Updated: Oct 15, 2022
There are tons of test prep studying methods, from free lessons like Khan Academy to paid private tutoring, like us. However, before you dive into any way, you'll want to ensure that your studying strategy is effective to make your investment worthwhile.
For example, a self-paced online course can cost hundreds of dollars, but the results may be more than just disappointing. Research studies on test-prep studying efficacy have shown that private tutoring sessions are the only programs that make a statistically significant impact on increasing your scores.
Why? Because these tests are hard. And getting someone to approach a hard goal with the kind of dogged determination needed is like summiting mount Everest in your bare feet. Many students need an external source to support their growth. Private tutors typically fill this spot, and they are extremely handy in knowing exactly how to help.
I first started at Strive to Learn for SAT prep, and my score jumped over 150 points. The atmosphere created here was amazing. It felt like I was going to speak with an old friend once or twice a week who was also helping me out with math and English." - Haley W. "
1. Do you really need it?
Yes, a high score can open doors to selective colleges, scholarship money, and even provide admissions guarantees. Still, students who naturally score lower or struggle with standardized testing may not even need to take the test. After all, there are a variety of great test-optional schools (you just need to find them). If you are planning on only applying to the UCs or CSU's. Stop looking for a tutor, you won't need one. You'll want to find a test-prep center that isn't going to promise you the stars. And although score increase of 300+ on the SAT or more than 5+ ACT is possible, you are looking at at least a year of tutoring. Don't go with a tutor who promises you the moon o says every student needs to take the SAT or ACT.
2. Are their sessions 1:1, and how much experience do they have?
Research shows that the only studying method that has produced statistically significant score increases is through private tutoring (60% more efficient than group classes), not workbooks or online courses. Also, many test prep companies boast about how high their tutors scored on their SAT or ACT, but personal experience does not always translate to teaching ability.
3. How many practice tests do they allow students to take?
Many of the bigger test prep programs, like Kaplan and Princeton Review, cap how many practice tests are included in their program. Smaller private tutoring centers may even charge their clients to take full-length proctored practice tests. However, research on test prep efficacy strongly highlights that one of the best ways to reinforce what you've learned is by actively quizzing yourself under test-like conditions (which means sitting for full-length tests).
64% of students achieve the highest scores on their final test.
(Patterson et al.., 2012)
For every full-length practice test completed, students gained 20 points each on their official SAT score. (Kulik et al., 1984)
4. Do they focus on building self-efficacy?
Students who feel prepared do better on actual tests. Research shows that perceptions of preparedness positively predict a student's ACT score (Vegelia, 2016) due to how anxiety interferes with our metacognitive processes: feeling underprepared leads to higher levels of anxiety, which then reduces the ability to use essential skills like metacognitive and test-taking strategies. Find a tutor who builds self-efficacy by teaching skills and skip companies focusing on hacks or creating tutor dependency. Ask them if their students can study on their own. An excellent prep company tries to put itself out of business by fostering independence.
Why does self-efficacy matter for SAT/ACT prep?
Surprisingly, more than you would think. We will show you by reverse engineering why self-efficacy links to how well you do on your SAT or ACT.
When researchers break down what defines self-efficacy in testing, they come up with the following list:
Lack of Test Anxiety (feeling confident)
Metacognitive strategies (classifying problems/ strategy to solve/self-awareness - how long am I taking on this problem)
Test Tactics (elimination, error avoiding, hints in test)
A test prep program will help you with most of these aspects - at least a bit. They'll help you learn how to classify problems and test tactics. Taking multiple practice tests will lower your anxiety and increase your self-awareness. As you can see by the graph below, the right tutor will tie all of these factors together by helping you understand the material and by scaffolding your success so that you can approach your test feeling confident.
Now I know the picture below is a bit blurry, but in this chart from a research study that looked at which factors predicted ACT score improvement, we can see that perception of inadequate prep (lacking confidence), and a private tutor or consultant were the only two variables that had a statically significant impact on score growth (more than workshops, group courses, or commercial software).
Hopefully you'll find a tutor that is well-vetted, knows the importance of fostering self-efficacy, and is private. Then, you'll need to figure out which test suits you better.