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5 Essential Things to Know About Test Prep

It is no secret that earning a high test score on any standardized test or entrance exam opens the door to the best educational opportunities. Increasing your test score can only mean a positive outcome on your next step in your educational journey.

For incoming undergraduate students, increasing your ACT or SAT score can equate to an increase in your merit scholarship awards, thereby decreasing your overall tuition cost. For the graduate student, higher scores increase the chances of admission to elite schools and thereby increase your marketability in the future post-college job market.

Companies offer test preparation services for every level of test, from the popular ACT/SAT to graduate services like the GRE, LSAT and MCAT. With every test prep service promising to increase your score, it can be difficult to know where to begin looking and what factors to keep in mind to determine the best option for your individual needs.

Here are five important things to think about:

1. Know Your Learning Style

Test-taking is a skill of its own. It comes naturally to some, and to others it is a learned skill.

Test-taking is a skill of its own. It comes naturally to some, and to others it is a learned skill.

Before beginning your search for a test preparation service, it is important to take an internal inventory of your own learning style and expectations. This will help you determine the format of test preparation that will suit you the best. If you have never taken the time to discover your learning style, find an online test to help.

Are you someone who learns best through visual aids? A visual learner may do well with an online program, which is visual by nature since it’s presentation based. In contrast, an auditory learner might benefit from a friend asking them quiz questions and/or talking through difficult questions, so having actual classmates you can study with or even a private tutor might help.

We know ourselves best. A tutor or instructor might come to know you in time, but only you know what has historically worked for you in the past. This is the time to lean into your strengths and let them help guide your decision.

2. Which Is Better for You: Online or In-Person?

Prep courses can be found on a variety of platforms, most commonly online or in-person. Before committing to one of the two, it is recommended to take a practice test to determine the areas you need the most improvement.

The practice test may show you that you need advice all-around, which would indicate a full course is best. Or, it may show that your only area of weakness could be solved with a math tutor. If you are simply weak in one area, you may benefit most from a one-week bootcamp class with a private tutor in the weakest area.

Online classes allow more flexibility around your busy schedule, and also encourage you to learn at your own pace. They also employ staff who are trained on the latest changes to the test you are taking, have access to the newest practice tests, and most likely have great insight into strategies specific to your standardized test. However, online courses can lack the element of accountability and/or special attention that in-person classes or tutoring offer.

Classes and tutoring, on the other hand is most likely local and in-person. (Although virtual, individual tutoring should not be dismissed as a great option.)

The advantage of a tutor lies in the ability for individualization. They’re able to tailor the material to match your academic strengths and weaknesses, while providing personalized advice to match your test-taking skills. You’re able to avoid spending time on topics the rest of the class may need to know, but you have already mastered.

A final option is small group sessions. Students highly motivated by competition have great success in these settings, and gain a high level of engagement from this method. No matter which version you choose, it should be based on your assessment of your learning style, not based on something that worked for someone else.

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3. Will Test Prep Be Money Well Spent?

Whether choosing a class, a tutor, or an online program, you are paying for someone’s time, experience, and resources. While this can come with a hefty price tag, if you can afford it, it is generally worth the cost. Keep in mind that you essentially have every tool at your disposal to do this yourself — buying study books or renting them from the library for your own study –so with a class or tutor you are essentially paying for structure and expert advice. 

Since classes are typically purchased in a package, and the teacher’s time is split between a classroom of students, study program courses are typically less expensive than hiring a private tutor. Depending on the type of test you are planning to take, a tutor can cost anywhere from 20 to hundreds of dollars for every hour spent in session. With this much of a variable, the question becomes, how much is admission worth to you?

Test preparation services should be considered an investment.

Test preparation services should be considered an investment. For example, let’s say the popular local ACT prep course comes highly recommended by friends, with a cost of $700. You may initially think this is an outrageous fee. Then you find out your friends who spent that money on test prep all increased their scores by an average of four points. After some research at the state university you or your child has toured, you realize that an increase of two additional points on the ACT would actually qualify you or your child for an increase in renewable merit scholarship awards, a return of $3,000 per year. Suddenly, that initial $700 seems like money well spent.

The same rule applies to graduate level testing. Imagine you’re thinking of hiring a tutor before you take the LSAT to attend law school. You’ve taken a few practice tests and know that you are just shy of the admission standards of your top choice school. You are debating the choice between spending the money for a tutor or exploring less prestigious schools. After some research, you realize that your top choice school offers a combined, accelerated program which would also award you an MBA. At this point, you should realize that spending the money for a tutor is definitely worth considering due to the marketability factor this double degree would award you in the long run.

No matter what level of admission you are seeking, it is essential to do the research to weigh the rewards of committing to test preparation. Have a goal in mind, such as achieving the next bracket of merit scholarships at your top school by increasing your SAT by eighty points. This goal will keep you focused and help you choose the right service, rather than hoping for miracles from the service by going in blind. 

4. Consider the Hidden Costs

There are a few factors to keep in mind while pricing course services in particular. Some courses require the purchase of additional books or software that are not included in the published price, so make sure you ask whether the price is all-inclusive regarding materials.

Some local tutors have travel costs built into their pricing, so finding an online tutor can be less expensive than some local options.

One way to lower the cost of some courses is to inquire after group rates, in the event that you can gather a few friends to take the class together and drop the price for the entire group.

5. Insist on Quality of Service

The impact of a high-quality course or tutor can be tremendous, but it can be difficult to know what to look for when beginning your search. It is recommended to search for program that has a solid structure in place to keep you motivated along your studying timeline, as well as a credible instructor who will teach you strategies to structure your independent study time to maximize your time outside of sessions.

You should plan to seek a service that does more than explain answers in detail, but rather provides you with time-saving strategies to employ during the test, and lifelong valuable study skills. A quality course or tutor will provide great study materials, practice tests with review sessions, in addition to exam strategies specific to the test you are attempting.

The Bottom Line

No matter which type of preparation you pursue, you are still ahead of the game by eliminating the human tendency to cram at the last possible moment. Being prepared and employing healthy habits in advance is the best way to ensure success on any level of test.

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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through MoonPrep.com. Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.