SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Secret Truths of SAT / ACT Prep Methods: Pros and Cons of Each

Posted by Dr. Fred Zhang | Feb 6, 2016 9:00:00 AM

SAT Strategies, ACT Strategies, Tutoring



You know it's a great idea to prep for the SAT and ACT.  After all, for most students it's the most time-efficient way to increase their college admission chances.  However, there are so many ways to prep for the test out there -- what's the best way for you?  Obviously, some methods will be better than others, but it's also the case that some methods are overall not very good.

Quite frankly, every single SAT / ACT prep method has certain strengths.  For some students, tutoring is by far the best while, for others, self-study is clearly optimal.  Which one to choose depends on your circumstances and budget, but it’s quite simple to figure out.

Pay careful attention because finding the right prep method for you is by far the highest leverage choice you can make to improve your SAT / ACT score.  If you choose correctly, you may never again have to worry about test scores.  The follow through will be easy, and the point improvements will be quick.  Some say half the work is just getting started.  I disagree -- half the work is getting started correctly.



I’ve had personal experience in helping thousands of students study for the SAT.  This means that I have a lot of experience and exposure to both the best and the worst prep methods.  Name any test prep method, and I’ve probably mentored at least a dozen students who’ve tried it.  For each method, I can tell you exactly what worked and didn’t.  The “all iPhone ACT prep” method?  The “binge SAT practice tests” method?  The “six separate private tutors” method?  I’ve seen them all, both the success and the carnage, and I can tell you exactly which methods work for which students.  

To top that off, I’ve developed many test prep methods myself.  The first test prep method I made was back in 2003 for myself.  When I got 200 points lower than I wanted on the SAT, I sat down and carefully developed a strategy that eventually got me a perfect score and admissions into Harvard.  Today, as cofounder of PrepScholar, I’ve written ACT and SAT prep methods for my students, helping them improve their scores sometimes as much as 300 points on the SAT and 5 points on the ACT, or more.  

All this has taught me the importance of one single point: If you are going to actually improve your ACT and SAT scores, you need to choose the method that best fits your style!

You see, like a boat setting sail, a small correction at the start means a big difference in where you end up.  If you head in the right direction now, it can save you weeks of agony later on.

Prepping the wrong way will totally waste your time and money.  You’ll be hosed if you self-study but have no insight on how to improve.  You’re also sunk if what you really need is to focus on a couple of areas, but you make the mistake of taking a small group class.  The wrong prep can make you feel hopeless and doubt whether you can ever improve your SAT and ACT scores.

That’s the bad news. The good news is you really can learn what method is best for you if you have an expert like me (or anyone else with as much experience) willing to debunk the topic and take the mystery out of it for you.

Students, parents… start your engines!  You are, as promised, going to learn the real pros and cons of the different prep methods.





Is tutoring the best prep method across the board? After all, it costs the most -- usually running into three or four digits -- the same cost as a year of tuition at many good public universities! At that price, tutoring must be good, right? I’ve worked with hundreds of tutoring students as well as tutored many students myself in ACT and SAT prep, and I can debunk the myths for you.



If all goes well, tutoring is indeed the very best prep you can get.  When things go well, your tutor will not only be a great scorer on the SAT / ACT, but your tutor will also be vetted to be a great teacher.  It's not enough to have a tutor who only scores well on standardized tests; they also must be able to explain their methods in a way that helps you perform well too.

When things go well, tutors will sit with you one-on-one and actively diagnose your errors.  They’ll look at your specific errors, ask you specific questions, and use their expertise to figure out customized strategies.  Imagine an expert mechanic asking exactly the right question to find which screw in your car needs tightening and then going in and tightening it the right amount. This is what the best tutors will do for you.

There’s also a definite emotional advantage to tutoring.  The tutor pays close, specific attention to the student and provides emotional support as well as psychological assurance.  If you let the test get inside your head, then tutoring can help.  The tutor will build a personal connection and soften the anxiety the student feels in taking the test.



But, truth be told, most real cases of tutoring fall short of this ideal.  

The major issue is finding the right tutor.  I’ve seen so many tutors who score less than 1400 on the SAT or less than 32 on the ACT.  When you’re scoring this low as a tutor, it reveals serious gaps in base skill content.  The tutor probably doesn’t understand the most sophisticated idioms or doesn't know how to answer non-routine math problems quickly.  This affects not only students who are aiming for above 1400 out of 1600 on the SAT or 32 out of 36 on the ACT, but also students who are aiming for a more modest score like 1000 or 20.  You want a tutor who is much better than you, not just a bit better.  If you’re learning to drive, you don’t want to learn from someone who just passed their exam last month -- you want a professional with years of on-the-road experience.

