How to Select the Right SAT, ACT Prep Course

Consider factors like cost, learning style and group size when selecting an SAT or ACT prep course.

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Individual tutoring is a valuable resource for SAT and ACT prep, but some students might feel more comfortable in group sessions.
Individual tutoring is a valuable resource for SAT and ACT prep, but some students might feel more comfortable in group sessions.

Choosing the right SAT or ACT prep course can be as challenging as taking the actual test. As students learn to equip themselves for either exam, there are several considerations that will help streamline test preparation.

1. Determine how much help the student needs: The first step to any test prep is to take a whole, timed exam and score it. It can be intimidating, but it's a useful exercise.

Knowing a student's strengths and challenges on the exam before any prep allows for an assessment of how much improvement can be expected.

The scored exam will also give you a sense of how well a student performs on various sections, which can help determine whether the student should pursue a broad or focused style of prep course. For example, if a student has a respectable score on all sections except math, then he or she might decide to find a study course that emphasizes only that weak section.

[Develop a plan to maximize summer SAT preparation.]

2. Decide how much to spend: SAT and ACT test prep courses can range in cost from free to nearly $2,000. The College Board, for example, offers a limited set of free online practice materials and an online course for about $70. Becoming familiar with the level and type of assistance a student needs can help weed out the extremes on the test prep financial spectrum.

3. Understand the student's learning style: Taking stock of a student's learning style can save time and money. While individual tutoring can be an invaluable resource for almost any student preparing for the SAT or ACT, some might feel a high level of accountability and stress from one-on-one sessions.

Some students may feel more comfortable in group tutoring sessions or larger classes where it's easier to blend in with other students. Other students might benefit from the back-and-forth interaction of small-group or individual tutoring.

In general, however, individual tutoring is the only way to garner wholly personalized attention to the unique topical and test-taking skills of a given student. It may also be wise to consider a blend of individualized and group prep programs to fit a student's learning style.

[Improve your test prep with free SAT and ACT study apps.]

4. Explore both commercial and noncommercial programs: Commercial test prep companies offer the security of brand names and courses developed over time, but a noncommercial provider might offer personalized customer service.

Someone like a retired high school teacher may not have conducted formal research on historic exam patterns, but likely has an exceptional knowledge of the school curriculum – a great advantage for the ACT.

Conduct an online search for test prep in your area and see what individuals might offer in contrast to commercial companies. You can also get references from friends and family members.

5. Consider both online and in-person options: Online courses allow busy high school students to learn at their own pace and fit test prep into their already overtaxed schedules. Learners who are shy, busy or who simply need to assess their skill levels on the exam can benefit from online courses as well. Some learners, however, will only benefit from the accountability that comes from in-person instruction.

[See these five tips for improving your ACT score.]

6. Choose between single session and multi-week instruction: There are myriad course options, ranging from single hourlong online courses, to more comprehensive one-on-one, personalized programs with upwards of 48 hours of tutoring.

Typically, prep courses include 18 hours of group instruction, with additional hours of recommended structured study. Before selecting a program, students need to consider how much instruction and self-study time they will need to adequately prepare for the exam.

In total, students should plan to spend 12-15 hours a week on prep starting six to eight weeks before they plan to take the final test. The study course should offer practice at least once a week for four weeks.

7. Ask about included costs and additional fees: No matter the priorities a student identifies when preparing for the SAT or ACT, there are some basic factors to keep in mind that will help you get the most from any test prep choice.

For example, ask if books or any other educational materials are included in the advertised price. You should also ask if a student may retake the program if the student's scores don't increase.

Finally, have the provider share its instructors' educational backgrounds as well as their SAT and ACT teaching experience.

Following these tips will help shape a well-devised yet flexible study plan that will help your student succeed.

DeAnna Rivera is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York—Stony Brook and a J.D. from the University of Arizona.