Capstone College and Career Advising

To Prep or Not to Prep: Do you need a special course to get ready for the SAT or ACT?

February 11th, 2014 by

Every year, when it comes time to take the SAT or ACT, students get stressed out, often telling me: “I’m just not good at taking tests.” Just telling them not to worry doesn’t help. Instead, I often draw this analogy: In sports, athletes have to practice to get better. It’s the same thing with academics.

That’s why I advise students who are nervous about college admission exams – and even those who are completely confident – to practice before sitting for the exam.

This doesn’t mean weeks of round-the-clock cramming. The SAT and ACT test the knowledge you’ve gained throughout your school career, and you simply can’t re-learn 12 years of knowledge in a few weeks. What you need is confidence and a clear idea of what to expect, so you can tap into what you already know.

Good test preparation materials do just that by helping students understand the structure and pacing of the test. A good program can help students learn how to decipher questions, create a strategy on which questions to tackle first and when it makes sense to guess, and figure out how much time to devote to reading passages and difficult questions.

There are tons of options out there when it comes to test prep, and what you choose depends on your style of learning, your level of motivation, and your budget.

For students who work well on their own, or who are already confident test-takers, the free online test questions and sample tests available on the ACT or SAT websites may be all that’s needed. Others may plug away at a test-prep book or an online course.

However, some students don’t have the discipline to sit down and actually plow through the questions on their own. Others learn much better with hands-on direction and encouragement from a live instructor. For them, a one- to three-week intensive course, or even a private tutor, may be the answer.

Test prep can have real results on scores. The average student gains up to 30 points on the SAT after taking a prep course, according to a 2009 report issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. While that may not be enough to win you a full-ride scholarship, those extra points may come in handy if you’re applying to a selective program or are teetering on the admissions “bubble” at a school you love.