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Test Prep Materials: What to Choose

By Peterson's Staff updated on Thursday, April 17, 2014

Now that you've decided to buckle down and get ready for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT, all you have to do is decide how you're going to prepare. Perhaps you think you can keep it all under control by reviewing your notes from the last few years of school, but there are better ways to get it done. A structured test prep book or class will definitely do a better job of familiarizing you with what you need to know.

Whatever you decide to go with, make sure the test preparation method you choose covers current test formats. Several tests have seen recent revisions and there's a chance there are still items out there that won't have the information you need on the new changes.

There are several options to choose from. Decide what fits your style so that you'll stick with it!

Free test prep

Your counseling office, as well as the test agencies themselves, should have brief written materials available for free. Some are pretty good at covering basics like test-taking tips, prep strategies, and practice tests. This is stuff you need to know, but if you have weak areas you need to hone in on, they aren't enough to cover what you need.

You can actually find some great free test prep here at Peterson's, with free practice tests for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT.

Test preparation manuals

Walk into any large bookstore and you'll find an entire section devoted to test prep — it seems like there are books for every kind of test you can think of. Many of them are good, but you should look for manuals that include lessons as well as timed practice tests. Of course, just buying a book won't help a lick if you don't actually use it. Be disciplined!

Test preparation software

The computer age has resulted in interactive test prep technology that's available for just about any computer, and most of the big names in the college-search industry sell decent software. Both the SAT and ACT folks also sell their own materials. Make sure that whatever you invest in, it includes full-length practice tests and detailed explanations of answers.

Just as with books, though, you need to plant yourself in a chair and use the software. Fortunately, if it's interactive, it may hold your interest better.

Online test prep

Rather than bringing home another disc for your desktop clutter, you can register for and participate in a number of test preparation options online, ranging from entire courses and practice tests, to helpful hints and sample questions. Many are free, and many are not. You know the old saying, though — "you get what you pay for." A small investment will likely get you better practice and maybe even better scores. After all, that's what you're shooting for, right?

Many of the online options offer immediate feedback, an analysis of your weak spots, and suggestions on where to focus your study time. Although they can be a little pricey, the beauty of online courses is they combine self-paced study with a structured course. The benefits are usually well worth the investment.

School-based coaching courses
Unlike most commercial courses, classes offered by or at your school are typically inexpensive or cost-free. (You may also be able to sign up for similar classes at adult education programs or community colleges in your area). The quality of these courses can vary, depending on the content and the style and expertise of the teacher. However, it's not unusual for students to see their scores increase by at least 10 to 20 points by attending a class. Ask around and get recommendations on good courses to make sure you find a good one.

There are some in-school classes that are taught by the pros, either with their own trained instructors or by school staff they have trained to teach their certified course. One advantage of this form of test prep is that school districts often pick up the entire tab for these programs or offer them at a significantly reduced cost.

Commercial coaching classes
There are companies that devote a lot of time and effort to test preparation and, as a result, they know their business and understand their market. They stay on top of test changes and know how to keep you alert and engaged, even on a Saturday morning! Of course, this kind of expertise doesn't come cheap.

If you decide to go with a pricey SAT, ACT, or PSAT class, research the options first. Find out what companies are out there and investigate who has the best reputation — some commercial programs are regionally based and others are national. You'll have homework and you'll need to study, but one of the best advantages of these types of courses is they offer practice tests under conditions that better resemble the real thing. Be prepared, though — you should expect to pay $700 to $1,000 (or more) for 30 to 40 hours of instruction.

Private tutoring
You might also consider a private tutor. A guidance counselor or independent educational consultant can probably provide you with the names of reputable local tutors. If you go this route, choose someone who administers an actual test and uses it to zero in on your weak spots. What they offer will be individualized to you and will very likely produce results, but they won't come cheap. Tutoring fees range from $100 to $200 an hour for a 10 to 35 hour program.

Choosing a method
There's a lot to choose from, but what you decide on depends on what you need and what you want — and of course, on what your parents can afford, assuming they're the ones footing the bill! To get the most out of your time and money, make sure that whatever test prep method you decide on has most (if not all) of these elements:

  • A format that's user-friendly and keeps you interested. After all, there's more than one meaning to the old adage "you snooze, you lose."
  • At least one (but preferably two or three — or more) full-length practice tests.
  • Answers to the practice tests as well as explanations of the answers.
  • Descriptions of the test structure and test-taking strategies for each part of the test.
  • Advice on reducing test anxiety and stress.
About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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