Is score all that matters then?  Is the solution to hire a college freshman with a perfect score for $50/hour?  No. Even if you find a high scorer, there is still the question of whether the tutor can teach.  Tom Brady is one of the best football players -- but is he the best guy to coach a middle school student who is just getting started with the sport?  You might think that a decent professional football player who really understands the struggle of middle-school players would make a better coach -- and you’d be absolutely right.  

Teaching is hard.  You have to understand each student’s way of thinking and then fix the student’s mistakes.  However, many purely high scorers suffer from the curse of knowledge.  Doing well on the ACT / SAT is so second nature to many high scorers that they have no idea what it’s like not to understand.  These suffering tutors explain the same strategies that worked for them over and over again.  Unsurprisingly, on the day scores come out, there’s no increase and everyone is disappointed.

Here’s a fact that’ll blow your mind: 75% of tutors are not fully effective for their students. Usually, this is more because they don’t know how to teach and not because their score is too low.


How to Make It Effective

The best way to fight against this is to get a good reference.  Like lawyers and doctors, the best way to find a good tutor is to get a close friend to tell you who worked for them.  Make sure that your referrer’s situation is the same as yours: if your student is scoring high, you don’t want a reference from a low-scorer with a learning disability who may have had different struggles than your student

If you don’t have a close reference, an equally good option is to hire a tutor through a company.  A reputable company itself acts as the best reference possible.  A company like ours has incredibly high standards.  We select our tutors through rigorous mock sessions.  Our interviewers are tutoring stars themselves.  Finally, we keep on grading our tutors monthly to ensure continuing quality, and we match each student to the best tutor for them.  We’re not the only company that provides tutors out there, but you definitely want to get a match from a high-quality company.  

Here’s a list of questions you must ask the tutoring company:

  • Do you require each tutoring candidate to mock tutor before you hire them?
  • Do you only hire tutors who scored 95%tile or above?
  • Do you only have tutors with previous experience improving scores?
  • Do you screen more than a dozen applicants for each tutor you hire?

For us, the answers are all yes, and you’d want any company doing tutoring for you to answer yes to everything above too.  I can tell you right now, the top two oldest big names in test prep don’t qualify -- they’ve grown so old and convoluted that the left hand barely knows what the right hand is doing.   



Cons of tutoring:

  • Hard to select the right tutor
  • Most expensive test prep option


Pros of tutoring:

  • If you choose the right tutor, it’s the most effective prep possible
  • Great tutors can give you personalized diagnosis of your issues as well as emotional attention and enforcement





Oh boy, classes are going to be a fun topic for me to talk about.  There are just so many stories that you wouldn’t believe!  But I’ll get to that in just a moment.

First, let me be clear.  When I say classes, I mean a physical room (or worse, a Skype virtual room) where one teacher stands at the front and talks to many students at a time.



Where did classes go wrong?  After all, don’t most students in school learn in classes?  Doesn’t it combine the best of all worlds?  After all, don’t you get a live person without the cost of a tutor?

But when it comes to test prep, classes are a recipe for failure like none other.  They’re the perfect storm of two ingredients that create destruction.  On the one hand, students come into test prep with vastly different skills.  Some students will be scoring 20th percentile; other students will be scoring 80th percentile.  Some students really need vocab help; others need to make fewer careless mistakes.  On the other hand, classrooms have a fixed curriculum.  They teach every student the same sequence of lessons and spend the same amount of time on each topic.  Mix them together, and you have the perfect recipe for the least effective way to test prep.  

What will you be doing in a test prep class? Half the time, you’ll be going over stuff you already know.  Already know all of Algebra I?  Don’t be surprised if you waste multiple hours getting lectured on how to isolate variables and solve for x.  On the opposite front, are you having problems with careless mistakes?  Don’t be surprised if your course only spends a couple of minutes talking about how to attack careless mistakes and instead devotes a bunch of time to strategies that couldn’t possibly apply to you.

But why do classes work well for school?  In school, everyone is up to the same speed.  When you took Literature II, everyone in your class had already taken Literature I.  When all students are at the same point, the same lessons make sense.  With test prep, the exact opposite is true: students come in at vastly different levels and don’t have enough time to catch up during the short course.

Trust us, many of us at PrepScholar took classes back in high school (when we were naive), and each one of us has regretted it.  One horror story revolved around a big-name test prep company.  The teacher spent three hours reading dictionary definitions of vocab words:

“Timmy do you know what the definition of plethora is?” … “No, Timmy, that is not right. Katie, do you have an answer?”

Imagine that exchange repeated about 90 times and you can imagine how that 3-hour class went.

