Should I take an SAT Prep Course?

College Board Official SAT Study GuideIt's March, and many students are starting to think about the SAT and ACT examinations. Reader Timothy P. wants to know some ways to get prepared:

My GPA isn't as high as I'd like it to be, so I really want to do well on the SAT. I have some friends that took a prep class and really liked it, and other friends who took a class and said it didn't help them at all. I sort of want to take one just in case, but all of them are really expensive. Could I just buy a book and practice on my own, or do I have to take a prep course? Or maybe hire a tutor? And which company is the best to use?

Hi, Timothy. The answer to the question, "do you have to take a prep course" is easy: No, you definitely do not need one. But "should you" is a different question entirely and is based on you personally.

Everyone responds differently to test preparation. Students who score in the mid-to-low range of test scores prior to class sessions tend to benefit the most from classes. Students in the highest and lowest score ranges tend to benefit the least, but can still get help from one-on-one tutors. Larger test preparation companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan have guaranteed score increases, often about 200 points. But remember that some of this score increase comes simply from practicing the test. You might also increase 200 points on your own.

It's important to evaluate yourself as a student. Do you tend to be strongly self-driven and can easily commit to spending at least 8 hours a week working on the SAT without slacking at all? If not, helping you to overcome this is one of the biggest advantages of an SAT prep course. Because you have a teacher, a specific meeting time, and assigned homework, you're much more likely to keep up with your practice. But if you feel that you can be self-motivated, you may be fine without paying for a class.

The best thing to do is to pick up a book like the College Board's own Official SAT Study GuideOfficial SAT Study Guide, which runs about 20 bucks on Amazon. The College Board is the company that makes the SAT, and their book includes several practice tests for you to work through. Try to practice under realistic conditions (i.e. limit yourself to the correct time limits, and go through an entire section without an break). Then, grade your test and review not only the questions you missed, but also those that you skipped, guessed on, or struggled with. Then, for questions you simply cannot figure out, turn to your particularly bright friends (an SAT collaborative study session is a great idea, nerdy as it may make you feel), or ask an experienced professional. There are many forums all over the Internet to answer your questions, and I also will help with any problem you have. Just contact me.

If you run through a few of these tests and you don't see yourself improving, or if you are finding it difficult to maintain focused and to set aside time to study, then you're probably a good candidate for a prep class. You don't necessarily need to spend thousands on one of the big names; a small, local company will work as well since they'll also keep you on track. But if you need help, the largest names tend to offer the best -- or at least the most consistent quality -- service.

Again, you never have to take a prep course. If you can study on your own and see improvement from your repeated practice tests, the $20 booklet will be enough. Scour the net for SAT tips (like those found right here on my own site: standardized test tips) and you should be fine. But if you ever feel like you need extra help, prep courses tend to be good investments for most students. Good luck!

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