Prepare for the SAT on a Budget

There are many ways to study for the SAT without spending a fortune on personalized prep classes.

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It is possible to effectively study for the SAT on a budget of $20 or less - about a week’s worth of specialty coffee drinks.
It is possible to effectively study for the SAT on a budget of $20 or less - about a week’s worth of specialty coffee drinks.

Aiming for a high SAT score doesn't necessarily mean shelling out for high-cost test prep. While big price tags are common in this industry, there are still many options for improving your score on a tight budget.

This means managing your time as well as your wallet.

Budget Your Time

Ideally, high school students should start preparing a year before the SAT, but that's not always possible. Regardless of when you begin prepping, grab a calendar and plan exactly when you will practice, take shortened exams and sit for between eight and 10 full-length exams.

At least two of these should be under actual testing conditions. Attempt closer to 20 full-length exams if you have an entire year to prep.

Professional test prep teaches strategy as much as content. In place of that costly instruction, you can learn how the test works on your own by adopting the following initial strategy.

[Explore options to find the best SAT prep course for you.]

Test it: Frequent testing helps you get to know the exam's patterns. For instance, you might recognize that math questions tend to move from easy to difficult.

With that knowledge, you can decide how to use your time more effectively on those sections. The more comfortable you become with the questions asked, the better you will be able to predict patterns and move through the exam efficiently.

Score it: Don't just look at the numerical outcome when scoring your exams. Examine every answer to uncover further insights into how you took the test and why you scored the way you did.

Ask why: Ask yourself, "Why did I answer that question correctly or incorrectly?" Make sure you completely understand the problem and its correct answer.

The Web offers countless blogs and forums where you can post questions about your SAT concerns. The answers can help you think analytically about your concerns and increase your likelihood of answering those questions right next time.

This strategy takes time, but is necessary and well worth it, regardless of your budget.

Budget Your Money

Once you are dedicated to following a schedule and analyzing your test answers, consider the reach of your finances. There are a few ways you can prepare for the exam within various budget constraints.

[Download these apps to study for the SAT for free.]

Around $20: It is possible to prepare for the SAT for less than the cost of a week's worth of specialty coffee drinks. A good start is to buy "The Official SAT Guide, 2nd Edition," which contains 10 tests and costs less than $13 on Amazon.

Seven tests appear in the initial publication from 2005. If you have the earlier version, you will get three additional exams by buying the second edition.

You can also download two exams, the 2007-2008 College Board SAT Preparation Booklet and the College Board Official SAT Practice Test 2012-2013, as well as explore the Web for free practice SAT questions and quizzes.

These resources provide countless possibilities for practice. Even without formal instruction, following the "Test it, score it, ask why" strategy puts you on the path to a strong understanding of the SAT.

[Learn to how develop and follow a summer SAT study plan.]

Around $100: The next step in SAT prep is to seek out online prep courses. For example, the College Board offers an online SAT course for around $70.

One of the benefits of the course is that it assesses both correct and incorrect answers. It might help to have a model for assessing the questions so you can continue that practice after the course ends.

Around $300: Although typically more expensive than the College Board's online course, some test prep companies offer self-paced, online courses that offer more instructional time and material as well as more practice questions. The advantage of a self-paced course is that students can focus on whichever topics they choose at a pace that makes sense for them, and then allocate their time accordingly.

Alternatively, students can spend about this amount of money on a handful of very personalized tutoring sessions. The one-on-one nature of the instruction can help you break through your unique obstacles and build confidence.

Around $500: If you are uncomfortable missing out on the traditional, in-person test prep, reach out to the test prep company of your choice and ask if they offer scholarships. Working with a test prep company or private tutor allows you to receive more personalized attention and active practice than what you would usually receive through a self-paced online prep course. If you can find a way to afford it, the professional, in-person route is highly advisable and often deemed the most effective method of SAT prep.

For students who are prepared to put in the time, SAT prep can be affordable. No matter what route you take, it is a valuable investment in your future.

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.