At some point in their high school careers, driven by pressure from parents and administrators, students will begin the mad dash for a high score on the SAT or ACT, hoping it will help them be admitted into their first choice college. As a result, families spend anywhere from $100 to $1,000 on test prep classes promising better test results. Although taking a prep course probably won’t lower scores, it is not always as practical or as beneficial as one might think.
For many students, the cost of the test prep classes can outweigh the possible benefits. Students from less socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds often choose to forgo test prep courses altogether because of the cost. For these students, even the discounts some companies offer may not be enough to persuade families to spend such a significant amount of money when they could feasibly improve on their score themselves.
“[The decision to take a prep course] depends mostly on money since…not everyone has the luxury to give up so much money to have someone help them do well on the test,” senior Maria Muñoz said. “Neither my parents nor I can afford [prep courses] so I’ve been studying with friends and on my own.”
With the high price tag attached to test prep courses, even those who do have the budget for them question whether the courses actually do raise scores by the remarkable amount many companies claim. Most students find that they can improve on their score just by taking the test again. However, it is tempting to take a prep course when companies like Revolution Prep promise a score increase of 200 points.
However, these claims can be far from accurate. A 2009 study conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that on average only a 30 point increase among students who took a prep course.
Even though many test prep companies may offer a refund or a chance to take the class again for free if the student is not satisfied, they maintain this rarely happens.
Revolution Prep reports that 4.5 percent of students retake the class for this reason, while Kaplan says the percentage of students who want refunds is low, though this is not necessarily an indication that the class caused any improvement.
For those who are unable or are hesitant to spend a lot of money for a score they could likely earn themselves, there are other valuable study alternatives. Popular alternatives include self-studying with prep books, which tend to be reasonably priced, though they do require plenty of dedication on the student’s part. Creating study groups is a good method for students to keep each other on task.
“At first I wanted to study alone, but I realized that I couldn’t actually physically sit down and study if I was doing it alone,” Maria said. “I told my AVID teacher about it and she wrote [down information on forming an ACT group] on her whiteboard, so both AVID periods would know about [the study group]. If it wasn’t for the study group I wouldn’t have learned about tricks on how to tackle the ACT.”
Other options include using online resources, including the free options offered by the SAT and ACT. Both have questions of the day for students who can’t always find the time to schedule long blocks of studying.
Despite recent changes to the SAT and more colleges like Sarah Lawrence College dropping the SAT/ACT requirement altogether, the SAT and ACT continue to be points of anxiety for students and parents alike. However, when the time comes to prepare for these tests, it is important to remember that a high score won’t necessarily guarantee acceptance and a low score will not guarantee rejection. A strong academic record is far more important than an ACT or SAT score in determining college admissions.