the test for the first time as a junior – is a great way to spread out the tasks associated with your college search so as not to save everything for the last minute.

As always, feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!

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