Are SAT prep courses worth the money? There's no doubt that SAT prep is a big business -- hundreds of companies and private counselors make impressive claims about their ability to improve your SAT scores. Prices tend to range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the amount of in-person one-on-one tutoring you receive. Are these courses worth the investment? Are they a necessary evil for an applicant to be competitive at the country's most selective colleges and universities?
How Much Your Scores Will Improve
A lot of companies or private counselors will tell you that their SAT prep courses will result in score improvements of 100 points or more. The reality, however, is much less impressive.
Two studies suggest that SAT prep courses and SAT coaching raise the verbal score by about 10 points and the math score by about 20 points:
- A College Board study conducted in the mid-1990s showed that SAT coaching resulted in an average verbal increase of 8 points and an average math score increase of 18 points.
- A 2009 study by NACAC, the National Association of College Admission Counseling, showed that SAT prep courses raised critical reading scores by about 10 points and math scores by about 20 points
The two studies, although conducted over a decade apart, show consistent data. On average, SAT prep courses and SAT coaching raised total scores by roughly 30 points. Given that SAT prep classes can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, the average result is not many points for the money.
That said, the NACAC study revealed that about a third of selective colleges stated that a small increase in standardized test scores could make a difference in their admission decision. Some schools, in fact, have a specific test score set as a cut-off, so if 30 points bring a student over that threshold, test prep could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
For highly selective colleges and universities, high SAT or ACT scores are typically an important piece of the admissions equation. They tend to rank right below your academic record in terms of importance, and your application essay and interview are often less important than the SAT or ACT. The reason for their importance is somewhat obvious: they are standardized, so it gives a college a consistent way to compare students from across the country and around the globe. High school rigor and grading standards vary considerably from school to school. SAT scores represent the same thing for everyone.
That said, there are many situations in which SAT test prep would NOT be worth the money:
- Your top choice colleges are test-optional (see test-optional colleges). Many colleges and universities recognize that a single, high-pressure exam shouldn't carry so much weight in admissions decisions. As a result, they don't require SAT or ACT scores. Often these schools will require some other measure to ensure applicants are qualified: a graded high school paper, an interview, additional essays, etc.
- With your first attempt at the SAT, your scores are on the higher score range for the colleges that most interest you. Look through my list of A to Z college profiles to see 25% and 75% for all of the nation's selective colleges. If your scores are up in the 75% range or higher, there's really no reason to take a test prep class in an effort to improve your scores.
- Your self-motivated and can teach yourself with a couple of test preparation books. There's nothing magical about test-prep courses. They will provide strategies for test-taking such as how to eliminate answers and make intelligent guesses when you're unsure of an answer. But books provide that same advice, and a good test prep book will also have thousands of practice questions to help you become familiar with the SAT. Test prep courses are useful for students who aren't disciplined enough to study for hours on their own, but a diligent student can get the same benefit for hundred dollars less through independent study or group study with friends.
Find a Good Test Prep Course
It's not possible for me to evaluate the thousands of private college admissions counselors out there. But Kaplan is always a safe bet with high customer satisfaction. Kaplan offers several options with a range of pricing:
- SAT On Demand Self-Paced Course ($299)
- SAT Classroom Online ($749)
- SAT Classroom On-Site ($749)
- Unlimited Prep--PSAT, SAT, ACT ($1499)
Again, there are lots of other options out there. Kaplan does guarantee improvement or you get your money back, a promise that you're unlikely to get from a private counselor (with some exceptions).