How To Prep for Your Next Big Test

Choosing the best method to prepare for the SAT or ACT can be difficult.

Tutoring is expensive. Courses often have inflexible, time-intensive schedules that are hard to fit into your already over-booked week. And prepping on your own requires a level of discipline and self-analysis not every student is equipped to handle.

Here are some of the principle things you should consider when deciding how best to prepare:

The 4 Things You Should Ask Yourself

1. How far am I from my target score?

How much you need to improve should be a major consideration when it comes to test preparation. First of all, you need a reliable baseline score. The operative word? Reliable.

Many test prep companies will provide you with simulated diagnostic exams. Those exams, by and large, will not provide you with a reliable score. Not that the makers of the tests are necessarily bad at making simulated exams (though some are). And not because the makers of the tests are intentionally messing with the scoring curves of their tests to inflate their improvements (though some do). No, they don't provide a reliable score because the time, research, and resources needed to produce accurate simulated tests are hard to come by. In the final analysis, simulated tests, while perfectly good tools for practice, are never where you should go when you need a score whose accuracy you can be confident in, unless you have no other options available.

So, how do you get an accurate baseline score? Simple: you take a real test under real timed conditions.

The good news is that you may already have an accurate baseline score.

If you've taken the PSAT, you have a reasonable baseline for the SAT. Are the tests the same? No. The PSAT is both a little easier and significantly shorter. Nonetheless, your score on the PSAT can be used to make determinations about how close you are to your target score on the SAT, and the conversion is as easy as slapping a 0 on the end of each of your scores.

If you've taken the PLAN, you have a reasonable baseline for the ACT. Note: the PLAN scores on a 1–32 scale, whereas the ACT scores on a 1–36 scale. ACT provides you, on the PLAN score report, with an estimated range for your ACT score.

If you haven't taken the PSAT or PLAN, the SAT and ACT both have public sources for free, real practice tests. For the SAT, you can get a free practice test. Make sure you time yourself appropriately, and you should be able to get a baseline score. For the ACT, you'll have to speak to your high school guidance counselor; ACT provides a free practice test every year to guidance counselors.

Once you have a baseline score, you can evaluate how much you need to improve to hit your target score. Keep in mind that:

  • Even with the best prep, there are limits to how much you can reasonably expect to improve.

  • Depending on your grades, there are arguably limits to how much it is worth improving; a B+ student, for example, isn't getting into an Ivy League school, as a general rule, so there's no reason to shoot for Ivy League SAT scores.

2. What areas do I need improvement in?

Do you need improvement all across the test, or just in certain areas? If you only need improvement in certain areas of the test, a classroom course may not be a good fit. For example, if your math is very weak and you think you'll need extra work on basic math skills, a classroom course may not provide all the depth you require.

3. How do I study best?

Some people prefer to study with other people going through the same process. Others find learning in a one-on-one environment vastly preferable to learning in a classroom environment. Know yourself as a student, and try to put yourself in the environment that best suits your learning style.

4. How disciplined and structured am I in my study habits?

This can be a key factor. If you only need a little improvement, you may think you can prep for the SAT or ACT on your own; if you're good at making yourself study boring stuff (because, let's face it, no one finds the SAT to be particularly fascinating), then you're probably right. But if you'd just end up putting off prep until the last minute, you'd probably benefit from the structure that a classroom course or a good tutor can provide you with. The less confident you are that you can supply the structure and discipline necessary to prep for the test, the more you'll benefit from either a classroom course or a tutor.

How You Should Prep

Once you've asked yourself the questions above, you'll understand what you should be looking for in a test prep provider and medium. Below is a description of the kind of students who succeed with different types of test prep methods:

Who should pick self-prep?

If you only need a very modest score improvement — say 50 points or so between the Math and Reading sections on the SAT (the Writing section is much less important), or only a point or two on the ACT, and you know you can bring to bear an appropriate level of structure and discipline, prep on your own can work. Get a good book to provide you with basic test information, get a few real practice tests, and have at it. Bigger improvements are possible with self-prep, but they're not terribly common, and you can't bank on getting them.

Who should pick a classroom course?

Classroom courses are likely to provide you with score improvements in the 50–100 point range — perhaps a little higher — for the Math and Reading sections of the SAT combined. Some students seem much more substantial improvements — 200 points or more — but those are the exception, not the rule.

For the ACT, classroom courses are likely to see improvements in the 2–4 point range (again, sometimes more, but such results aren't typical).

The classroom course may be a good bet for a student who needs a little structure or discipline, but not a huge improvement. One of the downsides of the classroom experience is that there will be very little customization to your needs; you'll probably be able to get a few minutes of your instructor's time here and there, but by and large, you'll have to rely on material that's taught to you and 10–20 other students, much of which won't be all that relevant to your particular needs.

That said, it's relatively inexpensive, and can still get reasonable improvements, making it an excellent option from many students.

Who should pick group tutoring?

Group tutoring is a compromise between the savings of a classroom course and the personalized experience of one-on-one tutoring. You and one or two friends can sign up for a tutor together; the schedule will be customized to fit the times that you are free, and the curriculum will be customized to your collective needs. Obviously, the focus won't be entirely on you, but this model has many of the advantages of one-on-one tutoring at a more palatable price. Small group tutoring works best when all students in the group are in the same score range, and tends to result in bigger score improvements than does a classroom course.

Who should pick individual tutoring?

One-on-one tutoring has a lot of advantages: potentially very big score improvements. Personal attention. A course of study customized to your needs. Expert advice not just on the test, but also on the entire college admissions process. The downside, of course, is that high quality tutors can cost hundreds of dollars an hour, and even then, the best can be difficult to book because their schedules tend to fill up.

Tutoring is a great option if you can afford it, but it's worth pointing out that it's hardly necessary for everyone. If you're close enough to your target score, a classroom course or small group tutoring can meet your needs just fine; you can always supplement either of those with a few hours of one-on-one tutoring to better meet your needs (and get, in the process, the benefit of the tutor's substantial knowledge base).

Looking to improve your scores or get more advice on test prep. Look for the top SAT tutors and ACT tutors in your area.