With each passing year, the algorithm for college admissions seems to become more and more complicated, and one measurement stands out in the minds of both parents and teens staring down college applications: test scores.
Of course, this upcoming year will be slightly different, with many schools choosing to go test-optional for the 2020-2021 application cycle. However, with many schools returning to “business as usual” after this admission cycle, students will likely still need to take these standardized tests.
But should the ACT and SAT be the main focus for college applicants? It depends. Here are some of the pros and cons of ACT and SAT prep courses.
The Pros of SAT/ACT Test Prep Courses
Scores Will Improve
There’s a reason test prep is in such high demand. It works. At least, to some extent. Studies show that ACT and SAT test preparation does, in fact, help students improve their scores. The ACT conducted a survey that evaluated scores of students who took the test twice—once before test prep, and once after. The study found scores consistently went up a few points after test prep, regardless of the student’s racial, gender, or socioeconomic background. This is one of the most consistent and luring claims made by all test prep academies: that they will raise your teen’s scores.
Guidance Will Sharpen Test-Taking Skills
In many ways, the SAT and ACT are more than tests. They’re obstacle courses, and students need specific techniques and skills to perform well. The list of test-taking strategies can be overwhelming without proper guidance. The best thing any prep course can do is narrow down what, specifically, your teen needs help improving. From time management to the process of elimination, this is the most beneficial part of any test prep course.
The Cons of SAT/ACT Test Prep Courses
Prep courses aren’t cheap. An online search will quickly reveal in-person tutoring can range up to $250 an hour! Even group and online sessions are often in the $100 range. This simply isn’t affordable for most Americans.
Improvements Are Often Marginal
Although test prep will improve scores, the change isn’t always significant. Most studies are carried out by tutoring agencies looking to embellish their own reputations and secure clients. Many of these reports are overblown, promising to improve SAT scores by hundreds of points, while the more realistic outcome is an improvement of about thirty or so. If your teen is a cusp test-taker, this might be worth it. But if they’re solidly in the middle, it’s not fair to hope for a miracle tutor to bump them up a whole bracket.
How Important Are They?
Many college admissions officers—including ones from top universities like Duke and Harvard—have said test scores are by far not the most important thing in a student’s application. Grades, extracurriculars, admission essays, and long-term performance are better indicators of a student’s potential. If your student struggles with the SAT and ACT, focus on improving their strengths rather than trying to fix the one squeaky wheel.
So, Are Test Prep Courses Worth It?
It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want your teen to bump up a few points and build a practice schedule, it may be worth a few hundred dollars to invest in a tutor or program. But you shouldn’t get your hopes up and rely on a tutor to get your teen from 1350 to a perfect 1600. In fact, this approach can significantly increase the anxiety your teen feels in the face of standardized testing. Take the time to find the right fit for your teen to help them properly prepare for these tricky exams.
Eric M. Earle is the founder of Tutor Portland. He used to struggle with mathematics, but in his early twenties, he studied math intensely and began to pass on his knowledge. Demand for his tutoring services led to the creation of Tutor Portland—which focuses on improving students’ math grades to better their college acceptance rates.