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Does Your Child Need SAT Help?

As your child looks toward college, how important is it to get outside help to prepare for the SAT or ACT standardized tests?

Factors to consider include your child’s learning style, available time and family budget — and whether your child needs to get ready for the tests at all.

It is also important to keep the right perspective. While standardized test scores continue to be an important admission criterion for some colleges, others schools do not require them, and most colleges also consider grades,
activities and other factors when reviewing applicants.

How Important is the SAT/ACT?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s  2009 survey of admission trends (representing almost 70 percent of all four-year, nonprofit degree- granting institutions) showed that grades in college prep courses and strength of curriculum were the two top factors in admission decisions. Standardized test scores ranked third.

 

Value of Test Prep

“Test prep courses may bolster self-confidence by making the test less unfamiliar, but spending a ton of time, especially time taken away from courses, is time misspent,” advises Louis Hirsh, director of admissions for the University of Delaware in Newark, DE.

Robert Alig, vice president of the Middle States Region for The College Board, which administers the SAT, agrees. “We don’t believe nor does the research demonstrate that expensive test prep significantly improves scores,” he says. Alig directs students to My College QuickStart, on The College Board website, for personalized feedback based on results from the PSAT, the SAT practice test. (For ACT-takers, the preparatory test is called PLAN.)

Margaret Darnington of Glen Mills, PA, hired an independent private SAT tutor for her oldest son. “We did see improvement,” she says. “Basic prep familiarized him with the test, but tutoring in specific areas is where it was most helpful to target our time and resources. With my second son, I will be more proactive in starting the prep earlier.”

Test preparation costs can range from $20 for online courses to $140 per hour for a top tutor. The College Board and ACT websites offer free practice questions.

 

SAT or ACT?

Test Differences

• The ACT has a Science section, while the SAT does not.

• The ACT Math section tests more advanced concepts, such as trigonometry.

• The ACT tests English Grammar.

• The ACT Writing Test is not required.

• The SAT has a stronger emphasis on Vocabulary.

• The SAT has a guessing penalty, while the ACT does not.

The SAT is more of an aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities, while the ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. Hirsh urges students to try both. “Some kids do better on one than on the other,” he says. “We can chalk that up to the variations among human beings.”

Students can send colleges whichever scores are highest. Hirsh advises sending all scores, noting that most schools will work with the best set of data.

It is worth learning whether your child’s college of choice requires SAT or ACT scores. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (fairtest.org) reports that roughly 850 colleges (approximately 31 percent of four-year degree-granting institutions) do not use SAT or ACT scores to admit substantial numbers of bachelor degree applicants. There is variation in how colleges implement this “test-optional” approach.

If your child is applying to a college that requires a standardized test, then — as with the choice of a college — you will have to make a difficult decision: Does your child need outside help, and if so, which preparation method to pursue?

 

Test Prep Program Comparisons

Type of Program

Price Range

Sample Providers

Individual Tutoring

$40-$140
per hour

  • The Princeton Review and StudyPoint offer packages ranging from 18 to 30 hours of instruction at an average $130 per hour. A 24-hour program would cost approximately $3,000 with advance payment in full.

  • Tutoring services like Huntington Learning Center cost about $80 per hour.

  • Independent tutoring services, which might include teachers who tutor after school, charge on average $50 per hour.

Group Sessions

$280-$1,499

  • Princeton offers a small group option for $1,499, which consists of 24 hours of instruction and a student to teacher ratio of 4:1. Princeton's premier course is the $999 Ultimate Course, which includes 30 hours of instruction and comes with a money-back guarantee. Classroom courses start at $599.

  • Dr. Richard Fuller's Coaching Service in Blue Bell, PA, offers 35 hours of instruction with a student to teacher ratio of 8:1 for $575.

  • Philly Tutors of Philadelphia offers an 8-week, 16-hour classroom course for $280.

Online Courses

$19.95-$299

  • For $299, Princeton provides 20-30 hours of interactive, self-paced online lessons.

  • The Official Online SAT Course offered by The College Board, administrators of the SAT, consists of 18 interactive sessions for $69.95. 

  • ACT Online Prep, offered by ACT, Inc., administrators of the ACT, is offered for $19.95.

Self-Study

FREE-$21.99

  • The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide are each about $20 and offer guidance on all test sections as well as numerous practice tests with answer keys.

  • The College Board and ACT websites offer a free Question of the Day and practice questions. The College Board offers a free practice test as well.

Jo Rizzo is a local freelance writer.

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