Among standardized tests, few exams hold the same weight as the SAT. The role of the SAT in the college admissions landscape is only rivaled by the ACT, a popular competitor. Even in an era when more colleges are going test-optional, these exams weigh heavily on the minds of students who hope a high score will open the doors to their dream schools.
“Let’s say your classmate has similar extracurriculars, similar grades and letters of recommendation, but one has a test score and the other doesn’t,” says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company. “Who is going to get in? The student who has the stronger test score. It’s less of a risk for the colleges.” With SAT testing running from October through June, test prep is underway for thousands of students who are studying to achieve their best possible result. How students prepare for the SAT varies, thanks to an abundance of available options. Families have access to free resources and a robust marketplace of paid test prep options.
Different Types of SAT Prep Courses
Like the SAT itself, homework is required to find the best test prep solution for an individual student.
SAT prep offerings tend to come in three formats: group classes, individual tutoring and virtual courses. All should offer a content review of what’s on the exam as well as test-taking strategies.
Group classes may work best for students who are looking for a general framework and test-taking strategies. This can be a good launching point for motivated students, while others may need one-on-one tutoring.
“It’s just like a fitness program,” says Laurel Hanson, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “If you have students doing it alongside you, you can keep each other accountable. You can have study sessions and tell each other about what’s successful or what you’re struggling with. Just make sure everyone in your study group is serious about it.”
Some families aren’t content with one option, choosing instead to mix and match their test prep approach. And then there are virtual options that come in different models, with some self-guided and others led by online tutors.
Ultimately, while experts say paid options are convenient, families shouldn’t stress if they’re financially out of reach. Research on the topic is mixed, but two University of Minnesota–Twin Cities professors argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2018 that test prep courses rarely yield the large gains that are often promised by commercial providers.
Free SAT Test Prep Options
The College Board, which created and administers the SAT, partners with online learning site Khan Academy to provide free practice materials
to test-takers. Students can link their College Board account with Khan Academy to get diagnostic practice based on their PSAT score. They can create a practice schedule, then choose from a wide array of practice questions, mini practice tests, tips and strategies from their dashboard.
According to the College Board, it’s this free option that most students turn to when getting ready for the SAT.
Students and families looking for live tutoring can turn to Schoolhouse.world
, a sister nonprofit of Khan Academy. Students can get live online help from tutors or participate in group classes to practice SAT test questions.
“Just as Khan Academy can give you that free, at-your-own-pace SAT prep, schoolhouse.world now runs one-month long boot camps that are eight sessions twice a week in conjunction with the College Board,” says Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. “And this is with a real tutor and a real group of people while preparing for the SAT.”
Test Prep Companies
Many for-profit companies offer some free SAT prep resources in addition to their fee-based options. Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring, for example, offers free practice tests, as well as resources on understanding SAT scores and creating SAT day checklists. Kaplan Test Prep offers a free practice test with score analysis and a “question of the day” service, which delivers one SAT practice question to your email inbox each day. Magoosh, an online test preparation company based in California, maintains a blog where experts write articles on test-specific content, updates about the test landscape and study tips. Students can also visit Magoosh’s YouTube channel where they’ll find videos with tips, study advice and experts working through problems and questions that are similar to what’s on the test.
Paid SAT Test Prep Options
The popularity of Khan Academy and other online tools aside, commercial SAT prep options are widely available. They’re offered in groups, individually and virtually, and at varying price points.
But before families pay for test prep — which can easily cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars for intensive high-end packages — they should determine whether it’s necessary, how it can benefit their student and the ultimate goal, experts say.
Here’s a sampling of available commercial options:
Applerouth’s online self-prep program is its cheapest option at $199 for a full year of access. It includes animated videos, practice lessons, four practice tests and more, according to its website. Small group tutoring classes, which are available both online and in person, start at $999 and can accommodate up to eight students.
The most expensive option is individual private tutoring, also offered in person or online, which starts at $1,500.
Kaplan Test Prep
Kaplan’s paid services range from around $20 for study books to $1,999 for its unlimited prep course. The books cover much of the same content as the courses, Hanson says, but require more self-motivation and discipline to complete.
The on-demand course costs $199 and includes bite-sized lessons on specific concepts, like exponents or comma structure. The live online class costs $699 and is designed for students who want a synchronous class with other students. The unlimited prep course allows students to take unlimited Advanced Placement, PSAT, SAT and ACT classes (in person or online) through their senior year of high school. Some students sign up for this as freshmen and start with AP and PSAT prep classes, Hanson says.
Kaplan offers a free trial for its paid options.
Magoosh offers two courses: a self-paced route priced at $129 for a 12-month subscription and a guided study option with live classes that costs $399 for a 12-month subscription. The self-paced option offers over a thousand practice questions with video and text explanations, up to three practice tests and more than 200 video lessons.
“We recommend if someone is doing concerted study, they have a timeline, they have a score goal, they’re trying to improve their score by a certain amount, or maybe they haven’t had success with self-study, that they might want to try one of our paid options,” says Erika Tyler-John, senior education manager at Magoosh.
The Princeton Review
The Princeton Review offers a variety of services, from private tutoring at $150 per hour to online and in-person classes, which vary in cost. The most popular option is the $1,999 SAT 1400+ course, which gives students “36 hours or more of in-person or live classroom instruction” and 24/7 access to tutors, according to the website.
The company also offers a money-back guarantee for certain plans if students don’t reach a particular score.
Regardless of the provider, and whether students choose a free or paid route, it ultimately won’t work unless the student is committed, says Rim, whose company also offers private SAT tutoring.
“A tutor can kind of watch you do the work and babysit you a little bit,” he says. “But at the end of the day, you need to do the work.”
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Update 11/10/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.