Last Updated Aug 12, 2009 11:35 AM EDT
The college test-prep industry has turned parental anxiety into a steady cash stream. Private SAT tutors now charge $125 to $350 an hour for face time. Legions of parents drop $1,000 to $1,200 or more on SAT prep classes like Kaplan Test Prep and Princeton Review for their darling teens. And still others pack the kids off to pre-college summer camps, where sample tests are squeezed in between sessions on acing interviews and writing killer essays — and where prices can hit $1,000 or more.
But you might well wonder whether all that money is really well spent, especially during these hard financial times. Do you really have to pay a fortune to help get your kid into a decent college?
The answer, you will be relieved to learn, is absolutely not. “Teenagers could easily do really solid SAT prep without paying anything,” insists Alice Kleeman, a college-information specialist at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, Calif.
That doesn’t mean your kid can get away without any prep time. But the experts are united in their belief that studying for the SAT and ACT on the cheap can be just as effective as pricey classes.
Here are four free or cheap tools can help you shrink the cost of test prep.
1. Test-Prep Web Sites
The number of test-prep sites on the Internet that are free or reasonably priced has exploded. One wildly popular free online resource is Number2.com, which provides students with ACT or SAT questions and then tracks their progress.
Number2.com allows parents to monitor their teen’s SAT progress — or lack of it — without nagging. Every week, Number2.com can send a parent a progress report that shares the amount of time a student spent on the site, and the number of questions the student tackled, as well as the percentage answered correctly.
Our Pick: One of our favorites is ePrep, which combines paper-and-pencil test-taking with an online grader and mini video lessons. The two Princeton University graduates who launched the site believe that students do best when they complete practice tests with paper and pencil — just like on the real test day. When students transfer their answers to an online grid, however, the work is instantly graded — and cofounder Karl Schellscheidt provides a Web video explanation for each of the answers. It’s a great approach for the YouTube generation. Cost: $99 to $599, depending on length of access and quantity of sample tests.
Kyle Morse, a mother and associate admission director at a private boarding school in Princeton, N.J., is a huge fan of ePrep. After using the service, her son Keith improved his total SAT score by 300 and did better than 96% of test takers on the math section. Morse says that because ePrep can sort questions by subject subset, students can identify the areas they’re having particular trouble with. “It’s so personalized you aren’t wasting time reviewing something you already know,” she says.
2. Online Vocabulary Lists
In an ideal world, teenagers would improve their vocabulary by digesting classic literature and other challenging reading material. Many teens, however, don’t want to spend their summers wading through Crime and Punishment, which leads us to Plan B: special SAT drills. (The ACT doesn’t test vocabulary.)
Word-list help is just a Web search away. Type “SAT words” into the search engine and you’ll find lots of free lists of vocabulary words. One Web site that we like, SparkNotes, has compiled the 1,000 most common SAT words — from abase (to humiliate) to zephyr (gentle breeze).
Our Pick: Your teen can study vocabulary and help fight hunger on FreeRice.com. Every time he or she correctly answers a vocabulary question, the site’s sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nation’s World Food Program.
3. Help from the Test Makers
Both the College Board, which is the source of the SAT, and ACT Inc. will happily inundate your teenager with free test materials.
Among the College Board’s offerings is a daily SAT question, delivered by e-mail. The Web site also offers printable practice tests, and tips for answering questions in each of the SAT’s three areas: reading, math and writing. (If your teenager has just six weeks or so to prepare for the SAT, ePrep’s Schellscheidt suggests focusing on math and writing, the two sections where last-minute cramming is most likely to boost scores.)
The ACT site provides limited free practice opportunities for its 215-question exam, which covers four subjects: math, reading, science and English. There is also a special page with tips for the optional essay question. You can gain access to full practice tests by paying $19.95 at ACT Online Prep.
One word of caution: The ACT is less coachable because it relies more on the high school curriculum. But students can, and probably should, supplement their classroom lessons by extra study before the test.
Our Pick: A cheap source for practice tests is the runaway bestseller, The Official SAT Study Guide. (List price is $21.99, but as of today, the 3-pound book was selling for only $12.86 on Amazon.com.)
4. In-School Prep Classes
Lots of high schools offer inexpensive in-house prep classes. Some schools hire their own faculty or outside teachers for their programs. Other times, schools work with national test-prep firms such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan, which can offer significant discounts for in-school classes.
And try having a conversation with your high school’s counselors. They can sometimes get deserving students comped for what would be an expensive outside test-prep program.
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