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     Students and parents seem to spend a lot of time and effort trying to decide whether or not to invest time and money in test preparation. It’s not hard to figure out why they do it. College admissions (to 4-year programs and selective 2-year programs) are almost always determined in part by test scores. Scholarship awards are often determined in part by test scores. Certainly any program that increases chances for admissions and chances for a scholarship has got to be a hot ticket, right?

     Well, maybe. Test prep falls into two broad categories in my mind. The main distinction is paid vs. free. Needless to say, I am all for the free prep for all students who plan to test. College Board and ACT both offer limited test prep online. These resources seem to be primarily sales tools for materials available for sale. Each organization also supplies high schools with pencil and paper booklets designed to help students with some review of content and help with test taking strategy, and these are available at no charge. I would recommend that every student use these materials prior to taking these tests for the first time.

     Before students or parents get into paying for test preparation, I suggest they define a goal. One might be to raise overall ACT score enough to satisfy a particular college admissions office. Another might be to raise SAT scores enough to qualify for a particular merit scholarship. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time or money on materials or a program unless there was a goal in mind that seemed attainable.

     If I took the SAT test once and scored 930, I might invest in test prep if an admissions officer told me a score of 1000 would really strengthen my application. If I scored 960 and needed an 1150 for a particular scholarship, I wouldn’t want to bother. An increase like that is just not likely to happen unless there were some very unusual circumstances on the first test date. That brings up another important point to remember. Even the people who make the SAT will tell you that a change in test scores of 30 points either way is not uncommon—without or without and special test preparation!

     OK, so you’ve taken your test of choice one or more times, and based on your results, and a thoughtful look at the overall situation, you’ve decided to invest the time and money for some further test preparation. Which materials/program should you choose? Again, my suggestion is that you purchase only what you need.

     Test prep programs basically offer three components in various combinations. One component is practice test questions, most often questions used on previous tests. These certainly help a student to know what types of content are covered and how tests are structured. The second component often included involves test strategy and tips. For those totally unfamiliar with these types of test, this would seem beneficial. You have to wonder though, how many of those who need to take these tests are unfamiliar with this information. Finally, some of the programs include live instruction (with structure and discipline built in) and simulated test situations. Obviously these are the most expensive programs.

     Here are some things to remember when considering "paid for" test prep. First, two of the components described (practice test questions and strategy) are available at fairly low prices ($10-40) from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Walmart.com, and many other sources, including those who also produce and administer the tests. These texts and software may even be available in your school’s guidance office or library.

     Before spending hundreds of dollars for live instruction, please be sure that you’ve got a reasonable goal in mind, and that achieving that goal will be worth the time and money you spend on it. For that matter, you’ll also want to keep in mind that the results of independent research on the effectiveness of test prep programs is ambiguous at best. If you do want a good course with live instruction check out the offerings from Kaplan and the Princeton Review.

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