Is SAT Test Preparation Necessary?

Stacy Zeiger

When it comes to preparing for the SATs lots of companies want to capitalize on helping students get the highest score possible. They offer money-back guarantees and claim to have effective results, but do they really help? For some students, the money spent on SAT prep is money well spent, but others would benefit most from saving their money and hitting the books at home.

Do You Need SAT Test Prep?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) studied the impact of paid preparation for college admissions tests and its impact on student scores. While the study found that student scores did go up, they went up minimally. For some students, a 10-20 point gain in the math section and a 5-10 point gain in the reading section could prove to be fairly significant, particularly when those students want to get into a high stakes school or just barely miss the cutoff for admission or a major scholarship. However, for most students, that amount of difference in scores may not make much of a difference at all.

Avoid Unofficial Tests

In order to raise their SAT scores, students must also have a previous SAT score. While some companies have students take mock tests throughout the program and compare their scores, parents and students should not rely on these tests. After all, many of the companies design their own mock SAT tests and some have been known to doctor their tests to provide lower scores at the beginning of the program and inflated scores at the end of the program to give students a faulty sense of accomplishment. Students who have time to take the SAT multiple times may do best to take the test once on their own before determining whether they need to seek out a test prep course, system, or book to improve their score.

SAT Prep Courses, Systems, and Books

If you feel you need to prep for the SAT, you have numerous options at your disposal. However, not all options have been created equal. While the NACAC study found that test prep courses and online systems offered the highest gains overall, these options come with a hefty price tag and still only provided modest gains. With every method - courses, test prep systems, and books - some students experience high increases in scores, while others experience no increase at all. Parents and students must look at what each option offers and how it fits in with their overall budget, learning style, and test prep needs.

Prep Courses

Numerous high schools bring in professional companies to offer SAT prep courses for students. If not offered at a high school, many students also have the option of taking these courses on-site at one of the company's classroom locations. Classes may take place in one lengthy session or over a few weeks and focus not only on the specific subject matter covered on the test, but also on the test as a whole, along with general test-taking strategies. Recent studies have shown that while these courses claim significant results, their actual benefit remains unclear.

  • Kaplan Test Prep offers four different SAT prep options, with some priced over $1,000. The company offers a money-back guarantee claiming students will get a higher score or receive their money back, but fails to publish how many students actually ask for their money back.
  • The Princeton Review offers a selection of private tutoring, ultimate courses, and even small-group intensive prep for high-performing student. The company used to claim it could raise scores by 255 points, but dropped that claim in 2010. It does however still claim students who take the honors intensive prep course will receive a score of 2100 or higher. Other courses come with a money back guarantee, along with satisfaction and readiness guarantees that allow students to keep working with the company at no cost should they not feel prepared to take the test or were not satisfied with the services.

At companies such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review, as well as other test prep course companies such as Power Score or Veritas Prep, students spend time being instructed on the SAT and content covered on the SAT and also take four or more timed SAT exams, as well as numerous practice exams. At the end of the day, it may not matter whether a test prep course offers high-quality coaches/tutors, was designed by high SAT scorers, or offers more in-class instructional time than others. What matters is that the course helps students become really familiar with the test and gain confidence in their abilities.

SAT Prep Systems

Another option for test-takers is a test prep system, such as the Green SAT System, an online test prep system which claims it has been designed to maximize scores. SAT Prep Reviews ranks the system as its number one test prep program, claiming students gain an average of 387 points on the SAT. However, the rigorous program requires students to have a lot of discipline to complete the online coursework and spend as much as 90 minutes a day for 30 days studying for the SAT.

SAT Prep Books

Even though they're the cheapest test prep option, SAT prep books often come accompanied by a high price-tag. However, they prove to be the most popular method of test prep, with the NACAC finding that over 60% of SAT-takers use a book as part of their study prep. While you may find older editions of the book at the library or a used bookstore, publishers encourage you to get the latest editions, especially because the format and requirements for the test constantly change. Some of the more popular SAT prep books include:

  • The SAT Study Guide published by the College Board provides the only official test prep offered. Included in the book are 10 official practice tests, as well as access to free online score reports and answer explanations.
  • Cracking the SAT comes from The Princeton Review, which claims it's America's most popular test prep company, and offers 4 practice tests, along with drills in individual subject areas.
  • SAT Prep Black Book focuses on providing students with strategies to help them ace the SATs, but does not offer content focused on individual subjects.

Combining Resources

SAT Prep Reviews, which offers reviews of popular SAT test prep systems, suggests that the best way to prep for the SAT may be through a hybrid method. With this method, students and parents design their own SAT prep systems, combining a wealth of resources to come up with the ultimate preparation. Some other test prep materials support this idea. For example, SAT Prep Black Book admits it works best when used in conjunction with the materials presented by the College Board.

Prepping for the New SAT

It should be noted that the College Board announced that they are redesigning the SAT, and the new version will be given in the spring of 2016. This means that if you are currently a freshman or sophomore hoping to use a prep method for the SAT that is currently available, your efforts will be for naught as the current materials that are out are for the current version of the SAT.

More importantly, in an effort to make test prep materials available to all students and not just those who can afford it, the College Board will partner with Kahn Academy to provide a full array of free prep materials. The test prep materials should be ready in the spring of 2015.

Acing the Test

According the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, the best way to prepare for the test is "to take challenging courses, study hard, and read and write in and outside of the classroom." While the College Board offers a variety of test-prep products ranging from free to just under $100, it admits the purpose of its products aren't to help boost students' knowledge and skills, but rather to familiarize them with the test. While numerous programs claim to prepare students for the SAT, many of them simply do exactly what the College Board encourages students to do, which is build their familiarity with the exam and build their confidence in their ability to do well.

Is SAT Test Preparation Necessary?