After more than a decade in test prep and higher education, I’ve developed a quick breakdown of test prep when the inevitable “what do you do?” question arises and it’s apparent I’m speaking to someone looking to avoid test prep stress. In a world full of “parking lot” rumors, misinformation, and a wide range of approaches and price points, I offer the following thoughts:
First, admissions exams are not measures of intellect. Instead, they’re measures of performance. The content in the SAT & ACT is general enough between reading, writing, grammar, and math skills, that a typical B-average student in standard classes should have mastered the necessary concepts by mid-junior year at the latest, with most AP & advanced students completing the content years earlier.
It’s the performative side of the exams – developing an approach to complete the sections accurately and efficiently while maintaining one’s focus for hours – that’s the coachable side of test prep.
To determine how much to invest (if at all) in this performative side of testing, start by taking an officially released practice exam to establish a baseline score, and consider the gap between one’s baseline score and goal score based on the student’s target universities. The SAT and ACT differ in their structure and approach considerably, but since their 2016 redesigns, the exams are over 90% correlated by content, so a student won’t necessarily obtain an advantage by taking one exam over the other. Barring any major scoring discrepancies between the tests, choose the exam the student preferred (otherwise go with the higher score if it’s considerably higher). With the content of the exams close to identical, any level of motivation such as preferring the feel of one test over another is worth it, especially when it comes to motivating teenagers, i.e. “at least I don’t have to take that crummy other test.”
Once the test is chosen and goal score set, it’s important to commit to that test and resist the urge to switch to the other test when difficulties arise. While the SAT & ACT may be similar enough in content, the difference is closer to comparing baseball to cricket: both sports involve the same core content of pitching a ball and hitting it with a bat, but are vastly different in strategy and nuance. To finalize one’s plan, decide which official test dates work around the student’s schedule, and work backwards from six to twelve weeks before that test date. Prep programs can certainly extend beyond this range, but I’m a proponent of not going beyond roughly three months of prep leading up to a given exam to maximize student motivation and impact.
Between prep program options, let’s compare the coaching/performative comparison to running a marathon: some people can simply put on a pair of running shoes and discipline themselves to not only run every day but push themselves past their current edge. Similarly, some students can dedicate themselves to practicing on their own. There are workout videos that one can watch at home, similar to software based providers like Khan Academy or other for-profit software companies. Then there are test prep bootcamps or group classes similar to, well, workout bootcamps or group workout classes like a spin or yoga class. In test prep, most of these classes stick to a fairly standard format of covering the content and addressing a few broad strategies, and are generally decent for their price depending on the provider and moreso the instructor. Private tutoring though, while the most pricey, is also the most effective in that the personalized attention provides the most accountability for the student. Within private tutors though, there’s a wide range of options, and as anyone who has had a trainer or private coach knows, the experience of the provider is the main differentiator.
As to which option is best for you, it depends on your needs, schedule, availability, means, and overall opportunity cost, because even a perfect score will never guarantee admission: at best it removes test scores as the reason why one doesn’t receive admission. With proper planning though, one can alleviate stress and proactively work towards one’s test prep and admissions goals.