SAT and ACT Prep: How to Determine the Best Approach

Millions of American teenagers take either the SAT or ACT each year. It’s a rite of passage that most of us remember well, for better or worse, but standardized testing for high schoolers today is very different than it was for their parents.

The College Board, who administers the SAT, has made big changes recently, including reversing course and saying that test preparation can improve scores. On its website, it says that “[s]tudying for the SAT for 20 hours on free Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy is linked to an average score gain of 115 points. That’s nearly double the average gain among students who did not use Khan Academy.”

The multimillion dollar test prep industry, however, is still thriving, with students (and parents) willing to pay for classes that may result in a better performance.

All this leaves many students and parents wondering just what the best approach to preparing for the SAT and ACT is, and how to choose their own best path. We asked the experts for advice.

Is a standardized test even required?

Before parents and kids dive head first into the world of test prep, Paul Kanarek, COO of Collegewise, the nation’s largest private college consulting firm, suggests that they first determine whether standardized tests are necessary for admission to the schools in which the student is interested.

Hundreds of colleges are now “test-optional,” meaning that they do not require the SAT or ACT as part of a student’s application for admission. You can find a list of those schools, including George Washington University and Wake Forest, at

How much does the test score matter?

“Admissions officers like to downplay standardized tests — suggesting that they are just one piece of the puzzle. But if test scores are required, they matter a whole lot more than the admissions officers like to admit,” says Sara Haberson, a former dean of admissions who is now known as America’s College Counselor and the founder of

Higher test scores not only matter for admissions, but getting that score up can be especially important when it comes to financial assistance, says Kevin Krebs, founder and managing partner of Partners for Achievement, which helps families successfully navigate the college planning and career readiness process. He says increasing scores moderate amounts can sometimes mean up to $30,000 more in merit scholarships.

Does everyone need to prepare for a standardized test? 

“Do you need to study for a history test? Or a bio final?” asks Kanarek. “Standardized testing is the same — you need to prepare.”

Krebs says the vast majority of students do prepare. It’s not a secret. Admissions officers generally assume that “almost every kid was doing some form of test preparation,” according to Haberson.

Just because a teen does well in school does not mean that they wouldn’t benefit from preparing for the tests. “Even with strong students, sometime they’re surprised at how different an experience the test is and they struggle with the actual questions on the exam,” says Kate Mitsakis, SAT and ACT programs manager, Kaplan Test Prep. She notes that while the tests are based on material covered in school, seeing all the material in one test that lasts far longer than a typical class period, when added to the time pressure to answer so many different kinds of questions, can be a lot for anyone.

In addition, while the tests cover academic skills ostensibly learned through eleventh grade, “preparing for the SAT or ACT is an opportunity to fill in gaps in the students’ learning history,” says Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D. and founder of Academic Approach, which offers one-on-one tutoring aimed both at preparing for standardized tests and improving classroom skills.

When should students begin preparing?

First, students need to select which test they will take — the SAT or ACT.

“The structure and content of the tests are different,” says Krebs. For example, the ACT includes more science whereas the SAT has more math. They also have different approaches to accommodating learning differences.

The experts advise against preparing for both the SAT and the ACT at the same time and instead recommend that students take a practice test, typically the summer before junior year, identify which one is best suited to them. Then, focus solely on prepping for that test.

Next, they need to look at when the test they want to take is offered and from there they can work backward to create a calendar. Then, move to evaluating the different test prep options.

What are the different test prep options?

One is self-directed test prep, which requires the most focus from the student and is often the cheapest. Khan Academy is generally considered the premier free, online resource. It’s popular. “More than 6 million users have signed up for free Official SAT Practice (“OSP”) since its debut. Surveys show three times as many students use Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy as pay for all of commercial test prep combined,” says Barb Kunz, head of communications at Khan Academy.

Also falling under the self-directed umbrella is the option of purchasing test prep books that include tips, strategies, and practice tests.

Another option is taking a prep class with a live teacher. The class may be held at the same school the student attends, but will be offered by an outside provider. Classes can now be done both in person and online, with Kaplan offering an interactive online class with a live teacher.

Individualized tutoring, with customizable one-on-one instruction, is a third option, but it also comes with the highest price tag.

How does one decide which prep options is best?

When determining a student’s best option for test prep, start by examining what’s available, including those options offered at the student’s school. Kunz says some schools are incorporating the OSP on Khan Academy. “For example, at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy [in Chicago], students set goals around the number of hours they’ll study for the SAT on OSP and their individual SAT score growth goals. The school organized five practice tests to monitor progress toward goals,” she says.

If one’s school doesn’t offer such standardized test prep assistance, and many don’t, there are other factors to weigh in deciding which course to take.

Pietrafetta recommends that families identify the kind of environment in which the child learns best. A highly self-motivated and disciplined student can do very well with Khan Academy. A student who enjoys group social experience may do best in a class with other peers. Students who would benefit from mentoring or perhaps have specific areas of need likely would do well with personalized tutoring, which is also best for students who may be afraid to ask questions in a class.

A student’s motivation also comes into play. The experts agreed that while Khan Academy is a good starting point and lauded that it reduces costs, “it takes an exceptionally organized and motivated student to follow through with self-study,” says Haberson.

Time is also an issue. Mitsakis recommends that a student’s schedule be considered, noting that the online live teacher option that’s available at multiple times is popular in part because of the flexibility it offers busy students.

Kanarek recommends using the students’ scores as a guide and comparing them to the average score at the college they wish to attend. For the SAT, he says self-directed prep works well if the student is within 50 points of the college’s average score for admitted students. If within 100 points, he recommends considering an online class but not spending large amounts of money. If their score is between 101-200 points (or around 3 points on the ACT), then one-on-one preparation may be worth the time and investment.

The family dynamic can also come into play when deciding the best course of action. For some parents, having a neutral third party involved removes potential conflict with a parent trying to help with a math problem they haven’t seen in 30 years or, more likely, trying to motivate their kid. “I have often joked that if adolescents listened to their parents all the time, I would not have a job,” says Pietrafetta.

Cost also comes into play, but there is the possibility of a good return on the investment. “If a student is motivated, I see the best results with an experienced private tutor. And, the price is usually well worth it to the family when they see the results,” says Haberson.

What’s the best way to maximize the benefits of test prep?

The experts all agreed that, regardless of which test prep approach a student selects, commitment is crucial to success and that students will not see benefits if they do not devote time to the preparation process.

Haberson notes that there is no point in spending money on prep if a student does not do the work. “No matter if a student does self-study, takes a class, or has their own private tutor, the only way to see results is to do independent ‘homework’ and practice tests regularly leading up to the actual test,” she says.

“Without question, high school today is significantly harder than it was for their parents’ generation,” says Krebs. “We need to acknowledge that and support our kids. Scheduling is critical. It’s a balancing act to map out a schedule that allows for test prep time but also some down time.”

The idea of putting in the time may stress students out at first, but in the end, as with most things in life, feeling prepared ultimately lessens the stress and pressure.

“After they’ve taken the test and done their best, I tell kids not to worry about it,” Krebs says. “At no point in your life when you’re an adult is someone going to ask you what you scored on your ACT or SAT. Prepare, do your best, and let it go.”


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Shannan YoungerShannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshopto the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.

Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”