As if the effort of studying for the SAT or ACT wasn't enough to worry about, the cost of test prep can also potentially become a burden. Of course, how much you invest into your test prep depends on your financial situation and what your college goals are. Technically, there is no need to spend a dime on test prep, thanks to the free materials offered by the College Board and the ACT. But many students who are having trouble with self-guided study find that a tutor is sometimes necessary to boost their score.
We spoke with Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit and author of Better Off After College, to get some tips on how to be financially savvy as you prepare for your test.
Manville sees the PSAT as a good indicator of how to develop your test prep strategy. "Students should focus on coursework, developing their extracurricular interests and on general study skills until they actually take the PSAT. Then they can decide what makes sense for them in terms of test prep. The most important factors are where you are starting and what your goals are." Use your PSAT score report to figure out your areas of weakness, and with your list of target colleges in mind, you will know the SAT or ACT score you need to reach.
Although your starting point and ultimate score goal are important, you'll also need to factor in your learning style before you can decide on your test prep strategy and know what kind of expenses you'll be dealing with. Will you pay attention in a test prep class, or do you need a tutor to give you personalized help? Do you like working through practice questions online or on paper? These answers will help guide you as you put together your test prep strategy.
When you consider the cost of taking the SAT or ACT, keep in mind that you'll be paying for more than just the materials or tutoring associated with test prep. Manville says students should think about the budget more broadly to also include the cost of registration (which is higher with the essay portion), late registration fee or rush fee (if applicable), extra score reports or any additional fees you might incur. Of course, you may also be eligible for an SAT or ACT fee waiver, depending on your situation.
Let's say you're taking the SAT with essay portion ($64.50), because many colleges require or recommend it, and you will be sending out at least three more score reports ($12 each), in addition to the four free score reports you already set up at the time of registration. If you are not eligible for a fee waiver, then your SAT expenses add up to $100.50 before you factor in any test prep costs.
Don't underestimate the power of retaking the test, but don't forget to add this expense to your budget. Manville believes that it's often worth retaking the test at least once if possible. "Clearly, there is a cost to taking the test over and over (financially as well as mentally), but often higher test scores can boost your application and also your ability to get merit scholarships. Sometimes a college will have clear thresholds for what score is required to get a given scholarship. If you're just a couple of increments off, you could lose out on thousands of dollars." This is why it's incredibly important to research your target schools and see if this is the case.
You may find that you don't have to spend much for successful test prep. There are plenty of low-cost or no-cost test prep options. Take free, full-length practice SATs from the College Board, go through the free SAT lessons on Khan Academy and free ACT lessons on ACT Academy. Check out free or inexpensive practice apps for the SAT or ACT, and look for community colleges in your area that offer inexpensive hourly test prep tutoring for local students.
Study guides (as in actual books) can be very useful if you aren't interested in studying online or can't always access the internet. These are also going to be more important if you don't plan to hire a tutor or take a test prep class. You can carry the book with you everywhere, and mark it up with your pencil or highlighter as you make your way through it. Most reputable study guides cost between $15 and $35.
Before hiring a tutor, ask them for testimonials and test scores from past clients. If you are only looking to boost your SAT Math score, for example, look for tutors who specialize in math and ask for the SAT Math scores from their past clients. Some tutors will increase the cost based on travel time, so if you can agree on a mutually beneficial location for your sessions (instead of the tutor traveling to your home), you might be able to get a lower fee per hour.
SAT and ACT test prep classes can cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so if you can afford it, you have to be sure that this is the right move for you. Ideally, look for courses that guarantee your money back if your score doesn't improve. Think about timing, too – if your test date isn't soon after the end of your review class (many students take it in the summer), you may end up forgetting much of what you've learned.
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