This is a guest post from Alexander Chip of Top Score Education. If you like this content and want more like it, feel free to join our free workshop in June! Register here: Testing, Timeline and Trends: What You Need to Know About the Changing College Admissions Landscape.
The World of Test Prep Options and the Anxiety of Too Much Choice
Remember when you could only order pizza or Chinese for delivery? When summer meant either sleepaway camp or a job busing tables and/or mowing lawns? When we had 4 TV Channels!?
How about when you took an SAT class on Saturdays and then took the test in spring of junior year and fall of senior year and that was that?
One of the great changes of this century has been the expansion of options. We are living in the age of choice. But with all the permutations of everyday life can come an almost existential dread of making the wrong decisions. And when the choice isn’t simply what to order from DoorDash, but rather how to approach the crucial ACT/SAT exams and give your student the college options you had (or never did), the anxiety can be overwhelming.
The antidote to this anxiety is knowledge.
Ahead, you will find the knowledge I’ve accumulated over 20 years in the test prep industry and what I would use to inform my family decisions.
Above all, figure out what’s best for your student and your family context, and don’t stress about what others are doing and paths not taken.
The Rundown of College Test Prep Options
What’s on the menu? Before drilling down into what’s right for your student, it’s important to understand what’s out there and what it costs.
Private 1:1 Lessons
This will be the most comprehensive of programs, as a competent private tutor will provide diagnostic testing and analysis and build a program around your student’s particular needs and strengths.
They will help you select the better exam (ACT or SAT) given your student’s skillset and diagnostics, and they will recommend a preparation timeline within the broader context of the student’s high school curriculum and extracurricular commitments.
The program will be built around your schedule and flexible when athletic, academic, or family events necessitate a change. These are often held in-home for maximum convenience for a busy family.
When a student struggles, the tutor will assess and change course as necessary to get the very most out of the investment. Like any good coach, they will look your student in the eye and say “you can.”
If your student has learning differences, the tutor will specifically address them and adjust their methodology to fit your student’s needs.
Perhaps most importantly, a 1-on-1 program cultivates more accountability, as the student will have to answer directly to their tutor each and every lesson. There are no other kids to hide behind; they will have to show that they did their homework, did it the right way, and did it with effort. The whole process goes to waste if accountability and expectations aren’t provided and nurtured.
Of course, a bespoke program like this will be the most expensive. If you decide this is the right path for your student but the price of a tutor from recommended companies is just too high, you can do some legwork and find a tutor on NextDoor or Wyzant who might be less established but still excellent.
We all started somewhere! As with anyone doing important work for you, the less reputational credibility they have, the more questions you should ask and involved in the process you should be. You might also save some money by doing the tutoring remotely, but be sure your student is temperamentally suited to working that way. Remember: if you pay 50% less but the program isn’t successful, you didn’t get a good value.
Potential Cost for a 20-hour 1-on-1 Comprehensive Program
Smaller market, independent or remote tutor: $1000-2000
Medium market, standard tutor at a large company: $2000-4000
Large market, or affluent suburb, experienced tutor at a white-glove boutique company: $4000-10,000
Small (or Large) Group Classes
Often partnered with your high school, reputable in-person group classes will provide diagnostic testing to prepare your student for the right exam and place them at the right level.
The structure of these classes, often held each weekend and focusing on the core concepts and strategies of the exam, promotes consistency and a mastery of the foundations of the tests.
If a student takes a class at their high school with a few friends, they might find some “peer power” motivation, study together, and inspire each other. On the other hand, they might no-look text each other under the desk all class. That knife cuts both ways.
While not fully flexible with your student’s calendar, many of these classes provide a make-up class for absent students. Accountability won’t be at the level of a 1:1 program, but your student will be present, learning, doing exercises, and (in theory) engaged by a high-quality instructor. If possible, poll students who took the class the year prior if they had a great instructor and get a name.
Most classes at high schools will be 8-15 students and are not conducive to asking questions or asking the instructor to slow down to explain a math concept a second time. Small group classes are harder to find, but you could ask a recommended private tutor to set up a class for your student and 3 friends. If a small group class still feels out of budget, look at a larger class or a live online class, and you will pay less.
