How Much Should You Actually Pay for ACT/SAT Prep?


The multi-million dollar college cheating scandal that broke last week continues to captivate the nation, and for good reason. The celebritiescelebrity kids of these celebrities, mail fraud, money laundering, forged athletic accomplishments, fake tests, and bribes all make for an endless stream of fascinating storylines.

But lost in the shuffle of all this drama is an important question that we get asked all the time: how much should you actually pay for ACT/SAT prep? If you look past the litany of broken laws and unquestionably poor ethical decisions, the parents in this recent scandal were still willing to pay tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars to get their kids into college. Is that crazy? Yes, obviously. No one should shell out that much money to try and get into a college. But like it or not, an ACT/SAT is a critical factor not just for admission but for a wide range of scholarships, so it’s important to understand the wide range of legal, non-mail fraud/money laundering options that are available to improve your test score and increase your scholarship chances.

  • Free options. Don’t worry, not all prep requires a checkbook. Khan Academy has partnered with CollegeBoard to offer some free SAT prep, and the ACT offers some free resources through its ACT Academy

  • Prep Books. If you want additional practice plus some test-taking tips, there are a variety of ACT/SAT prep books. All of the prep companies come out with a new book each year, but usually they don’t change much of the material, so a 2018 ACT Prep book is basically identical to a 2019 one. Our personal recommendations are the Official ACT Prep Guide and The Official SAT Study Guide.

  • Tutoring. To really maximize their potential, many students consider some form of tutoring. There are a million options – online, in-person, classroom, one-on-one – so the choices can seem overwhelming. We’ve done decades of research and have worked with thousands of students, and we’ve found that while the right tutoring program can be incredibly efficient/helpful, most tutoring is a waste of time and money. Coming from a tutoring company, this may seem counterintuitive, but most parents and students we’ve talked to have had bad experiences with tutors: they pay lots of money, commit lots of time, and get zero results. If you go the tutoring route, make sure you ask these 3 questions:

    • Is it one-on-one? This is the single biggest difference we’ve found between tutoring that works and tutoring that doesn’t. Avoid the classroom tutoring courses and make sure you work with a tutor one-on-one who will be able to address your specific strengths and weaknesses.

    • Do they use real tests? The best tutors use the best material, so make sure your tutors are going to be using real ACT or SAT tests. There’s no reason to practice with subpar material.

    • Can the tutors get perfect scores? This is a high bar, but it’s incredibly important. If your tutor can’t get a 36 on the ACT or a 1600 on the SAT, you should probably look for a different tutor. You never know which part(s) of the test you will struggle with, so you want to make sure you have a tutor who can help you no matter what you need help with.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of options to increase your score that don’t involve potential jail time, so make sure you understand the pros and cons of each one. The right investment of time and money into your ACT/SAT prep can more than pay for itself in scholarships and opportunities for college admissions.