The Truth About SAT and ACT Prep Courses

Just how helpful are ACT and SAT prep courses, really? Find out here, plus learn how COVID-19 is changing upcoming test dates and college admission policies

College admission is more competitive each and every year. Colleges and universities weigh GPA; admission officers look at extracurricular activities like clubs, volunteer hours, sports, and student committees; and at times, it seems like getting into your top school is more of a lottery pick than a calculable equation. However, one measurement sticks out in the minds of parents and students alike during the college application process: SAT and ACT scores.

How much importance should actually be placed on these two statistics? And to what extent should you be preparing for these exams? Many colleges have implemented test-optional policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ACT and SAT are both pushing back test dates to accommodate health restrictions. So how should that factor into your test prep plans?

Prep courses aren’t cheap, and it’s important for you to know exactly how they can help (or hurt) you during the college admission process, plus how to weigh their value against current changes in the application process. Here are the potential benefits and drawbacks of test prep courses along with advice on navigating the college application process amid current coronavirus concerns.

The benefits of test prep courses

Prep courses actually work

Test prep courses work, and it’s practically inarguable. Practice leads to improvement, and it’s no different for SAT and ACT test prep. In fact, the ACT conducted a study comparing test scores before and after students took test prep classes. The study was intended to see if race, gender, or socioeconomic status had any impact on the effectiveness of test preparation on test scores. The findings? All students who engaged in test prep improved, regardless of their backgrounds.

The claim that test preparation will improve your SAT and ACT test scores isn’t unfounded. By drilling practice problems and test-taking strategies, test prep programs will raise your score, at least by a few points. This is one of the most attractive assertions made by test prep organizers and something that makes test prep look very valuable.

Related: 3 Things to Consider About Standardized Test Prep Services

Students learn test-taking strategies

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are more than just exams. Look at them like obstacle courses—it’s not only about what you know but how prepared you are to jump the test’s hurdles. How are your time management skills? What do you do if you don’t know an answer? What’s the quickest and most efficient way to breeze through a reading comprehension excerpt? These are all things test prep courses provide the answers to so you can practice and prepare efficiently.

Even more than improving test scores, test-taking strategies are one of the most valuable things SAT and ACT prep courses can teach you. These skills will prove invaluable later in life for students earning certifications or additional degrees. These strategies also help you prioritize and organize your thoughts, which is a skill that goes beyond any test.

The downsides of test prep courses

Test prep can only help so much

While test prep courses will improve your SAT or ACT score, the improvements are often minimal. Most statistics claiming highly increased scores are carried out by tutoring agencies looking to improve their reputations and lure in clients. Many of those results are overstated and promise to increase test scores by hundreds of points. The more likely outcome for improvement is closer to 30 additional points on the SAT and one to two points on the ACT.

If you’re on the edge of a bracket, a test prep course may be worth it. But if you’re comfortably in the middle percentile, don’t bank on a test prep program getting you a perfect score.

Test prep is expensive

There’s no getting around this; if you’ve already started your test prep research, you’ve likely found that personal sessions can cost upward of $200 an hour. Even enrolling in an online or group course can set you or your parents back $100 a meeting. This isn’t affordable for a lot of people, and the minimal effect on your performance might not be worth it for you and your family.

Related: Why Is SAT Prep So Expensive?

You may get stressed with over-preparation

Even outside of academic stressors, high schoolers have a lot to deal with. If test-taking isn’t your strong suit, why focus on it? Colleges look at more than SAT and ACT scores in their admission evaluations, and placing too much emphasis on test scores will likely lead to anxiety. Not only will this make preparing harder, but it might also weaken your performance and lead to lasting negative effects. You already have enough on your plate trying to manage normal schoolwork with your social and family life, so it may be best to focus your efforts on more basic measures of success—like your GPA and extracurricular involvement—than a single test.

The effects of COVID-19 on standardized tests

You know ACT and SAT test prep courses are often expensive but that they may be right for you depending on your test-taking skills and practice test scores…but what should be done about it right now? With the coronavirus pandemic changing college-related policies every day, how important is it for you to be focused on your test prep? Here’s the role test scores play usually play in college admission and how that’s changing due to current circumstances.

The role of standardized tests

It turns out that test scores aren’t even close to the most important thing in a student’s college application. This has been true for a long time. College admission officers from prestigious universities have admitted for years that long-term grade performance, extracurricular activities, and application essays are much better indicators of a student’s potential.

With this in mind, don’t be too worried if your standardized test has been cancelled or pushed back. Focus on showcasing your talents through activities outside of school as well as improving or maintaining your grades, especially if you’ve transitioned to online learning.

Related: What Is More Important: Your GPA or SAT Scores?

Here’s what’s changing

With current health restrictions not allowing large gatherings of people, many ACT and SAT tests are being cancelled or pushed back. AP exams are also being moved online, and test results are still being accepted for college credit.

You might be worried that you won’t be able to apply for certain colleges if you can’t take the SAT or ACT, but you shouldn’t be! Colleges have proved to be incredibly understanding of current global conditions, and most schools are moving to a test-optional application policy. Many schools have already implemented test-optional policies before now, and there’s a chance schools implementing them in light of the situation will see the value in it and maintain this policy even after the coronavirus dies down.

For any schools of interest that you may be worried about, check their websites to find more information about their current testing policies.

Test prep in a changing world

There’s no denying the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact across the globe, and college admission may be permanently changed from it. The SAT and ACT may not be as important in the future as they are now, and test prep may not be as valuable. For now, focus on your strengths. If you’re a good test taker, it may be smart to enroll in an online course to polish your skills. Otherwise, this could be an excellent opportunity to let your other talents shine through in the admission process and give yourself a bit of a break.

Eric M. Earle is the founder of Tutor Portland.

If you’re still planning to take the SAT or ACT in the future, you can find more advice in our Test Prep section.

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