Are the SAT prep courses worth the money?
February 7, 2007 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Personal experiences with SAT course preparation?

My daughter is gearing up to take the SAT next year. I have read threads in, and an AskMe thread on PSAT prep. What I'm looking for is recent, honest apparaisal as to whether these prep courses are useful. Some background: my daughter is an honors student who is hoping to go to a top school and study mathematics. I have bought all the usual books for her: the College Board "blue book", Grubers guide, the Princeton Review book, etc. She's not all that enthusiastic about taking a course, and wants to study on her own. I am largely supportive of this, but it seems as though all of her peers' parents are in a frenzy about optimizing their kids' scores, and are convinced that prep courses are the way to go. So, have you or your child taken/not taken the prep courses? Would you do it differently if you could?
posted by Flakypastry to Education (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a good friend who showed up to the first class, took the material they had to offer and never showed up again. He used the course pack to study on his own. In the end it increased his score approx 300 points. As I recall memorizing vocab words had the biggest impact. This was 5 years ago, not sure if that is recent enough
posted by phil at 9:29 AM on February 7, 2007

What was her score without the prep classes? They tend to work best for people with mid-range scores (folks who generally know the material but need help with test-taking technique). It is certainly not necessary to take courses to do well on the SAT, especially if you are self-studying, and many schools don't really care what your score is beyond a certain point. FWIW, I went to high school in a similar environment, didn't study, did fine.
posted by phoenixy at 9:30 AM on February 7, 2007

I have a friend who raised her score about 100 - 150 points through test prep. I took the same course, and my score actually went down. By studying on my own, I was able to rebuild my intuition and get my score back up. I think a lot of it varies by individual learning style. We were both at the high end of the score range, though.

Here's an interesting article that ponders test prep.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2007

I was an SAT tutor for a year or so, and in my experience studying the methods of Rocket Review (by the Princeton Review guy, who branched out) paired with lots of practice sets & tests from other books is almost guaranteed to give her a great score. Some of it baffled me at first---for instance, unless a student truly has the potential to score above a 1450, he/she should go into the test preparing to omit the final third or fourth of each section. Seriously!---but it works.
posted by changeling at 10:19 AM on February 7, 2007

I took a state-sponsored prep course that was taught by regional high school teachers, geared towards the SAT II Writing and the SAT II Math (this was before the redesign, probably in 2002). As an AP student who was just looking for some math review, I found it to be pretty worthless, except for the practice tests and the recreation of the general testing environment, which could have been replicated at home.

IMO, you should trust your daughter on this one. If she feels she needs guided course prep, then let her take it; if not, then she probably doesn't.
posted by muddgirl at 10:21 AM on February 7, 2007

Sorry, didn't completely address the question. I tutored for independent prep courses, not Princeton or Kaplan, but I believe if your daughter's solid at independent study, a course is a waste of money. I studied independently for the GRE, and achieved a perfect score. . . in Verbal, at least. Insane amounts of vocab memorization is key. Luckily, it's not wasted time (unlike those wretched SAT essays), as one retains much of it.
posted by changeling at 10:23 AM on February 7, 2007

And by 1450, I mean 2200 or so. Forgot that it's out of 2400 now. I'm still living in the 1990s :)
posted by changeling at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2007

I've been working as an SAT tutor (my friends also do it on the side to help pay off their student loans), and mostly what I found is this: the tutors are there as coaches. Prep course = coaching more than one person at a time.

If you're wealthy enough to afford a prep course, chances are your daughter went to a school where she has all the basic skills and knowledge she needs to do well on the test. What we do is help kids brush up on rusty skills (at which point it's usually like, "oh RIGHT, that's how fractions work!" and there's no problem), hound them to do homework and practice, point out strategies that they can use, and get them to consistently use said strategies.

The upshot is that I don't think you really need a tutor or prep course for all that, particularly if your daughter is great at studying on her own. You might want say, one individual hourlong lesson to go over some strategies, or you could just buy a Princeton or Kaplan review book for that. I'd recommend this book, by the way. I'd use it all the time if I weren't chained to the company's coursebook. So I agree with muddgirl - trust your daughter to study on her own, but give her a proctored practice test part way through both for your own piece of mind (see if you need a prep course THEN) and also because it'll be better practice than her taking it alone in her bedroom.

