Are Sat Prep Courses Worth the Money

Every year, as test time approaches, university-bound high school students wring their hands and worry about how well they will do on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). A great many score far lower than anticipated and they (and their parents) panic, fearing they won’t be admitted to their college of choice.

A decision some make is to use the services of an SAT preparatory school, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, Huntington Learning Center or one of their myriad competitors. Such SAT prep courses can be expensive, ranging from $400 for online classes to as much as $500 an hour for intensive one-on-one tutoring.
The question then arises: Are these SAT prep courses worth it?

The Critics

Critics emphatically say “no,” and point to two reports to prove their point. One, undertaken by the College Board – publisher of the SAT – concluded that “coached students are only slightly more likely to have large score gains than uncoached students.”

Based on a survey of SAT test-takers in 1995-6, 427 of whom were coached and 2,733 uncoached, the report found that the typical score gain for coached students was 8 points in the verbal section and 18 points in math. (A maximum score on the SAT is 2400 points.) Alarmingly, the report also noted that “about 1/3 of students experience no score gain or score loss following coaching.”

The second report cited by critics was issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in 2009. It concluded that “coaching has a positive effect on SAT performance, but the magnitude of the effect is small.”

The results – from three large-scale studies undertaken in 1999, 2002 and 2009 – showed that “the effect of coaching is larger on the math section of the exam (10-20 points) than it is for the critical reading section (5-10 points).”

The Reality

Based on my own experience as an SAT tutor (I coached students for nine months in 2009), I am not surprised by the results of the College Board and NACAC studies. But I disagree that SAT prep courses are not worth the cost.

These coaching sessions are well worth the money if the right kind of student takes them. The student needs to be motivated, hard working and willing to take direction from a tutor or instructor. Also, to get the maximum benefit from the course, the student needs to enroll months before taking the SAT, preferably six months ahead of time, and during the summer, if possible (so the student can concentrate solely on SAT preparation).

For such students, an SAT prep course can be invaluable, as they can get immediate answers to vital questions they have regarding the test, questions such as, “What’s a better or faster way to solve this math problem?” “How can I guess the meaning of this word I don’t know?” “How can I argue this point more effectively in my essay?”

What generally happens, however, is that the students enrolled in these courses tend not to be motivated or diligent. Many are forced to sign up by their parents. As a result, they often feel put upon and are therefore not ready to receive advice on how to improve their SAT score, especially if it entails a lot of work.

Also, they tend to enroll too late – from my experience only a month or two before the test – and take these courses while they are in school. Thus they don’t have enough time to learn what is necessary to significantly improve their score, and they aren’t able to do the essential take-home coursework because they’re juggling schoolwork and extracurricular activities at the same time.
80% Up To The Student

The fact is, no matter what SAT prep course one takes, how well one ultimately does on the test is about 80 percent a result of the student’s own effort. Let me explain.

The SAT is far from a perfect exam – I agree with many education experts who take issue with it – but it does effectively highlight deficiencies in a student’s education. If you did not do well in algebra and geometry, for example, you will most likely do poorly on the SAT math section.

If you did not do well in English class, you will probably not excel in the verbal section. If you haven’t written many papers and aren’t good at arguing a point on paper, you won’t get a high score on your essay.

But the SAT reflects more than simply how well one has done in school. To excel on the SAT you need to have not only aced math and English, but you need to be well read, highly literate and good at taking standardized tests – specifically, good at taking the SAT.

When a student signs up for an SAT prep course he/she is usually lacking in one, some, or all of these areas. The weaker a student’s educational background is, the more work he/she has to do to achieve a high score.

To improve in math, the student needs to learn and understand the concepts, then solve many, many SAT math questions for homework. The more problems the student solves, the quicker he/she will be able to complete the test.

For the verbal section, the student needs to learn grammar and punctuation, then practice identifying and correcting errors. If the student is a slow reader, he/she needs to read as much as possible before the exam to build up reading comprehension and get used to analyzing reading passages.

To write a better essay – and many students find this especially difficult – you need to learn to organize your thoughts and then put them down on paper quickly. The best way to do this is to practice writing essays, many essays, and this has to be done at home (bringing them into class, when completed, to be corrected).

As you can see, this takes a lot of work, which is why I advised my students to stop watching TV and Youtube, stop playing video/online games and stop texting and reading poorly written blogs and Facebook pages. They should spend every spare moment they have reading and doing the homework assignments I gave them (the bulk of which were practice SAT exams).

Those who took my advice saw their scores rise. Those who didn’t (and most didn’t) saw only minuscule or no increases in their performance.
Implementing Test-taking Strategies Also Requires Practice

Often, students and parents believe it’s the test-taking “tips and tricks” that will help them improve their score. There is no doubt that learning such strategies will help one do better on the SAT, but these too require time, effort and plenty of practice to implement properly.

For example, one strategy taught by most SAT prep schools is how and when to guess. The SAT is designed to penalize students for random guessing by deducting a quarter point for every answer you get wrong. (There are five answer choices, so with random guessing you have a 20 percent chance of getting a question right, but if a wrong answer garners you minus 0.25 points, the net effect is a lower score.)

This does not mean you shouldn’t guess, however. It just means you should guess wisely. One should eliminate at least two of the five answer choices first, then guess. If you can do that, you then have a 33 percent chance of getting the question right. If you can’t eliminate at least two answer choices, then the student should omit the question.

Another strategy pertains to the reading section. One should look at the questions first before reading the passage, and answer certain questions – by hunting within the passage – before reading the passage as a whole. The student is taught how to categorize the questions and answer some right away while leaving others (the more time-consuming ones) to be answered later.

Both the guessing and reading-section strategies take practice to implement properly. You have to get used to eliminating answer choices, skipping questions and coming back to them later, and reading in a whole new way.

Students who don’t practice the strategies, but try and use them, tend to flounder when they take the test. (Which is why some graduates from SAT prep courses see their scores drop.) Students who master these strategies through practice, however, can improve their scores markedly. One student of mine boosted her score by 150 points simply by learning when to omit versus guess.

“It’s Not Magic”

For most students, however, one has to study hard to do well on the SAT. Parents and students generally don’t like to hear this. Many feel that if they pay their money, and if the student attends the classes, this should automatically result in a higher score.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. As a fellow SAT tutor – BA from Harvard, master’s from Columbia – once said, “It’s not magic.”

To do better on the SAT, most students need to bone up on algebra, geometry, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and the essentials of writing. They also need to learn SAT-specific test-taking strategies, then practice using them again and again.

This sounds daunting, but it can be done. One student of mine boosted her score from 1530 to 1770 after three months of once-a-week tutoring. She worked hard, mastered all the strategies I taught her and did all her homework (including many practice tests).

A student of a fellow tutor increased his SAT score by more than 300 points by memorizing a book of SAT vocabulary and completing hundreds of math problems for homework.

For these students, the cost of the SAT prep course was certainly worth it.