The SAT is stressful for everyone. A few hundred points may be all that's standing between your student and qualifying for a top-tier college or landing that full-ride scholarship.
And picking a great prep course can be overwhelming. You can do an online course, but is that enough? There are tutoring services available, but can you trust they know their stuff?
With all of the different SAT prep courses available, each promising to raise your student's score, it's important to know which makes the most sense for your child. Here are 10 things to keep in mind when picking an SAT prep course.
1. Know the Difference Between an SAT Course and an SAT Tutor
The SAT covers a wide range of subjects and every student is going to have areas where they're weaker. Whether it's trigonometry, algebra, or critical thinking, you want to make sure your student is spending most of their time tackling the areas they need help with rather than the ones they already have down.
This is where the distinction between an SAT prep course and a tutor becomes important.
In most SAT prep courses:
- Classes meet weekly. Length can vary from one hour to a few hours per session.
- Practice questions are assigned every week and are reviewed the following class.
- Classes run for a few months usually ending near a test date. This varies based on what class you choose.
The downside here is that in a class, your student will be one of many others.
Classes need to move fast to cover all the bases, so your student won't get as much 1-on-1 attention. There won't be time to go back over problems they struggle with in-depth.
If you're looking for more 1-on-1 test prep, you should be looking for a tutoring service.
In most SAT tutoring services:
- Students meet weekly with their tutors. Outside of class, tutors can monitor students' progress on a daily basis.
- Practice questions are assigned every week, but tutors can provide immediate feedback. If a student gets ahead, more practice can be given without having to wait for the next weekly meeting.
- Tutoring runs for a few months, depending on your schedule. It can usually be shortened or extended if needed.
A tutor will ensure that your student gets the individual attention they deserve, which will help them concentrate on the parts of the test they really need to work on. The only downside is that tutors can be much more expensive than prep courses.
2. Understand the Pedagogy
We've found that many test prep curricula have students study for the SAT simply by doing set after set of practice problems.
It's like trying to learn an instrument just by playing songs rather than practicing scales or chords. You aren't truly mastering the fundamentals. When a slightly altered version of a practice problem comes up on the test, it can totally throw the student off.
Whether it's a course or tutor, we suggest looking for one that uses practice tests primarily as a diagnostic tool.
A good practice is to have students take a few practice exams to find out what their weak areas are. Once those have been identified, the focus should be to take a step back and actually dive deeper into the concepts that need work.
3. “Real” Practice Tests Make All the Difference
When a practice test is assigned, students often take them at their leisure, only do specific sections, and don't follow the standard SAT procedure.
This is fine when the goal is to focus on improving in a specific area, but as you get closer to the actual test date, students need to take practice tests in conditions that emulate the real testing environment.
At least one or two practice test sessions should follow these rules:
- Take a full exam. Getting a feel for the pacing of the test will help make sure your student doesn't burn out early.
- Keep strict timing on each section. Even an extra minute can artificially increase your student's score. You also aren't allowed to skip to the next session, or return to a previous one even if you finish early.
- Use only the allowed materials. Only use a calculator when permitted and make sure phones, computers or other distractions aren't around.
- Take only official breaks.The SAT is a marathon with only a few breaks built in. Your student should get used to staying focused during long sessions.
- Take it at the same time of day. Often SATs are scheduled to start early in the morning. Make sure your student gets used to that.
We also highly suggest making sure that your test prep instructor assigns an official College Board Practice Test. These practice questions are created by the writers of the SAT, and they will most accurately reflect real test questions.
4. Talk to Previous Students
The best way to find out if a tutor is effective is to hear from previous students about their experience.
Before signing up for any tutoring service, ask for the contact information of students who have worked with them in the past. Talking to these students is the best way to learn how effective their tutoring sessions were and whether you think they'll be a good fit for your student.
If deciding on an SAT prep course, look for reviews from parents whose students completed it. With a quick search on College Confidential, you're likely to find feedback and comments from parents on how much their student improved from a specific course and whether they'd recommend it.