Oh, but to really answer your question: I didn't take prep courses or anything in high school, nor did any of my friends. We just studied on our own with practice tests from ETS, and walked out with 1450+ scores [on the old scale]. In hindsight, I would have liked one session with a tutor or company after a diagnostic to really point out some strategies on an individual basis, but nothing after that would have been necessary.
posted by universal_qlc at 10:43 AM on February 7, 2007

Best answer: Well, I've been teaching SAT prep courses for The Princeton Review for over 5 years now.

- 2nd phoenixy. Prep courses work best for students who start out scoring ~480-550 on each section. Taking a student from a 520 to a 650 is much easier than taking a student from 650 to 780.

- Raising math scores is easy; the TPR course does a bang-up job at this. We have awesome tricks and techniques that help poor math students raise their scores. I regularly get over 100 pts of score improvement from students in math; I've topped 200 points a few times. If your daughter wants to study math though, lets assume she's already got a great math score, and none of this matters.

- Raising Reading scores is incredibly difficult. Incredibly. I think TPR is averaging +10 points across our SAT courses these days. (R&D is losing sleep developing new course materials to remedy this.) There are no tricks, no shortcuts. Studying vocab helps, but not as much on the New SAT as the old test. I have helped a few students improve their reading scores significantly (100+points); they were strong readers (articulate, read outside of school for pleasure, enjoy English class, etc) who weren't scoring up to their full potential. With additional practice, they got better. For students who aren't strong readers, test-taking strategy (choosing easy problems, skipping hard ones) is the best thing we can offer.

- My students don't worry much about the Writing section yet; many schools still aren't using it as a major factor in admissions. However, I do think it's easier to raise Writing scores than Reading scores, and that coaching for the Essay is beneficial to most students -- even strong writers.

- No prep course will come out and say this, but I believe it's true: there really is a limit to how high each student can score, even smart Honors students. Your daughter's score can be improved, but no amount of time or money will guarantee her 750+ on every section.

I don't know whether or not your daughter can raise her score on her own as much as she could in a class. Personally, I always told my mom that I was studying for my SAT's, and I never studied at all. From my first-hand observation of high school students -- some of the busiest, most stressed out creatures on the planet -- I'll tell you that very few have the self-discipline required to buckle down and study on their own. They'd rather be texting or instant messaging or surfing MySpace. (Even smart, outstanding students can be lazy. I sure was!) The biggest benefit to prep classes, IMO, isn't our superior techniques or materials; it's the fact that when Mom & Dad shell out $1000+ for a prep course, the kids have to show up and feel obligated to try. No excuses allowed. When Mom buys a $24.99 prep book at Barnes & Noble, they can lock themselves in their rooms and tell you they're working on it.
posted by junkbox at 10:48 AM on February 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I taught SAT prep for The Princeton Review for four years (2000-2003), and here is my take on your situation:
- If your daughter is a naturally good test-taker (and a good independent worker), she may not need a course; a book might be enough.
- For each section (verbal, math, writing), nobody needs higher than a 750; that's a difference of one or two questions. In fact, unless you need a high SAT to pull up an otherwise lackluster application, you don't need higher than a 700 in any section.
- Your daughter should take a 'diagnostic' test in real testing conditions as soon as possible. Most major prep companies offer these, often cheap or free. Make sure it's a full test held on a Saturday morning, so it's really imitating the experience. Depending on her score, you and she can talk about a prep course or independent study. She may be disappointed with her score, and decide she needs a course, or you may be impressed with her score and decide she's fine on her own.
- Talk with your daughter about what schools she's interested in, then look up those schools' average SAT score. Keep in mind that as an average, these are scores she'll want to aim to beat, unless she has something awesome going for her, like she's a concert-violinist Eskimo. This discussion can help you both figure out what kind of score improvement, if any, she needs to acheive.
- Even if she gets a perfect score right out of the box, she still needs to practice the types of questions and take a few more timed diagnostics. She can't just relax and figure it will happen again. I've seen students start out with an 800 in a section and then slip 100 points just because they stop taking it seriously.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 11:05 AM on February 7, 2007

