What are the pros, cons, and costs of various SAT and ACT prep methods?


Obviously the big advantage to test prep is improved scores, but no method of preparation is magic.  In fact, it is a lot like working out at the gym.  The person who hires a trainer, completes all assigned workouts, follows the meal plan, and actually works while at the gym will see the best results.  I think we’ve all seen people who spend 90 minutes at the gym, but most of that time is spent talking to friends and when he or she finally gets to the equipment, it is only a halfhearted effort.  SAT and ACT prep methods work when students put in the time and effort. To find the method right for you, you need to understand the pros, cons, and costs of various test prep methods.

Benefits of Test Prep

The ultimate objective of any SAT or ACT program is improved test scores, but in order to score better, students need more than a review of test content.  Some students know all the content needed to earn a perfect score, yet they still struggle due to problems with pacing, test anxiety, test format, and lack of familiarity with question types and test structure.

Any quality test prep method should address these areas:

  • S- subject matter; content specific to that exam
  • A- anxiety, focus, and stress management
  • T- test taking strategies

There are a variety of ways students can effectively prepare.  I’ll highlight the pros, cons, and costs for each (from most to least expensive).

Private Tutoring

One-on-one or small group tutoring allows for personalized instruction and often the best results when it comes to score improvement.  In an individual setting, students are most accountable for completing assignments and all the time is dedicated to making sure that student improves.

The drawbacks to private tutoring are cost and quality.  Cost is obvious; you are paying for the instructor’s time and experience.  A complete test prep program delivered one-on-one can cost between $1200 and $10,000.  Quality can be an issue in private tutoring.  Anyone with an SAT book can call himself or herself a tutor.  You want an experienced instructor who specializes in SAT or ACT prep.  You can see my private tutoring options here.

Group Classes

Because they are more affordable than private tutoring, group classes are one of the most popular methods of test prep.  Students receive the same information, but in a group setting.  For some, a group is better because they learn from the questions of others and feel less pressured than in a one-on-one setting.

Group programs offer a more consistent quality of information, but there are still huge variations.   The big name ”big box” test prep companies have consistent materials, but college students trained on the workbook often teach those classes. You can get some good teachers; ages ago I got my start teaching LSAT classes for one of these companies.  But you can also get the instructor with no classroom management skills or the one who spends half the class on break so he can flirt with all the girls.  Some of the best classes are offered by local and regional companies and are taught by experienced teachers who specialize in test prep.

Classes usually range in cost between $495 and $1395.  While you may be able to find some bargains, ask around for recommendations because cheaper is not always better.  I offer group classes in my hometown of Sugar Land, Texas; schedules available here.

Online Programs

For those of us who grew up before email, internet, and smart phones, it can be difficult to imagine taking classes online.  But online education is the way of the future and some universities offer entire degree programs online.

Online test prep can take many forms.  Some require students to “attend” class at specific times each week to watch the lessons live; others allow students to access lessons at any time.  Online classes can offer all the same benefits of a traditional class with added flexibility. The drawback to online education is accountability.  Some students need the structure of a traditional class.

The cost of online programs varies considerably, often based on the quality and quantity of information.  Some programs cost less than $100 while others are as much as $3000.  Again, do your research and get recommendations.  You can view my online SAT program here.


Finally, the least expensive method to prepare for the SAT or ACT is to study on your own.  Some students are dedicated enough to review without guidance and these diligent scholars can teach themselves for the cost of materials alone.

Self-study works best for bright students who are already good test takers.  They already know most of the test content and don’t have problems with nerves, so these students just need to study the format of the questions and exam to develop test-taking strategies.


Keep in mind that the primary factor in score improvement is effort.  The best tutor can’t help the student who refuses to study.  But everyone learns differently, so you need to find the right balance of information, motivation, and accountability. If you begin early, you can experiment with different test prep methods until you find the one that works for you.