To add insult to injury, many of the biggest names don’t have particularly high standards when it comes to hiring class teachers.  Anyone who has a passable resume will get hired.  We were literally told this directly by a hiring manager of one of the big-two tutoring company branches.

Oh, and did I mention classes still aren't that cheap? They're only slightly cheaper than tutoring but lack many benefits.  Classes don’t offer customization and still cost up to $2000. Compare that to our tutoring program that costs less than $2000, and you'll scratch your head wondering why you don't either upgrade to tutoring or save money with a more automated program.



I should be fair to classes at this point.  There is one type of student classes do work on:  If your student has huge motivational issues, and only motivational issues, classes can work.  If your student just needs someone to stand over them to get work done, and the qualifications and teaching ability of the person standing over them don't matter, then classes can boost that student’s score.


Self Study



Self study is the original form of test preparation, and it has some very distinct advantages.  First, it’s incredibly cheap -- free if you do it right and use library books.  Students essentially create their own programs and find out what to study and when.  Self study can work, and you can find success stories all over the Internet.  

The first step of a self study program is to identify the right resources.  Princeton Review books tend to work best for fast studiers who only want to improve a little, especially by working on test tricks instead of underlying skills.  Kaplan is good if you’re mid-range, and Barron’s is the best if you’re at the top and willing to really sink time into getting an even higher score.  

You then need to self-diagnose your issues by analyzing questions you got wrong on practice tests and training questions.  Divide these issues into content holes versus strategy holes.  Then, design a study plan to figure out exactly how you will improve up until test day.  You absolutely must stick to putting in the hours you promised yourself and revise your study plan as you get more data about what is working and what isn’t.



As you can probably see, self study works best for a certain set of students.  It’s important that you’re self-motivated.  If you’ve had a history of being able to plop down hundreds of hours of time to concentrate on a singular goal, then self study might be the right choice for you.  If you’re the type of student who gets distracted from time to time or benefits from some external encouragement, you should be careful.

Self study also works best for students who are already doing well on the test.  They understand enough of the test, and how they have improved in the past, to self-diagnose their issues correctly.



It’s very easy, especially if you don’t fit the profile above, to fall by the wayside if you choose to self study.  The number one most common mistake is running out of motivation.  Like going on a diet, students are a lot more enthusiastic at the start.  After ten hours of pounding away at questions, reality sets in.  Some students browse YouTube, others skip study days, and still some students grab at any other reason (“I gotta finish this homework!”) to not study.

The second most common reason for self study failing badly is not self-diagnosing correctly.  We’ve seen so many self studiers go through a book cover to cover.  Most of the material the student probably knows already, and the few pages that really hit upon a weak spot the student glosses over.  Other students become obsessed with ways to “trick” the test and get really into test-taking tactics that don’t actually work for them.


Summary on Self Study

The end conclusion is that self study can work, and it has produced some stellar cases you can read about on the Internet.  And it is absolutely the cheapest way to study, especially when paired with a library.  However, the student does need to be very insightful and self-motivated, and even then there is still a lot of risk involved.  

Many parents we’ve encountered are confident of their student’s ability to self study.  However, often they still invest in help just to be safe -- after all, it’s their student’s education, their student’s future we're talking about here.  Some students take pride in self studying, but it’s instructive to ask yourself whether pride or getting the highest score is more important. In the end, for well-qualified students, the decision is a personal one.


Online Prep Programs



The Internet is more popular now than ever.  Budding Internet technologies that were just wisps of ideas in the 1990s are now functional, tested realities.  If you’re a parent, you may remember decades ago when we would wait hours to download a tiny file over a noisy modem.  Today videos can be streamed live to teach lessons anywhere.

I know exactly what you’re thinking.  Is online prep for real?  The promise of instant access to hundreds and thousands of hours of lessons right in front of you sounds too good to be true.  The idea that a machine can pick and choose lessons based on your exact skill level seems too much like science fiction.  Can online test prep be the holy grail, or is it just catering to the hype, taking advantage of buzz words?

Lucky for you, we at PrepScholar have an exceptional online prep program.  What that means is that, in order to develop our product, we’ve done thorough research on every single program out there.  We’re here to tell you what works and what doesn’t.

First, I want to debunk some myths for you.  Online test prep can provide a much better learning experience than usual, but it is not magical learning.  If you’re picturing instant, effortless understanding, that’s NOT what online test prep is.  Let’s debunk the myths.

Here is what online test prep CANNOT do for you:

  • Improve your score without you putting in time
  • Make learning as relaxing as watching a TV show
  • Allow you to learn passively, putting in no effort
  • Improve your score substantially if you have no motivation
  • Eliminate your careless mistakes without you thinking hard about them

In fact, no test prep can pull off the magic above!  Online test prep is not magic; it can’t get you a 4x improvement (in either efficiency or raw point increase) over the best traditional test prep methods.  Anyone claiming revolutionary effortlessness should be seriously examined for whether they’re telling the truth.

