For teenagers finishing up the last few weeks of high school, summer beckons with promises of lazy afternoons, weekend beach trips, and tests.
For many students planning to apply to college this fall, prepping for the SAT test is as integral a part of summer as sunscreen and flip-flops. With colleges becoming increasingly selective – this year was one of the most competitive yet, with admission rates falling to record lows for top schools like Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke – the pressure is on high school seniors to boost their SAT scores.
But does prepping for the SAT really work? And if it does, what's the best way to get ready: a free sample test or a classroom prep course that can run more than $1,000?
There certainly are plenty of options:
•The College Board, which administers the SAT college admissions test, offers a free sample test online, as well as a test prep book retailing at $22 and an online course that costs $70.
•Other test prep books can set you back less than $20 at your local bookstore, including books by test prep heavyweights Kaplan and Princeton Reviews and smaller publishers, like The American Book Company, a textbook and software company.
•You can invest $40 in a test prep board game from the folks that bring you the “For Dummies” series: SAT Game For Dummies. The box asserts that “studying doesn’t have to be boring!” and includes 500 question cards, a one-minute timer to simulate test pressure, and even a mini diploma.
•Nearly 70 percent of public highs schools across the country also offer some kind of SAT test prep, including online study-guides and classroom programs, according to a 2008 survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). About half of those programs charge some fee.
•Then there are the two powerhouses in SAT test prep courses, which promise big results and hefty price tags.
The Princeton Review, which also offers test prep for medical and law admissions tests, offers it’s summer Ultimate Classroom prep package, which includes 14 sessions, 30 hours of instruction, and four sample tests. In Boston, it costs $1,099.
If that’s too rich for your blood, you can opt for the Princeton Review’s summer classroom package, which includes 18 hours of instruction divided into 10 sessions and four practice tests at a cost of $599.
Kaplan offers a similar package at a slightly lower price. Its Complete SAT prep course – its most popular course – includes 10 sessions and four practice tests for $499, either in-classroom or online. The company’s College Prep Advantage course runs about $1,000, and includes the SAT prep course as well as PSAT prep and college admissions counseling.
Both Princeton Review and Kaplan offer private and small group tutoring, which can cost several thousand dollars for multiweek sessions. The two companies also offer a guarantee that you’ll score higher on the SAT after their course or get your money back.
But for an investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars, how much higher can you expect to score?
Not as high as you might hope. The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus announced May 12 that the Princeton Review would stop using certain ads claiming improvements in scores, such as a 225-point jump in SAT scores for users of its Ultimate Classroom course. Rival Kaplan had challenged the claim.
Research suggests that SAT test prep courses actually do little to boost scores. A NACAC study from 2008 found that test scores increased only 20 to 30 points after a test-prep program.
“The best way to get ready for the SAT is to do well in school, take challenging courses, study hard, and read as much as possible,” wrote College Board spokeswoman Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, in an email. “There are no ‘tricks’ or ‘shortcuts’ to preparing for the SAT.”
Many counselors de-emphasize the importance of SAT scores.
“Academic performance is the most important thing in the college admissions process, ” said Jim Jump, a longtime college admissions counselor and president of NACAC.
“I think a lot of families use test prep as an insurance policy,” said Mr. Jump. “They don’t want to not do something that could help them.”