12 June 2011

Tutor vs. class vs. self-study

If you’re a junior or the parent of a junior and are just starting to think seriously about SAT/ACT prep, you might be pondering the various options available to you. Here are some thoughts:

Classes I think that there are really only two situations in which it can be worth taking a class: the first is if you’re really anxious about the test and want an introduction to it in a formal setting. Confronting the SAT or the ACT can initially feel overwhelming, and if it helps to have someone else break it down and tell you what to expect, I see nothing wrong with that.

The second is if you’re totally solid on all of the fundamentals going in and just need to learn some basic strategies to help you apply your knowledge to the test. I wouldn’t suggest it as a blanket solution since most classes are geared toward people scoring around 550-600, but it can help in some cases.

I confess that taking a Kaplan class the summer before my senior year helped me jump from a 710 to an 800 on Critical Reading because I learned to slow down and actually analyze the questions rather than just going with my gut feeling. (Admittedly, though, that’s about all it taught me.) I had a French SAT II student a couple of years ago who’d done Princeton Review and scored a 2300, and she certainly thought the class had helped. But again, she was a straight-A student at a very competitive private school and had no problem with any of the actual material.

If you do take a class, though, you need to approach the strategies you learn critically. If something isn’t working for you, don’t stick with it. I’ve had plenty of students who came to me after taking Kaplan/PR classes and having their scores go down, and I the first thing I had to do was get them to stop doing everything that wasn’t working. If at all possible, try not to go with a big chain; find a smaller local company or a tutor willing to put together a group.

Tutoring If you need to do serious work on fundamental English or Math skills OR you really only need help in one area, finding a tutor can be a far better choice than taking a class.

People often discard tutoring as a option because they believe that it’s prohibitively expensive but then don’t hesitate to pay Kaplan $500-$1,000 — an amount that could get you 10-20 hours with an excellent tutor. Never assume that price = quality, however, and many tutoring companies offer financial aid and/or do pro bono work. If you live relatively close to a college or university, try to find a student who scored well and has some tutoring experience; they probably won’t charge you a fortune.

Contrary to what some tutoring companies would lead their clients to believe, tutors do not need to hold advanced degrees or be former Rhodes scholars to tutor the SAT effectively; they must simply understand how the test works and be capable of effectively conveying the necessary material in a way that is easy to grasp. Do make sure, however, that a tutor’s background matches your needs. Even if many tutors can obtain top scores in all sections of a given test, most are somewhat stronger teaching-wise in one area. If Reading is your weakest section and a tutor has a degree in Chemistry, chances are that may not be a good match.

Yes, the SAT is a “reasoning” test (you can interpret that as you wish), but it is also a reading and math test, and if your underlying skills in one of those areas are weak, you need to work with someone who really understands the subject — not just someone who will teach you tricks and strategies. A tutor, however, is usually only helpful insofar as a student is motivated and willing to be an active participant in the tutoring process. Otherwise, hiring one can be a big waste of money.

Self-Study Self-study works best when you’re either already really solid on the fundamentals or willing to put in large amounts of time to solidify them. In order to significantly raise your score on your own, you have to be seriously self-motivated.

While there are plenty of online programs such as Grockit and Prep Me, you do need to be careful. Much of their material, like that of the major test-prep companies, bears little resemblance to what’s on the actual tests, and you risk getting the wrong idea about what you need to study. For a comprehensive review of Grockit, see Mike from PWN the SAT’s analysis. The Official Guides to the SAT/ACT are absolutely indispensable. As much as possible, you need to be working with real material; otherwise you may end up wasting huge amounts of your time.

If you can afford to do so, sign up for the College Board’s online program, and if you really don’t understand why a particular type of question, ask a friend or a parent or a teacher for help. There’s always College Confidential, but you need to be careful with some of the advice. Just because a particular strategy (e.g. jumping right to the questions without reading the passage first) worked for someone doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. You need to be willing to experiment with different techniques and see what makes sense to you. You also need to be willing to go over your work very, very carefully and analyze what you do and don’t know, not just crash through lots of material and expect your score to automatically rise. Familiarity does not equal mastery. Self-study can work, but it’s definitely not the road for everyone.

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