SAT Test Preparation Becoming a Must with College Admissions at Stake

New York Daily News

By PHYLLIS FURMAN, DAILY NEWS BUSINESS WRITER
September 12, 2008

When it came time to start college planning for his daughter, Anya, 17, there was never any question about setting aside money to prepare her for the standardized test that most colleges use in evaluating applicants.

He suggested a tutor through Kaplan Test Prep, said Anya, who lives in Harlem and is an A student at Marymount School on the Upper East Side.

Anya’s two-year bill for SAT tutoring and other college test prep and coaching came to $4,500. The payoff for the high school senior who plans to apply to Ivy League schools this fall: A stellar score of 2,320 out of the new maximum of 2,400. That bettered her PSAT score by 100 points.

“This was a great investment,” said Alex Havriliak, 49, who’s chief financial officer of Volunteers of America in Manhattan.

With competition fierce and with more students than ever taking the SAT – 1.5 million kids took it in the last school year, a nearly 30% jump from 10 years ago, according to the College Board – paying for study help has increasingly become a must.

For parents of high school juniors who want their kids to take the exams next spring, now’s the time to start planning.

But in the midst of assessing the heavy costs of college, many parents often forget the expense of test prep.

“Families need to budget early for this,” said Katherine Cohen, CEO of ivywise.com, a Manhattan-based online college admissions counselor.

There are a number of prep options at a wide range of price points. Study aids run the gamut from $399 online classes to qualified, one-on-one tutors who charge anywhere from $150 to $750 an hour.

The most popular form of test prep are classroom courses, although the fastest growing option is one-on-one tutoring. Classes generally cost about $1,000 and include around 30 hours of teaching as well as practice exams that simulate the real test experience. Students also supplement course work with products like $4.99 SAT prep iPod downloads and $20 shower curtains featuring the top 500 SAT words. Last year, Kaplan began selling $9.99 comic books where the characters use the most frequently tested words.

Despite the huge growth in prep, the College Board – which owns the three-hour-and-45-minute, three-part exam that tests math, reading and writing – insists the exam gauges what you learned in high school, not fancy tricks taught by experts.

“The best preparation is studying hard in school,” said Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT program for the College Board. “Short-term expensive prep courses do not result in score gains,” he said.

“I completely disagree,” countered Robert Franek, vice president at test prep giant Princeton Review. “We are teaching techniques to answer questions quickly and correctly.”

According to the College Board’s own research, a student’s chance of doing well on the exam corresponds to his or her family’s income, with a score gap of 356 points between the richest and poorest kids who take the test.

Michele Hernandez, a college consultant who advises area kids on applying to college, recommends all of her clients prep. “Bad scores can prevent you from getting into a school,” she said. “Even a perfect score is not a guarantee.”

If you decide to make the investment, first determine which test to take.

Both Princeton Review and Kaplan offer a free practice exam that will tell whether a student will likely perform better on the SAT or the ACT, a fast rising rival exam also widely accepted by colleges. The ACT is considered more of an achievement test, while the SAT measures critical thinking and problem solving.

“A phenomenon we’re seeing is students taking both tests,” said Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan.

For those on a budget, look for subsidized classes. Both Princeton Review and Kaplan partner with a number of New York City public schools, community groups and employers to provide lower-cost instruction.

Ask your guidance counselor if your school offers them. If they are not available, suggest that the school contact one of the test prep companies. Also, seek out as many free resources as possible. Go to Kaptest.com/quizbank and use thousands of practice SAT and ACT questions. It will also analyze your results.

The College Board provides a free practice exam and a question of the day on collegeboard.com. For $19.95, it also sells “The Official SAT Study Guide,” the only book that features practice tests created by the actual test maker. “Take as many practice exams as you can,” Hernandez said.

No matter how much you spend, any student will have to be motivated to do well.

“Tutoring can’t teach everything. I did a lot on my own,” Anya Havriliak said.

Yet as the high school senior moves on to preparing her college applications, she is clearly grateful for the leg up.

“I’m very excited,” she said.