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Is Test Prep Worth It?

Guest Contributor


By Shane Cole, My College Planning Team

Maybe you’ve seen students stressing out over standardized tests or have heard parents talk about the high cost of ACT and SAT tutors, and can't help wondering if we weren’t all better off when students just showed up on test day, No. 2 pencils in hand, to take a test they had never seen before.

The truth is, it all depends.

For most students, seeing the test format in advance can help ease test-day jitters. That doesn’t always mean taking a test prep class or hiring a tutor. Self-motivated students might find having a test prep book with practice tests they can take on their own, or taking free practice tests offered online through sites such as College Board, to be enough. Other students may attend a high school that administers a practice test to the whole junior class. Again, this may be enough to calm a student’s nerves before the real test day.

What about your student? When does it help to do more?

Points to Consider

1. Look at your student's test-taking ability.

Some students perform well at school but, for some reason, do poorly on standardized tests. If your child falls into that category, consider getting them some extra help through a test prep class, one-on-one tutoring or one of the many books offering test-taking advice. They can learn tips on how to move through a test more quickly or how to evaluate possible answers.

2. Research application requirements for the schools your student wants to attend.

The admissions process at hundreds of colleges and universities is now test optional or test flexible, with more schools joining the test-optional ranks each year. If that’s the case with the schools that interest your student, then they can simply choose not to submit test scores when they apply and forego extra test prep.

3. Determine whether a higher test score will make a difference for admission.

Maybe your student’s test scores already give them an excellent chance of getting into their chosen list of schools. In that case, spending extra money and time on test prep may not make sense.

4. Figure out if test prep could impact scholarship money.

Some colleges and universities post charts or have scholarship calculators on their websites showing what GPA and test score a student needs to receive a merit-based scholarship. A bump of just one or two test points can mean a few thousand dollars more in scholarship money!

If you decide test prep is a good option for your student, there are a few more things to consider:

  • Which test should your child prepare for? Look at their scores from the PSAT or a practice SAT and a practice ACT test to see which test best suits your child. Admissions counselors say they don’t give one test more weight over the other, so which one your child takes is a matter of personal preference. Even if they opt to take both tests, it often makes more sense time and money-wise to focus on test prep for just one of them.
  • What type of tutoring is best? A self-motivated student may do fine reading a test prep book and taking practice tests on their own, others may do better in a class setting and  still others may prefer one-on-one tutoring. One-on-one tutoring provides the most flexibility, which makes it a good option for students who are especially busy, although it is likely to be the most expensive option. Still, there are ways to cut costs, such as only focusing on sections where your child needs the most help, instead of receiving tutoring on the whole test. If your child has a learning disability or is simply a slow reader, one-on-one tutoring may give you the most for your money, allowing your child to focus on strategies targeted to their needs.
  • When should you start tutoring? Some students start as early as their freshman year in high school, though the majority start sometime in their junior year. To keep stress to a minimum, consider options for times when your child is less busy with schoolwork and activities, such as over summer break.

Test prep is a personal choice, and it's not right (or necessary) for every student. Don’t choose an option just because “everyone is doing it.” Take the time to consider what is best for your student and your budget.

And remember, forcing your student to attend tutoring sessions they don’t want or don’t have time for won't help anyone. Sometimes, just letting your student show up on test day relaxed and rested is the best support you can give.

Shane Cole is a nationally recognized high school counselor who presents free college planning workshops for My College Planning Team in the Chicago area. He helps families from diverse economic backgrounds successfully navigate the college application, financial aid and scholarship processes and also draws on his expertise as a high school football and women's basketball coach to help student athletes understand the steps for NCAA eligibility. Shane earned a bachelor's degree in health education from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and a master's degree in counseling from Lewis University.
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