It is important, however, to take these reviews with a grain of salt. Every student is different and has a different learning style. Just because one student thought a tutor was great (or terrible!), it doesn't necessarily mean it will go the same with your child.
5. Don't Be Convinced By "Ivy League"
The best students don't always necessarily make the best tutors. A key selling point many services emphasize is their “Ivy League tutors.” We won't deny it—we do it too. But students who do well and attend Ivy League universities often do so because of many reasons, and not just their SAT score.
Some courses hire tutors just based on their resume, give them a Skype account, and have them start tutoring without first making sure they can actually teach. It's important to keep in mind that the best tutors are not just smart, but have also been trained and provided with the resources necessary to make sure your student is succeeding.
At Testive, our system gives tutors 24/7 access to see how a student is progressing, allowing them to provide constant feedback. This also means that rather than using the weekly sessions to determine which areas need work, tutors can jump right into helping students with material they are struggling with.
6. Accountability Keeps Students Motivated
Most tutors will assign practice problems outside of weekly coaching sessions to keep students constantly practicing. But the most effective tutors don't just check back in a week later to see how they did—they check in throughout the week to keep students motivated and accountable. We've found that students with coaches have a 47.6% higher effort grade and spend 234.1% more time on our platform than those who don't.
If a student doesn't feel like their tutor is invested in their success, they'll feel discouraged. But if your student feels like their tutor cares about helping them do well, they will be more likely to stay on track. Even a simple message asking if they've done their practice problems for the day, or a motivational quote to inspire them, can be all the encouragement your student needs to keep going.
7. Test Taking Strategies
Knowing the material is no doubt the best way to do well on the SAT, but as with anything in life, there's more to it than just being smart. There are strategies that can help your student ace the SAT by making sure they don't get caught by time constraints or tricky questions.
Look for a prep course or tutor that spends some time teaching strategy. Here are a few strategies you might come across that we've found to be helpful:
- Don't be afraid to guess. The new SAT has no penalty for guessing so rather than getting stuck on a problem, just put down a guess first and then come back to it.
- Manage your time. The worst feeling is running out of time because you spent too long stuck on one question. Make sure to keep track of your time so that you get a chance to answer every question.
- Read Writing and Reading passages differently. Each section tests a different skill. You should be using the skills that are being tested to succeed in each section.
Make sure that while your tutor is coaching your student on subject material, they're also coaching them on test taking strategies.
8. Don't Forget the Essay!
The written essay is technically an optional part of the SAT, but many top colleges and scholarship programs require it. If you are interested in a school or program that requires the essay, make sure your tutoring program devotes some time to preparing and practicing for it.
It takes practice to learn how to properly analyze a passage and be able to pick out the main arguments that an author is making.
Your tutor should help your student master the SAT essay by walking them through how essays are scored and how to write a cohesive piece in the 50-minute time limit. Of course, you should also make sure that the essay is part of every practice test your student is assigned.
9. Flexibility Will Keep Busy Students Sharp
According to experts, 100 hours is the magic number in terms of how long a student should spend studying for the SAT. That's equivalent to a little over four days, 2.5 work weeks or about how long it would take to bike from NY to Orlando non-stop. Though if you ask, most students would probably rather do the bike ride than study for the SAT for that long.
Needless to say, these 100 hours can be spread over three or four months before their test date to make it more reasonable. But since SAT dates fall during the school year, it's natural that your student will start getting busy with schoolwork some time during their preparation period. When deciding on a tutoring program, you should make sure that your program is flexible enough to account for that.
We've often seen students who get too overwhelmed with schoolwork and stop studying for the SAT altogether, which is the worst thing that can happen. Even if it is just a few practice problems a week, your tutor should make sure that your student keeps their SAT skills sharp so that when test day does roll around, they're prepared.
10. Test Prep Isn't a One-Stop Solution, Your Students Need Your Support Too!
It's a stressful time for a student to be balancing school, studying for entrance exams and worrying about whether they'll get into a good college. Just knowing that you believe in them and are cheering them on to do their best can make all the difference!