One of the biggest questions students and parents have is whether SAT prep courses, classes, and tutors will make a real difference in the long run. This question is critical because SAT prep can be quite expensive and time consuming. Furthermore, there are dozens of companies and individuals each advertising their class and their methods. How is it possible to know which ones can really help and which ones are just to make some easy money?
Can SAT Prep Help a Student Improve Their Score?
The short answer is that yes, under the right conditions and with the right program, SAT prep can absolutely help a student get a better score.
However no matter what class or program you choose, the single most important factor that determines your success is how much work you put in. A good tutor can help you improve faster and can assist you to make a strong study schedule. What they cannot do is replace the need to actually study.
There are three big things that a SAT tutor or prep course can help you on:
1. Fundamental Content
There are certain fundamentals about grammar, math, and reading comprehension that are minimum necessities to know in order to get a good SAT score. Without knowing them you will do quite poorly. No amount of tricks and techniques can get you past them.
A good SAT tutor can teach these fundamentals. The average student has learned some, but not all of these in high school. A tutor can review the content a student does know and teach them anything they have not learned yet. This is particularly important for Section 2, Writing and Language, which focuses on a small number of very specific rules which may be different from those emphasized in High School English Classes.
Fundamentals are most important for beginners at the SAT. Strengthening these can help a student get a score of about 600 in each of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math Sections.
2. Test Taking Strategy
The SAT (and most other standardized tests) are not just a list of random questions. It's also not an intelligence or IQ test. At its core, the SAT is a test of certain test taking skills. The skills can be learned and improved. This is why strategy is absolutely critical for doing well on the SAT.
Test taking strategy is also what distinguishes strong experienced SAT tutors from beginners. Any SAT prep course or tutoring class that does not spend sufficient time on strategy is not worth it.
There is not a single strategy or method that works for 100% of students. Rather there are many different techniques. By working with a student, a good tutor can help them find the particular strategies that work best for them.
Although some elements of test taking strategy should be emphasized from the beginning, it is most useful for intermediate and advanced SAT students. Proper application of strategy can help a student improve from getting 600 in each section to elite scores above 750.
3. Time Management and Accountability
Some students tell themselves for months or even years that they will start studying for the SAT, but never end up doing so. And it's not just out of laziness or procrastination. It's difficult to start something new when you are in the middle of AP Classes, extracurricular activities, and spending time with friends.
This is where a tutor can work wonders. A tutor will hold you accountable. When you have SAT homework due on a specific day at a specific time, it pushes you to make time for SAT practice. Good SAT tutors can go one step further and help you make schedule to manage your time to squeeze SAT into your busy schedule.
How Can You Pick A Good SAT Prep Course or Tutor?
While a good SAT Prep Course or tutor can really help you improve your score, not every course and tutor will do so. Here are some things to consider when making your choice:
1. Source of Material
Always ask where an SAT tutor gets their material from. The SAT is a very specific test with very distinct patterns. It is important that the practice tests and material that are used to study mirror these pattern. This is why the best study material are the 8 free released tests from the College Board themselves.
Be very, very careful of courses and prep books that make their own tests. The vast majority of these books ask questions that will not help you with the SAT. Some of them cover math concepts that will not be tested, or give reading comprehension tests completely different from the sort the actual test will have. The vast majority of your time should be spent using Official College Board material.
2. Level of Experience
How much experience does the instructor of the course have? Just because someone recently got a high score on the SAT themselves, was accepted in a high ranked school, or has a graduate degree does not mean that they are a good teacher.
It's not unheard of for individuals that never took the SAT in their lives to charge students thousands of dollars for tutoring. This is particularly the case for the math section, where people that never went through the US school system still teach SAT because it is a 'hot subject'. This is not to question their math skills, which may be quite strong. But being good at SAT Math is different than just being good at Math. Tutors need to be very familiar with the broader theoretical foundation of the test, which goes beyond math.
The best instructors not only have taken the test, but also have spent years studying and teaching standardized testing. This makes them familiar with the unique patterns the SAT follows.
3. Level of Individual Attention
Each student has their own individual strengths and weaknesses. The problem with many of the SAT prep courses from large, well established companies is that they pack together as many students as they can fit in a classroom with only one or two instructors. Even if they have the best content in the world, this is a bad idea because it will not address each student's individual needs.
The best group classes combine 'lectures' going over general content with one on one time with the instructor. For online courses, it is important that the course is not exclusively a series of prerecorded videos and there is some sort of opportunity to talk with a real human being. And for one on one tutoring, it is important that the tutor is not just following a rigid predefined plan, but is willing to adjust the focus of each class for each student.
Can You Self Study Without a Tutor?
It is not impossible to self study for the SAT and get a decent score, but in my experience, this requires a level of self discipline and maturity that is not found in all high school students.
If you do want to self study, most of the studying should be done using free released tests from the College Board. Furthermore, do not just take every single test one after another (this is one of the biggest mistakes students make). You need to spend time really analyzing what questions you got wrong, which ones you tend to get correct, and how you will change your approach for future tests.
If this is the path that you want to take, I would strongly recommend having one or two short sessions with a tutor to make a study schedule and find good resources. This will not cost much and will be a worthwhile investment for having a solid plan forward rather than randomly jumping from one path to another.
At the end of the day, whether you want to take a class with Elm Tutors, another company, or self study, the amount of effort that you put in will determine how successful you are. The SAT score you get can have a significant impact on your academic future and is worth making an investment of time and money in good material.
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