Are test-preparation courses worth the cost?
An expert's opinion on the worth of test preparation courses.
October 16, 2009
Test preparation services like Kaplan and Princeton Review can achieve significant improvements in test scores, partly by teaching test-taking skills, partly by reviewing the material covered by the tests and partly through practice drills. Improvements of about 50-100 points on the SAT are typical. According to College Board data, students who take the PSAT have SAT scores that are 25 to 78 points higher than students who don’t. (The College Board data also demonstrates that students from families with six-figure incomes average 80 points more in the critical reading, mathematics and writing sections than students from families earning $50,000 or less.)
Standardized tests are as much a measure of test-taking ability as they are tests of knowledge and skill. You can achieve a similar score improvement benefit by taking practice tests under realistic timed conditions at home. There are many books available with practice tests, some even with decommissioned tests. Just becoming more familiar with the test format can help avoid a panic reaction that undermines performance.
There are also books that teach test-taking skills, such as approaches to attacking a problem, pacing oneself, avoiding careless errors, identifying wrong answers on multiple choice tests and not getting bogged down on any one question. See Top Test-Taking Tips for some of the most effective ways of improving your test scores.
Improving your test score can increase your chances of getting into the college of your choice. If you start off with a good test score, the added training might improve your test score enough to help you qualify for scholarships based on academic merit at some colleges. But parents should not pay for a course just in the hopes of having it pay for itself through increases in merit-based financial aid.
Parents can evaluate a testing service by asking their guidance counselor and other parents about their experiences with the services. The most well-known test preparation services — Kaplan, Princeton Review, Peterson’s, Barron’s and Boston Test Prep — are all good, with Kaplan and Princeton Review having the best reputations. Some of these services publish books with practice tests and test-taking advice; the books are much less expensive than the full test-preparation service. There are also free services, like Number2.com, march2success.com and free test-preparation tools at collegeboard.com, that are worth using.