College Admissions Test Prep and Tutoring: Is It Worth the Investment?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 2 comments


Considering the massive student loan debt most college graduates face, there’s increasing debate about whether a traditional four-year degree is a worthwhile investment for young adults. Still, most (69.7% in 2016, to be exact) high school graduates still choose to enroll.

And college tuition and boarding aren’t the only expenses for students either, because finances come into play long before that first meeting with the financial aid department. Trying to meet or beat the universities’ standardized test thresholds and stay competitive for limited scholarship funds, many high school students (or more likely, their parents) fork out money for ACT or SAT test preparation programs as soon as their sophomore or junior year.

The tests themselves don’t cost that much – the basic SAT testing fee is $45, while the basic ACT is a little lower at $39.50. One-on-one test prep tutoring, on the other hand, can be a several-thousand-dollar investment. While group test prep programs tend to run on the lower end of that, elite programs that promise top test scores can cost up to $9,000! That’s more than the average tuition and fees for attending an in-state university for four years.

Obviously, if these services exist, students and their parents are desperate enough to pay for them. But does it make a difference? The National Association for College Admissions Counseling says the average improvement students can expect with test prep programs is 30 points for the SAT and less than 1 point for the ACT. That might not seem like much, but it can sometimes make the difference between scholarship funding and student loans, and that difference is huge.

For students weighing the cost to return ratio on the concept of standardized test prep, here are a few questions to consider.

1. Are there lower-cost options that can meet your needs?

One-on-one tutoring is preferred for a reason, despite the higher hourly or package rate. Some students need a personalized strategy that addresses their weaknesses and maximizes their strengths for the best possible test score — some top-level private tutoring services can raise a student’s ACT composite score an average of 4 to 6 points. Still, it’s expensive.

Group test prep with services like the Princeton Review or Kaplan are cheaper and promise similar results. A group setting might also work better for some students who can’t handle the pressure of personal tutoring. Some even offer money-back guarantees if you’re not satisfied with the improvement in your test scores.

Finally, there are numerous free or very cheap self-guided test prep programs online. Free is great, but these require a lot more self-motivation and discipline and may not yield the same results as interactive teaching.

2. How do your goal colleges treat these tests?

Secondly, consider the specific requirements of you (or your teenager’s) goal colleges, not just what everyone else is doing or what you think will give you a competitive advantage. Do what’s best for your situation. If your goal colleges require these tests, then take them. If they don’t, save your money.

Surprisingly, a large body of colleges and universities are placing less emphasis on these standardized tests for evaluating incoming students. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reports that more than 240 top-tier colleges, including more than half of Top 100 national liberal arts colleges, are now test-optional.

The bottom line is that the answer to “is test prep a good investment?” will be different for everyone. If a certain test score is attainable and will translate into scholarship funds or admission into an elite university, then factor testing and test prep expenses into your college savings plan. If it isn’t, save your money and invest it in something that will yield a better return for your education and career goals.

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  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    In the business world what percentage of employees are normal workers and what percentage are executives ? Possibly 10 % – 15 % are the higher ups . And yet since the 1970’s / 1980’s or so kids are encouraged to go to college , even the dumbest of the dumb. My last year at the University of Miami 1964 – 1965 tuition was $ 1000.00 a year . Now tuition at the same school and others at that level , the tuition is $ 46,000.00 a year . Of course besides the tuition kids have the cost of books , room , 3 meals a day , transportation and other assorted expenses . Even in State colleges with lower tuition rates , after 4 or 5 years the kids have $ 30,000.00 to $ 100,000.00 debt. Add about 7 % yearly interest to that and you have a heavy burden for the next 12 to 15 years before getting married or buying a house. Are there enough high paying jobs out there , I think NOT. A young friend of mine who used to work for me in the 1980’s studied to be an electrician and now owns his own business . He told me that it is very difficult to find young apprentices willing to learn and eventually become electricians . [ or plumbers or carpenters , etc. ] these are all high paying jobs and after learning the trade they have very little debt . The young kids are being conned . Wake up and smell the roses !

  • I don’t think it’s worth the money. This spending on college, and college prep is unsustainable. Wages are about the same as when i graduated college in 2000, but the price of college has doubled. There are a lot of good (mostly free) resources online, so spending thousands to get 30 points higher on the SAT seems like a waste.

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