Like many have said above, the two main things they taught in the prep course I went to were test-taking strategies and skill refreshers for stuff we might have forgotten. I already had plenty of good test-taking strategies, and I was good enough at studying independently that I didn't need their refreshers. As frustrating as it was to waste my time at a prep course that I didn't actually need (after the first half hour I worked on my own vocabulary study since I was forced to stay in the room), I got a huge benefit out of being there - I realized that I really was ready for the test. It helped cut down on test-day jitters a lot, and I came out with a great score. A practice test taken at home may have the same effect for less money, but don't underestimate the importance of confidence. You don't just want her to be prepared, you want her to know without a doubt that she's prepared.
posted by vytae at 11:21 AM on February 7, 2007

(So I guess my advice would be to let her use whatever strategy she feels will work best for her, but definitely do some practice tests early-on to make sure she knows where she stands.)
posted by vytae at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2007

Buy the book, and have her take a diagnostic. If she scores lower thian she needs to get in where she wants to go, then either go through the book or take the class or both). I got a book, intending to do the exercises, and realized after the diagnostic that it was not going to be useful for me. I did fine on the test. (And taught a prep class the following year, which was painfully boring for both me and the students.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:28 AM on February 7, 2007

StV's point about figuring out a target score (based off the school[s] she most wants to get into) is a really good one.

Also, I found Up Your Score to be a helpful (and funny!) book. Far better than the dry, telephone-book-paper prep books. In fact, years after I took the SAT (I took it in '96), I would still pull it off the shelf and flip through it.
posted by Alt F4 at 12:04 PM on February 7, 2007

Datapoint(s): I took a Kaplan course before my SATs. I judged it completely useless at the time, and I stand by that statement.

I agree with the trend here that these courses are primarily for moderate-level test takers, but I also suspect that long familiarity with the standardized test procedure and material is important. In public schools we started with the CATs in fourth grade or so, so that style of test wasn't new to me, and my english teacher in high school used SAT-II questions regularly so neither was the material.

My friend scored a 1560 (when that was good) with no courses, only massive amounts of practice.
posted by Skorgu at 12:06 PM on February 7, 2007

I took a prep class that focused exclusively on building vocabulary known to come up frequently on the verbal section. This helped me quite a bit, and taking part in the various class activities helped me retain many more specifics than just reading the words in a book (I was much more mathematically inclined).

However, for general test-taking tips and for getting ready for the math sections, a simple prep book worked just fine.

Before doing any prep at all, I was testing at around a 1300 combined. After the vocab class and prep book, I got around a 1500 combined (back when this was good).

This was certainly worth my parents' money and my effort.
posted by adamk at 12:37 PM on February 7, 2007

There is a difference in the kind of things they teach you in the different courses. Princeton Review, which I took many years ago, was more about teaching the tricks that made completing the test in the given time easier - the test itself isn't particularly hard if you're intelligent and you have unlimited time. The problem is that you don't have unlimited time, so those shortcuts can really help.

My impression of Kaplan was that they were trying to teach the core concepts that the tests cover, but that's second-hand and old information, so may no longer be an accurate classification, if it ever was.

My point is that you should look at what the test prep classes are teaching and what their objectives are - they're not all equal.
posted by Caviar at 12:37 PM on February 7, 2007

Best answer: I taught a SAT prep course on the math side a few uears back using the Kaplan book as a guide. Here's what I found to be most useful for prepping:

1. Learning how to classify the questions. There are a small number of question categories and if you can recognize the type, you can apply a specific technique for solving it.
2. Learning to spot traps. In addition to question categories, there are also trap categories. If you can spot the trap categories, you can learn to work with them.
3. Learning when to punt and when to guess.
4. Learning when using a calculator is a liability. Yes, you can use a calculator, but it turns out that for nearly every problem that looks like a calculator problem, there is another faster, less error-prone way to solve.
5. Having an experienced mentor help find and learn from mistakes.

