Evaluating Test Preparation Options

This is your last chance; after this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. - Morpheus to Neo from The Matrix

When people say “test prep,” what they mean varies greatly, and it’s usually limited to what they did themselves or what they’ve heard of. As part of this blog, we hope to provide a bit more insight into some of the options for test preparation. Our team has blogged quite a bit about free prep resources (check out our two most popular post on test prep here and here), so it’s high time we devote a little space to the commercial products.

First, let’s establish why you should consider using commercial preparation programs: expertise. While you can prepare on your own, if you work with a good test prep company you avail yourself of their expertise and thus usually save yourself a lot of time or money, or both. It’s just like hiring a professional for anything; you can probably do it yourself, but maybe not as quickly and probably not as well. That established, let’s get to the matter at hand.

There are three typical ways to prepare for the SAT (and this applies to most other test as well, including the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, SSAT, ISEE, ACT, MCAT, etc): tutors, courses, or self-study. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, and you should carefully assess which method works best for you. Here are a few key factors to consider when choosing a person or company to work with.


This is by far the most common approach to test preparation. Courses offer the best balance between time and money, since they are typically more efficient than studying on your own (since you have the help of an instructor to answer questions), and they are cheaper than a tutor (but provide professional instruction). Preparation courses come in many different sizes and shapes, and you should be sure to compare all characteristics before making a decision. The courses I’m discussing here are commercial courses offered by companies that specialize in test preparation (not a course offered at a college or by a HS teacher). The factors that generally impact learning most are:

  • Instructional hours
    Instructional hours refers to the actual time spent getting instruction, and does not include time spent taking diagnostic or practice tests. Some courses have as few as 12 hours and some have as many as 40, but the market average tends to be around 20 hours. Generally speaking, more is better.
  • Teaching method and focus
    Each company has its own teaching methodology and focus, with some companies focusing on teaching strategies or “tricks,” and others focusing on teaching content. Understanding the teaching method that will work best for you will enable you to choose the best company for you to work with. In general, students scoring at the extreme ends of the scoring scale will benefit more from content-based instruction.
  • Class Size
    As in most educational settings, smaller class size typically allows for greater personal attention, and for test preparation, which requires many non-intuitive strategies, greater personal attention will allow for more effective learning environments. Typical classes will range from 15 – 25 students.
  • Diagnostic Testing
    Research and experience have shown that the greatest improvements are achieved by students who not only learn the content of the test and practice testing strategies but who also take several timed full-length practice tests under simulated testing conditions (not at home while eating dinner) in order to become comfortable with the test setting and procedures.


Because tutors offer the opportunity for individualized instruction and focused review, tutoring tends to achieve the greatest improvement for students. Tutoring also offers the greatest flexibility of scheduling and location. A good tutor will be flexible, accessible, personable, proactive, and responsive. Many people claim to be SAT (LSAT, GMAT, ACT, etc) tutors yet have little experience working with that specific tests other than the fact that they took it (sometimes years ago). Keep in mind that a person’s score only tells you how well they performed, not how well they will teach others (check out this post for more info)! It is important to know as much as you can about the history, training, and qualifications of any tutor you work with. A few key factors when choosing a tutor are:

  • Experience
    If you choose to hire a tutor it’s important that you hire someone with the experience to assess problem areas and recommend effective strategies for overcoming those problem areas. A tutor with limited experience or training will be less likely to understand the nuances of the test and student performance.
  • Curriculum
    A good tutor also will provide a comprehensive curriculum and lesson plan. Tutoring should consist of more than simple Q&A, and should be structured, planned, and focused.
  • Diagnostic testing
    A good tutor will provide opportunities for diagnostic testing and evaluation of those results to help guide and revise preparation, and improve your performance and skill set. There is really no substitute for taking simulated full-length practice tests.


Books, Video, and Online Study Aids

Online and offline study aids come in as much variety as do tutors and classes. Included instructional content ranges from books or online written instruction to video or interactive lessons. When evaluating what preparation works best for you, consider the format of the instructional content, the amount of included paper-based practice, and amount of included live support. Other major factors to evaluate are:

  • Style of presentation
    When choosing self-study material be sure to compare various styles of writing and presentation. Does having a cartoon character teach you math annoy or amuse you? Will watching a moving pencil while listening to a voice over engage or upset you?
  • Depth of instruction
    Since self-study material rarely includes the opportunity to ask questions, the instructional content must be complete and clear. Check out samples of 2 or 3 topics before buying to see whether you can follow the way it’s written and understand how to apply the strategies and information provided.
  • Practice versus Preparation
    Look for a fairly even balance between preparation material (instructional content) and practice content. To properly prepare for the test you must have some of each, since neither alone will usually get you the great score improvement you want or need.

We hope this helps you make the best decision possible when choosing your preparation. If you have questions or comments please post them below, we’d love to hear from you! And of course, we think we offer the best preparation available for most people and encourage you to come to one of our free SAT, GMAT, or LSAT information sessions to learn more or to sign up for one of our courses!


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