1) Where am I? 

This does not just mean “what is your score on your first-ever practice test?” It means considering why you’re starting where you’re starting, and what that reveals about your strengths and weaknesses — factors that will in turn affect what type of prep is best for you.

If your overall score isn’t where you want it to be, where are the problem spots? Are your math and verbal score/skills comparable, or do you have a big gap between them? If the latter, a class that devotes equal time to both probably isn’t the best option.

Do you have problems with particular types of questions, or are your mistakes all over the map?

Is timing an issue? And if so, it is actually having a negative impact on your score, or do you just feel a little too rushed?

Do you feel comfortable with the content but aren’t totally sure how to apply it to the test, or do you genuinely need work on some of the fundamentals? A good rule of thumb is that if you score better on untimed than on timed sections, you can probably focus on strategy; if you make the same mistakes regardless of time, there’s probably material you need to learn. 

If you are already scoring well and primarily need strategy work, you might be fine with a class, or even self-study (provided you’re sufficiently diligent and motivated). If you really need to work on some of the basics and are looking for significant improvement, tutoring might be a better option.

You also need to consider your grades and the rigor of your classes. Colleges are very clear that your transcript is the most important factor for them, and if that needs work, high scores will not compensate. It is not a good idea to focus on test prep at the expense of your grades. Yes, I know people who have done this, and no, they were not happy with the results; I’ve also worked with a number of students who were marginal candidates score-wise but who nevertheless made it into their top-choice schools.

2) Where do I want to be? 

I understand that this can be a hard question to answer at the outset, especially if you haven’t seriously looked at any colleges yet, but one of the side-effects of the standardized testing process is that it forces you to consider the bigger picture and think about just what it is you’re working toward. Studying without that anchor can make the test-prep process seem as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, as opposed to something genuinely connected to your future.

Even if you don’t yet have a clear idea of where you want to apply, you should at least begin to consider what type of school you might be interested in, and get a sense of the scores you’ll need to be competitive. (As a general rule, “unhooked” applicants — that is, applicants who are not legacies, recruited athletes, development cases, or under-represented minorities — should aim to score at or above the 50th percentile for a given school in order to be seriously competitive.) You should also spend some time on Naviance seeing what scores correlate with acceptances at a range of college

The other factor to take into account is financial aid. If you are going to be applying for merit scholarships, you need to know various schools’ score requirements.

Likewise, some specialized programs such as engineering and medicine (joint BA/MD) have strict cut-off scores. You should also be aware that some schools will not superscore tests submitted for these purposes.

If you are applying to general B.A. programs, you will have to decide for yourself what constitutes a reasonable goal.

This step might seem like an annoyance, but it brings a degree of clarity and focus to a process that can otherwise seem vague and murky. Even if you fall short, having something to aim for makes it easier to define the necessary steps along the way.

If you’re scoring in the 500s/low 20s across the board, for example, it probably isn’t realistic to aim for a perfect score. But beyond that, you need to decide what’s realistic, given the time you have to have to prepare. 50 points? 100 points? 

It’s also important keep in mind is that improvement often happens in stages; you have to be able to walk before you can run. Your goal might be to raise your Math score by 100 points, but if you’re at 600 now, you’ll need to get to a solid 650 before you can aim for 700. 

3) What do I need to do to get there? 

As a tutor, I lost count of the number of times a student and/or parent looked at me wide-eyed and told me earnestly that they or their child really wanted to do well.

Obviously. I never worked with a student who didn’t want do well.

But wanting to do well and actually taking the steps necessary to do well are two completely different things. Unfortunately, is also very easy to overestimate the amount of time you will actually spend studying; good intentions have a way of getting misplaced in a morass of AP calc and basketball practice.

Here are some practical questions to consider:

How much time do you have before the test, and are you planning to take it multiple times? How long are you willing to commit to test-prep for? A month? Six months months? A year? Your expectations needs to be consistent with your timeframe.

How much of a procrastinator are you? (Or, for parents, how much of a procrastinator is your child?)

If you set a goal of studying, say, an hour at a time three days a week, will you actually follow through, or do you need someone else to stay on top of you?

Will you listen to your parents when they remind you study, or will you roll your eyes and say you’ll do it later?

Are you the type of person who can set a goal and persevere over a long period of time, or do you have a history of starting out strong and then losing interest when the payoff isn’t immediate?

If test prep has the potential to blow up into a major familial issue of contention and you can afford to hire a tutor, it’s something to seriously consider. Having a third party present to issue reminders and oversee the process can go a long way toward defusing tension. The psychological savings can easily balance out the financial expense. 

I’m not denying that all this is a lot to think about, some of it not particularly easy or pleasant. But the more honest  you can be about where things stand relative to where you want to end up, and about what specific steps are necessary to get there, the more smoothly the prep process will ultimately go.