In the summer between her sophomore and junior year, Maria Lang’s parents bought her an SAT prep book to get a jump on studying for her upcoming college entrance exams. Although Maria was a strong student, her father, James, immediately saw her struggling.
“Because she earned high marks in high school, I thought that preparing for the test would be easy for her,” said Lang. “But she seemed frustrated and getting her to sit down and study became an ongoing tug-of-war.”
Lang, like many other parents of teenagers in today’s competitive high school landscape, decided to enroll his daughter in a college test prep program. “Obviously our end goal was for her to achieve the best score possible, but the program helped her in many other ways, including improving her study skills, managing test anxiety, and teaching her how to get organized before a major exam. She’s a better student now—and we were happy with her test scores.”
College test prep is an investment, however, and can cost hundreds or even in the thousands of dollars. Many families wonder if these classes will have a big enough impact to warrant the price tag.
“I think students need to have as much practice as possible before the test,” says Antoinetta Riley, founder of Riley College Advising. “Think about it, the first time you drive a car, you are the worst driver you’ll ever be. Each time you practice, you improve, and you learn what to do when you encounter different circumstances. A test prep class is the same as a driver’s education class.”
What should parents look for when selecting a program?
1. Realistic expectations. “The class should provide a free practice test at the onset so they can assess the student’s initial score and provide parents a range of what it could increase,” says Riley. Be wary of any program that oversells score improvements. A 2009 study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) showed that SAT prep courses raised critical reading scores by about 10 points and math scores by about 20 points. While 30 points may not seem like much, if a college has a specific test score set as a cut-off, test prep could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
2. Options that meet your teen’s needs. If you feel your teen needs one-on-one time, make sure the program offers that option. Additionally, the program should offer a personalized lesson plan. For example, Sylvan Learning Center offers a specialized curriculum to help improve the areas where a student needs the most help. So, if math is the weak spot, the individualized program will be more focused on that.
3. A mix of resources. “If you are shelling out money for the class, your teenager should be able to do prep at home as well as in the class,” says Riley. There should be many facets to the program to ensure mastery of concepts, including instructor-led sessions, online activities, and supplemental materials.
4. Multiple practice tests. For many students, succeeding on the SAT and ACT comes down to confidence. Select a program where your teen can take several practice tests—and receive an in-depth analysis of their score so they know where they need to focus their studying efforts.
5. Flexibility. Most teenagers have hectic schedules. Find a class that has a variety of days and times available so it does not become another stress point for your student—or you.