Are Expensive SAT and ACT Preparation Programs Worth the Price?

Are SAT/ACT Preparation Programs Worth the Expense?

The pressure is on high school students to get higher and higher standardized test scores to gain admission into top schools (many of which are public universities).   Many sign up for expensive test preparation programs (some as much as $1,800) and take both the SAT and ACT four or more times each in hopes of raising scores by even a few points.   Is the cost to you as a parent and stress to your teen worth it?   

Does a prestigious school pay off? 

First of all, if the goal is to attend an elite school, think carefully about your reasons.   If you want your teen to attend an elite school because you believe their earning potential will be greater upon graduation, think again.   The Wall Street Journal reports that there can be a big difference in earning potential for liberal arts, or even business majors, but for those majoring in fields such as education, science, math, engineering, or computers, there is little difference.   

Also, little research has been done to compare the earnings of students of similar abilities who graduated from elite institutions to students who graduate from more "average" institutions.   If you compared those top students at "average" universities to students of similar abilities at "elite" universities, the differences may be less than the difference between average earnings of all students.   


Where are the dollars best spent? 

Did you know that once admitted, only 19% of students who attend public universities graduate within 4 years.   The College Board reported that, in 2016 - 2017, a "moderate" annual budget  for an in-state public college was $24,610 and $49,320 for a private college.    Furthermore, only 5% of students who have been diagnosed with ADHD who start college complete their degree program.   In my mind, that means making sure that students have the skills they need to graduate within 4 years is of utmost importance.  

What are the alternatives? 
Academic coaching

A Stanford University study showed that retention and graduation rates improve significantly in students who participate in academic coaching.    What is academic coaching?   Academic coaching programs work with students, one-on-one, to develop study, organization, time management and other executive function skills that will help them succeed in the classroom and beyond.   How do you choose an academic coach?   Look for programs that are individualized and offer a consultation before sessions start.    Diagnostics and information gathering are key to developing an individualized program.   Be wary of programs that make promises or guarantees.   Ultimately, programs will only be effective if the student does the work.   Look for highly qualified professionals and not just students who have had a few hours of training to become a coach.   Convenience is also a factor.   If your student is spending a significant amount of time getting to and from coaching sessions, that time suck will take away from study time and negate some of the benefits of coaching.   Finally, frequency of contact with the coach, especially in the early stages, is a consideration.   Accountability (such as daily check-in’s) during the first 8 weeks of coaching can be important in fully establishing new habits and long-term success.   

 Cognitive Skills Training

Intentional and intensive brain training can help develop cognitive skills such as attention, working and long-term memory, logic and reasoning, auditory and visual processing, and processing speed, so that it is easier for your teen to learn and retain information.    Cognitive improvement can make a difference in test scores and classroom grades.   

Less expensive test preparation programs

If you decide that test preparation is the best route for your teen, is it necessary to use an expensive test preparation program?   Not at all!   The College Board (administrator of PSAT and SAT)  is partnered Khan Academy and has free online programs (and phone/tablet apps) that are adaptive.   Similarly, the ACT has an adaptive $39.95 online prep program that includes 6 months of access.   Both courses will review the topics and sections that your child needs help with the most, and shows them their improvement over time.   Remember, the earlier they start, the better the results will be.   Most test preparation courses meet weekly for a few months, and will require a large time commitment outside of classes during those months.   Spreading that effort out over a couple of years may yield better results and be more manageable and less stressful.  


Students with ADHD typically have deficits in executive functions of the brain such as working memory, attention, organization and prioritization, etc.   One-on-one coaching or brain training to overcome those weak areas, may help your student, not only get the test scores needed to get into the college of their choice, but also help them improve grades in the classroom.   

If you would like to get an idea of what your teen’s executive function strengths and weaknesses are, take the survey here and I will send you a free personalized report.  

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