For quantitative types, a good estimate is that online prep is about TWICE as good as traditional test prep.  In that sense, online test prep can work better!  

A good online test prep program will:

  • Be comprehensive
  • Diagnose the student’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Assign content lessons based on this diagnosis
  • Keep updating the diagnostics based on student progress
  • Assign strategy lessons based on student performance
  • Let the student know at every single point in time what to work on, whether it’s practice tests, quizzes, lessons, drills, or even taking a break
  • Have exact measures of the student’s skill in every category
  • Motivate the student using progress bars, reminders, and regular parental progress reports

If you’ve been following other blog posts about how we recommend students prep for the SAT, you'll have seen that these strategies are strongly recommended even if you are studying on your own.  Look around on the Internet and do your own research: You’ll find every high scorer, every high point improver, has used a close variation of the above strategy to achieve their goal.



What online test prep does is make the above customization process totally automated so you can put all your hard work into learning and not into stressing about what to do next. It is our strong opinion that the best online prep programs are indeed effective.  

Another advantage is cost. By letting a computer monitor you and help you, online prep programs are generally a lot more affordable than classroom programs and tutoring.  Most online prep programs are twice as affordable (if not more) than classes, and online programs are more effective as well.  

Finally, another fringe benefit of online prep is you can study anywhere.  Students are busy, and studying from a car before soccer practice, or at home if you live away from city center, is very important in encouraging students to put in the right hours.



One strong warning about online test prep programs though: You absolutely must choose the right one.  Many online test programs are just riding on hype and haven’t invested much in their program.

One online prep program by a big-name test prep company costs hundreds of dollars. You take a one-time diagnostic, and then you get an e-book with certain sections highlighted.  Here’s the kicker: The e-book is the same as the $20 book they sell at Barnes and Nobles. I personally asked this program’s saleslady about whether this method was good, and she frankly told me, “Yeah, almost no students finish this program.”  I was shocked they would market such a program.

Another “boutique test prep company” started by a celebrity tutor had an online test prep program that was literally just a PDF.  No customization, no progress reports. You pay a few hundred bucks, and all you get is access to a site with a PDF.  My jaw dropped.

Bad online test prep programs offer only token customization, no guidance, and no motivation. They’re no better than e-books. In fact, many programs are actually literally that: an e-book!


Note From Our Experience:

At PrepScholar, we’ve created a prep program that succeeds in all the ways we described above. It’s based on our founders’ own study methods from when they got their perfect SAT scores and 99th percentile ACT scores.  These methods have been improved over time with the thousands of students they’ve taught.  Our complete online prep program guides you through a structured study plan from beginning to end. You start by taking a diagnostic exam, and we automatically determine your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics.

Next, we create a customized study plan for you, assigning you the right lessons and practice questions to work on every week.  For example, if you always ace the math section but need help with tricky grammar, your study plan will explain grammar rules carefully and won’t waste your time with math problems you already understand. We track your progress and automatically adjust your schedule so that you’re always working on what’s best for you. We also integrate real practice tests into your program, so you get training for the real exam.

We also go above and beyond the teaching by caring about student motivation. We know that it’s easy for you to get distracted, even if you know that SAT / ACT prep is important. That’s why we send out progress reports every week to you and your parent, so you know you’re on track. We also help you fit prep into your schedule and commit to your study times. These features have been proven to increase study time by over 200%, leading to better score results.


What's Next?

You have many choices when it comes to test prep, and each method has specific strengths and weaknesses.  Tutoring is great for it’s effectiveness, although you can face problems finding the right tutor and affording its high cost.  Classes are generally not very effective, but they can be good for students who need just monitoring.  Self-study is very effective when done right, but it requires motivation, insight, and getting it right.  While each method has strong and weak points, that doesn’t mean the methods are created equal -- for example classes are usually a bad deal, whereas self-study often works.  

And, of course, everyone today should be seriously considering online prep.  It’s an affordable method that can lead to better results than self-study and textbooks. However, only some online programs are actually effective. At PrepScholar, we avoid the mistakes that other programs make and deliver a comprehensive prep program specifically designed to maximize your score.


Try It Today!  


Further Reading

Thinking about tutoring? Check out our guide to learn if online tutoring is right for you.

Want to get started on your test prep? We have great tips to help you boost your SAT score or ACT score.

Are you aiming for a top score? Read our guides to getting a perfect score on the SAT or a perfect score on the ACT, written by a full-scorer of both exams.


Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Dr. Fred Zhang
About the Author

Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.

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