Potential Cost for a 20-hour Group Comprehensive Course
Online live class: $400-800
Small/Medium market city or town, standard class by a large company: $600-1200
Large market city or town, or affluent suburb, high-reputation class promoted by the high school: $1000-2000
There are more free and low-cost online self-guided options for ACT/SAT test prep than ever before, and of higher quality than people realize.
Khan Academy partnered with the CollegeBoard to provide a completely free interactive program that walks students through the most necessary content and practice for the SAT. Nifty logistical features like homework reminders and practice test dates provide a customizable automatic structure, and the program adjusts to the skill level of the student, so they don’t get bored or frustrated with questions that are too easy or too hard.
Resourceful digital natives can find dozens of past exams for extra practice on crowdsourcing sites like Reddit.
Or you can go old school and buy the classic $20 test prep book and break out the highlighters!
Ultimately, the success of any self-guided program depends on the motivation and organization level of the student. The resources online are so vast that it can be difficult for students to know where to start and how to get themselves organized.
Also missing will be the proctored practice exams that most companies doing 1:1 or group class prep would provide. And there won’t be tailored advice on which test to take, when to take it, and how to break down the content before the first attempt and a potential second attempt.
But if your budget for test prep is small, and your student is motivated and organized, you can’t beat free.
Potential Cost for Do-It-Yourself Program (unlimited practice resources and online programming)
College Test Prep Options Summary
- Pros: Tailored to the student, highest accountability, fits student schedule.
- Cons: Highest Cost option.
- Ideal for: Neurodiverse students, busy students, unorganized students.
- Pros: Consistent structure. Peer power. Good coverage of core skills.
- Cons: Less accountability & individual attention. Inflexible schedule.
- Ideal for: Self-starting good testers who need content review.
- Pros: Low or no cost. Students can practice when they have time.
- Cons: Little guidance, no oversight, no proctored test conditions.
- Ideal for: Motivated, organized students who can self-teach and have a limited budget.
Student Type: Which One Best Describes Your Child?
Now that we have reviewed prep options, we’ll consider some common student profiles I’ve encountered over the years. Please remember that these are loose groupings that cannot define your student. Aligning with the closest fit, however, may help identify which prep options could be a good, or risky, match.
- The Valedictorian: Student with an excellent GPA who has no trouble concentrating in school. Sits at the front of the class, does all homework, tests well, and manages their time superbly.
- The High-Performing Neurodiverse Scholar: Student has overcome or leveraged learning differences to perform well in school and on tests, but take different paths to get there. Standard best practices for test prep might not fit their needs, but they will be successful with a flexible tutor/instructor/program.
- The Smart Slacker: Student with a good to great GPA, doesn’t work hard for it, and is naturally a good test taker. Doesn’t spend enough time with homework and does the bare minimum, but they always get done what they need to for decent/good grades. Procrastinates for big exams or papers but is naturally bright enough to have success despite these poor study habits. Maybe has an average attention span in class.
- The Good Student, Bad Tester: Student with a good to great GPA who does very well in school and works very hard but doesn’t test well on standardized exams. May also struggle with cumulative exams in school or other timed assessments.
- The Underdog: Student with a low to solid GPA who doesn’t test well but has the motivation to improve. When challenged, can apply themself and produce improved results. Scrappy, coachable with the right person and a robust direction. Average to good attention span in class.
- Kicking and Screaming: Student with low to solid GPA who struggles in school and/or on standardized tests. Has trouble concentrating in class and hates doing homework. Will not bring high energy to any prep program and will need to be inspired and held closely accountable.
- The Neurodiverse Warrior: Student works very hard for solid grades and tests are a real struggle. Learning differences make nearly every part of the test challenging, and confidence can be a real issue early on. If growth is achieved, however, the rewards of the testing process can go far beyond the scores. Watching a score steadily ascend in response to hard work and process-based analysis is the closest academic analog we might have to climbing a mountain.
Test Prep Fit for Student Type: Which Options Are Best for Your Child?
The success of any program ultimately depends on the student doing the work, so involve them in the process and ask them to be honest with you and themself. There is no single right or wrong road to college admissions success. The best path to walk is the one chosen with foresight and planning, trod with intention and focus. Your best is good enough. Your student’s best is good enough. Support them and put them in a position to succeed, and they will.
Alexander Chip, Top Score Education
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