Exploring SAT/ACT study method options


Students see preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT as a staple of one’s high school experience. Colleges use these exam scores and a student’s grade point average to help determine whether or not to accept them. For this reason, educators advise students not to put all of their eggs in one basket when it comes to applying for colleges with a not-so-great SAT/ACT score. “If we’re talking about Harvard or Stanford, they’re going to want a 1500+ on your SAT and a 35+ on your ACT. If you know that that’s the score you need to get, and you don’t get that, then you should probably apply to other schools… Open the door of opportunity and apply to multiple schools. Don’t just isolate yourself to one or two particular schools.” Mai Jumamil, Director of College Prep Programs at Kaplan Test Prep, said.

Erin Grier, Reporter, Photgorapher

To gauge how much material students learn in high school, colleges require them to take the SAT or the ACT before submitting an application. Offered seven times a year, these infamous standardized tests cover reading, writing, math, and science. The daunting SAT/ACT preparation process usually begins in sophomore or junior year—parents and teachers constantly remind students about the test’s importance as it pertains to their future. As the pressure builds and tests day approaches, students struggle with figuring out exactly how to prepare for an exam that determines whether or not they will attend the college of their choice.

Students who seek one-on-one help within a specific subject area may consider finding a tutor or SAT prep coach to work with them in the weeks leading up to their test. Schools may offer programs like this for free, while education companies and corporations, such as Kaplan, charge up to $2,000 for private tutoring. The frequency of tutoring/ coaching sessions will depend on the student’s extracurricular activities, when they will take the test, and how many points they need to raise their score. A student with six months to prepare for their test may schedule sessions once a week or every other week until test day, whereas a student with only one month to prepare may meet with their tutor twice a week. The freedom to customize one’s study plan makes this option appealing, but students may find it challenging to find a qualified, yet cost-effective, tutor.

“These are tests where you have to think critically and know how to problem solve. [They are] not going to be the type of tests where you can just plug in [the numbers] and solve, or memorize something and do well on it, as you can do in your classes. On these tests, you really have to learn how to think for yourself, so you want someone that’s not going to do the thinking for you. You want to work with a test prep coach that’s going to help you learn how to think for yourself,” Jennifer Williams, Team Manager at MathSP, an academic and test prep coaching service based in Atlanta GA, said.

Priciness aside, private tutoring provides personalized help to students who need an instructor’s undivided attention.

Self-aware students who know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and like to study at their own pace may benefit from purchasing an official SAT/ACT study book to study on their own. This option allows the student to study for as long as they like each day and take practice tests within the book. SAT and ACT study guide books cost around $18-$25.

Students can also study on their own using online resources like Khan Academy, which boasts an extensive catalog of practice exams and video tutorials for free, while Kaplan’s Self-Paced SAT prep course includes online quizzes and 40 hours of recorded instruction, starting at $300. According to a report released by the College Board in 2018, students who spent 20 hours completing Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy raised their score by an average of 115 points between the PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT.

Studying by oneself requires utmost focus and self-discipline—with a tutor or a class, one cannot become as easily distracted as one can while studying online or with a book—but it comes with a higher level of flexibility than other exam study methods.

“In the areas where you struggle, you tend to stray away and you’re like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and you kind of need someone to motivate you again. If you’re the type of person who’s self-motivated, then [Self-Paced SAT prep] would be great. But if you’re the type of person who may need more structure and the dynamics that live instruction brings, then you’re most likely going to need a live classroom course,” Mai Jumamil, Director of College Prep Programs at Kaplan Test Prep, said.

An SAT/ACT prep class will appease students who prefer a traditional classroom setting and want to learn test-taking strategies, as well as how to use their calculator effectively on test day. These classes can cost anywhere from $75 to $1,000 dollars. They offer limited flexibility, seeing as they usually take place weekly or biweekly. The Princeton Review, a college admission services company, promises “maximum results” in “minimum time” through their SAT 1400+ prep course—if students who come in with an 1160 or higher do not score a 1400 or higher after taking the course, they will receive a refund.

“Many students prefer a classroom with a teacher because that’s what they’re used to, and it helps them stay focused,” Jumamil said.

Arguably the most popular SAT-prep method among students, prep classes, despite their lack of one-on-one attention and expensiveness, allow students to study the exam’s content in a structured environment. Additionally, the score-raising gimmicks do not automatically guarantee one will receive a better score—an improved score all comes down to one’s test-taking ability on test day.  

“Our number one goal is to help you learn to [solve problems] on your own because you have to take the test on your own,” Williams said.

For the 2.1 million students who took the SAT last year (and the 1.91 million who took the ACT), it measured how well they remembered the various vocabulary words, mathematical formulas, and laws of science learned throughout high school. Finding the right study method, making a plan, and putting in effort contributes to one’s score, but ultimately, your future depends on you, not your score.