There are so many different options available to you that it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll hopefully help here by outlining the different method, and pros and cons of each. Maybe you have a year to prepare, maybe only 2 months. Your two main considerations are your goal (target score), and how long you have to reach it.
5 most important facts to bear in mind:
- No method is going to produce results instantly
- The more tailored your program is, the quicker you should see results
- You need time to practice. 4+ months is ideal
- Be realistic about your target score
Most of your improvement will depend on you – be motivated and study!
Going solo: If you know you’re pretty motivated, and you won’t have trouble committing to 4 hours work per week when you’re not accountable to anyone for it, this is probably the route for you. There are loads of great online resources and practice books that you can use. This method is obviously the cheapest, but the results depend entirely on you, so make sure you’re being realistic about your goals. If you have less than two months to prepare, if your target score is more than 10 points away on the ACT or 400 on the SAT, you’ll find it hard to hone your skills that much by yourself in a short time. This is also not the route for you if you’re scoring below a 21 on the ACT or 1000 on the new SAT.
Private tutor: This is probably the most expensive way to prepare, ranging between $100-$1000 per hour. Look for someone with experience, and get recommendations from friends and family. Good tutors can survive solely on word of mouth. A tutor is best if you haven’t got long to prep – they can show you the areas you need to work on most quickly and will have access to resources that you won’t on your own. A tutor is probably the best way to get you through a large score gap too – more than 10 points on the ACT or 400 points on the new SAT. I would also use a tutor if you are scoring under a 21 on the ACT, or under 1000 on the new SAT. In this score range, you’ll have a tough time assessing your weaknesses on your own, and a group course could be pitched too high. You may have a specific weakness in one area (for example reading), so a tutor can help you with that outside of the test as well.
Group prep course: These are great ways to get a general introduction to the test. There are some big name companies which will give you a pretty good return for your money. I would choose this route as a compliment to solo prep – don’t expect one of these course to get your all the way to your target score (if it does, consider aiming a little higher!). I have never taken one of these courses, but I’ve spoken to several students who have, and they usually come out with an improvement. Typically, their next step is to go to a tutor, either to improve in one specific area, or to push up their composite by 2-3 (ACT) or 50-100 (SAT) points. It usually works, and they come out with the score they want.
Online prep: I’ve never taken one of these courses – but I’ve seen several extracts from different course materials and been on the receiving end of their marketing materials a lot! I think these courses are good for the motivated student, and also you should probably treat them like group courses. They should be part of your prep program, not the whole thing. When you’re choosing a course, make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for (including whether there is a refund period). Get a recommendation from a friend, or look for online reviews that prove that the program gets results. There are some companies that have fancy marketing but poorly designed programs which don’t reflect the tests. Also make sure that they do what they say they do in terms of personalizing your program to you: some companies say they will do this, but don’t. You might as well buy a $20 practice book in this case. Online prep also needs you to be highly motivated on your own, since you’re not accountable to anybody. If you think you can handle this, then that’s good.
Let me know your experience about various prep methods below!