All that said, I saw consistent improvement from the students who cared and most of that came from practice, practice, practice, and reflection, reflection, reflection.

As an adult, with more refined learning skills, I found that I could routinely score between 760 and 800 in half the alotted time, using no higher math and no calculator, while using a good chunk of the time to write notes on how I chose to solve the problem and other possible approaches.

Now, what you might want to do is show your daughter this thread and let her decide what she thinks is best at this point. Open options up to her and make a decision together.

Because I'm a geek, I routinely build color-coded spreadsheets that showed me for any given question, how many students got it right, wrong, or left it blank. This was a great tool that I often shared with them (with no names) so they could see that my desire to go over particular questions wasn't just blowing smoke up their asses. I also required the students to present teach the class how to do the problems correctly. I did this by making the requirement that no student could present a question that they got right. Instead, I grouped the students in threes and carefully selected questions so that they was always a correct solution in each group for a given problem. The learning that happened was that someone who got the problem right had their learning reinforced by having to articulate it, and those who got it wrong had to take that in and be able to present it to everyone else.

So why this long paragraph on teaching technique and process? Simply to illustrate what you can get beyond the books in a well-run course. Most of those things don't work well with solo-learning.
posted by plinth at 1:06 PM on February 7, 2007

Best answer: I teach for Kaplan, although I haven't taught SAT in a few years (since the test change), now I mostly teach for the graduate level exams.

Call your local center and they'll let your kid take a practice test for free. That'll let you know where her base test score is. If it is pretty good, don't worry about the book.

I would encourage, if you have the cash, to do a class and if you have more cash, to do tutoring. Then your kid can learn the strategies to make the test less stressful and to score more points. That's the whole point of test prep rather than learning from books.
posted by k8t at 1:09 PM on February 7, 2007

PS, memorizing vocab doesn't matter on the new test.
posted by k8t at 1:10 PM on February 7, 2007

When my son (who is a college Freshman) took his first SAT it was the first time the new one was given. He did ok, took the Kaplan course and then took the SAT 2 more times. As far as I know, students are able to take the highest score for each section as their final score that gets sent to colleges. He scored better in all of the sections than the first time. Part of what helped him in taking the course was that they were given a sample test at the end of every week of the course, and then they spent the next week going over what they did right and wrong, before taking the test again. He took what was supposed to be a group class, but there was only him and one other kid taking it, so it was basically private.
posted by i_like_camels at 1:32 PM on February 7, 2007

Princeton Review worked for me. My previous PSAT scores were NMS finalist grade and it raised them by exactly 100 points on top of that (140 using the 'best of math + best of verbal' method). Boring & tedious, but it worked.
posted by datacenter refugee at 2:00 PM on February 7, 2007

I think your daughter is old enough to make this decision for herself. She knows what kind of school she wants to get into and what she wants to study and she is as capable as you are of learning what is expected of her on the test. This is her college experience, so let her be in charge of it.

FWIW, I took the SAT many years ago without a prep course and did well enough to get into my first choice school. But back then, at least at my lower/middle class high school, no one took the prep course. Later I took the LSAT without a prep course, although I did order the materials and study them and I scored quite high.
posted by BluGnu at 2:05 PM on February 7, 2007

I largely agree with the previous comments - if your daughter is a naturally good test-taker, let her prepare on her own; if not, you might want to encourage her to reconsider and at least give one of the classes a try.

If I may give some additional advice: if she does decide to prepare on her own, get the book "10 Real SAT's" published by the College Board. I am 4 years removed from the SAT process, but when I took it I raised my score from a 1390 to 1600, and this book was the only thing that really helped. The other guidebooks don't use practice tests with real former test questions, and their practice tests - the most important part of the test prep process - often aren't realistic. Have her sit down by herself, take a practice test exactly as it will be administered, then look over the questions she missed. Repeat. This will not help with the new writing segment, about which I know nothing, but I guarantee it will do more than anything else she can do to improve her math and reading scores.
posted by btkuhn at 2:29 PM on February 7, 2007

Response by poster: All of these comments have been INCREDIBLY helpful. In truth, I want to mark all of them as "best".

