Picking the Perfect Prep
College entrance exams are controversial. Some perceive entrance exams as unfair and view test preparation as a waste of precious time. But, while many may debate the ability of entrance exams to predict college success and question the fairness of tests that have been shown to favor those in higher socioeconomic groups, the fact is that most colleges and universities continue to consider SAT and ACT scores as part of the admissions package and there’s not much you can do to change that. So, now what? There's solid evidence that good test preparation does work. A recent national survey revealed that, overall, formal test preparation can result in at least a 30-point increase on the SAT and a one-point increase on the ACT. These increases could mean the difference between acceptance and denial. But how do you know which form of test prep to pick? For almost 25 years, I have been engaged in the process of preparing high school students to take college entrance exams. I started out by offering live-lecture test-preparation courses to rowdy groups of juniors and seniors through community education. After the Internet got up and running, I converted the live-lecture curriculum to a format that was friendly for online users. I have also written books on test preparation (including the new edition of ACT For Dummies, due for a December 2011 release). My experiences have given me insight into which types of training work best for which students. Before I continue, though, let me reveal my bias. I have not found any reason for students (and their parents) to spend thousands of dollars and gobs of class time to prepare for the SAT, ACT, and other entrance exams. Therefore, I’m not a big fan of expensive and lengthy test prep courses. It’s not that they don’t help you; it’s just that you can get the same (or better) preparation by spending less money and logging fewer hours in a classroom. For instance, for the same tuition that many national companies charge for their test prep classes, a student could enjoy one-on-one attention from a local private tutor. Generally, if you're pretty self-disciplined and a relatively good test taker, you can adequately prep with inexpensive books and other self-study tools, like online courses. If you need help in one particular area or if you accomplish more with individualized attention, a one-on-one tutoring schedule or small group prep class would be a better bet for you. Ask you friends or school counselors for recommendations. Regardless of the format you choose, you'll get the most for your money if your prep method includes all of these elements: instruction in how to approach test-taking, including a discussion of how to analyze reading passages and eliminate wrong answer choices; a review of math that includes numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, coordinate geometry, probability, and trigonometry (for the ACT); a review of English usage and punctuation; practice on actual test questions from previous exams with thorough explanations of the answers; and instructors who relate well to students and understand the test-taking process.