My daughter is a very good test taker, and my instinct has been let her prepare for the SAT with our guidance (making sure she takes the tests, going over the questions and answers with her on occasion). I think that k8t's suggestion to have her take a timed test at a center and then see her score is a great one - then we will all know what we are dealing with.

Thanks again for all of the thoughtful answers, and if anyone has further insight, I would love to read about it.
posted by Flakypastry at 3:52 PM on February 7, 2007

I found one-on-one tutoring useful and it was the same price as a prep class. I definitely felt it aided in my understanding of the test and ability to take it. I scored in the mid-1300's without test prep and a 1490 after (on the 1600 scale, in 1999 or so). Having a tutor is great because they get to know you individually and can tailor it to your ability/style. I went through ScorePrep.
posted by radioamy at 4:07 PM on February 7, 2007

Just wanted to say how helpful this thread is; I'm set to take the SAT for real in March. My verbal has never been below 780 on the PSAT/SAT, but my math is not as strong. One thing some people haven't mentioned is that the writing section isn't just the essay, it's also editing/grammar. Learning the categories for these questions can make them really easy. Every test has, for instance, a subject-verb agreement question. Recognizing these sort of patterns make the writing section very easy.
posted by MadamM at 6:15 PM on February 7, 2007

I've been teaching SAT prep for 5 years in Korea for an international brand (and for almost 10, off and on, independently). I don't teach math anymore, just Critical Reading and Writing.

I can't agree that test prep is better for students in the 450-500 range. I find that I get the best results with students in the high 600's range.

With the new test format, the best use of SAT prep is the essay and grammar sections.

The essay requires a very specific sort of style, one not used in school, and one that can be very easily taught to bright students. This, unfortunately, requires a pretty on-the-ball teacher, which not every SAT prep teacher is.

The grammar is limited to certain areas of knowledge, and can be rapidly improved through exposure to question sets and explanations of the key concepts (clause rules being a prime example, but also the nuances of pronoun ambiguity, etc.).

In my line of work, the one thing I feel bad about is that my course totally works - but it's only available to people with money. If it didn't always work, I wouldn't care about that, but it does. It always works. Every time. 100% of my students have shown significant improvement, most dramatically in the essay section.

I recommend enrolling her in some course or with a tutor, but shop carefully.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:39 PM on February 7, 2007

(for the record: I recently had a class in which everyone was in the 18-1900 range, and they all got up over 2100 on their last practice test, 3 even exceeded 2300).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:39 PM on February 7, 2007

I don't think anyone's mentioned that if your daughter isn't convinced she needs a prep course, she probably won't get much out of it. I know how I would have felt having to go to an extra class in high school that I didn't think was necessary...

I don't think any of my friends took prep courses in high school and we all got into pretty much the schools we wanted to go to. I mean, a clever 13-year-old can ace most of the SAT. If she reads a prep book and everything looks familiar, I think she ought to be okay.
posted by crinklebat at 10:26 PM on February 7, 2007

I took the SAT many years ago without a prep course and did well enough to get into my first choice school.

One last thought... keep in mind that SAT scores aren't everything to the admissions board. You can have a perfect SAT score and still get put on the waiting list for your first choice school (I know from experience). If the time spent on a prep course is going to limit your daughter's other impressive-to-admissions-board activities (extracurriculars, volunteer work, life experience), it might be a bad tradeoff.
posted by vytae at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2007

Check and see if her school subscribes to the Official SAT Online Course. If not, you might want to look into subscribing to it, since it's actually a product provided by the test maker.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 8:04 AM on February 10, 2007

if she is an honor student, I am sure she will do fine on the SAT. I would however recommend you take the PSAT, and try to enroll her into a tutor...
posted by hudsonvalley5 at 7:32 PM on February 14, 2007

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