The Best SAT or ACT Online Test Prep
Once you’ve decided whether to take the SAT or ACT, you’ll need to start thinking about test prep.
Since we work in the test prep world, we spend a lot of time looking at test prep options for students, so we know that a lot of stuff out there is not all that great, or it’s really expensive and therefore not accessible to all students. Of course it’s in insert-test-prep-company-name-here’s interest to market themselves as the best option out there.
So how is a student to choose? Here’s some important advice on what to look for in an online test prep product:
The cost of online SAT and ACT test prep can vary widely, from free on the low-end to thousands of dollars on the high-end. When it comes to free material, there’s often a lot of misinformed or incorrect information on the internet for SAT and ACT prep, and honestly it makes me sad because I know many unsuspecting students won’t know the difference. Still, I would caution against totally subscribing to the idea that “you get what you pay for” in online test prep. Sometimes this might be true, you get a personal tutor to support you. Maybe you get a customized study plan. Maybe you are paying for a longer subscription period. However, a lot of times, high prices may simply be a result of what companies think you would be willing to pay for test prep. For example, maybe a certain company offers in-person classes for $1199; online recorded sessions of these classes may be offered at $399. It may seem like a huge bargain, but look carefully at what you are getting. Will you be getting the support you need? Does the price justify that?
The People Behind the Product
Every online test prep product is going to say it was created by experts on the test, either because they’ve been teaching the SAT or ACT for years, or because they got really high scores (usually both). Often, these credentials will be backed up by degrees at (sometimes prestigious) institutions, which may or may not mean anything. Ever heard of anyone getting a degree in test prep from Harvard? The point is, you aren’t likely to see a test prep product that says it was created by some average-scoring dilettante. So take these bios into account, but look past them as well and take a hard look at the people behind the product. What is the mission of the company? How have they been helping students? Are they looking to help certain kinds of students or all students? Are they responsive to your questions when you ask them? Are they passionate about what they are doing?
Quantity of Practice Questions
First of all, consider how many questions you really need for your prep plan. There are some online test prep companies that advertise thousands of practice questions. This initially might sound great, but ask yourself how many questions you are likely to use in your test prep? 200? 400? 2000? Do you need more math questions or more reading questions, or equal amounts across the board? How many questions do YOU need based on your goals and the amount of time you have to study?
Keep in mind that you should always include taking official practice tests from the College Board Guide or the ACT in your test prep plan. If you take 4 official practice tests in the College Board book, you’ll complete about 616 questions. If you take the 5 official practice tests in the ACT book, you’ll see about 1075 questions. The questions offered by an online test prep product are a supplement to these: questions to tackle before, during and after you work through the official tests available to you.
Quality of Practice Questions
Quality over quantity is a good rule of thumb when it comes to online test prep. Check out some official SAT or ACT questions first and then see if the practice questions offered by the online test prep company seem to match these in type and difficulty. You can look at practice questions for free on the SAT or ACT websites even if you haven’t bought the books. Many online test prep companies offer a free trial or sample questions and lessons so that you can test drive their products first. See if their questions seem to be up to snuff.
Quality of Strategy Advice
An important aspect of test prep products is the strategy advice they offer on the tests. Generally speaking, the College Board and the ACT are not keen on test prep beyond working hard in school and taking a few practice tests to familiarize yourself with the exam. There’s a reason why the test prep industry is so huge; it’s because very smart people who study these tests inside and out can see the patterns in how they are created. They can tell you what types of questions appear most frequently, what makes for typical “wrong” answers according to the test creators, how to work questions backwards in ways the test makers don’t expect you to. So part of the reason why you would want to choose to prep with a test prep company over simply practicing on your own is to learn these skills. Make sure your online test prep pick offers this valuable strategy advice.
Quality of Lessons
Make sure you look for an online test prep company that offers lessons in addition to practice questions. If you were to take an in-person class or work with a private tutor, you would assuredly be getting taught a thing or two in addition to getting drilled on questions. This is important if you are prepping online as well. You want to make sure that you too can reap the benefits of knowledge from experienced experts.
Modes of Learning
Most good online test prep products provide explanations to practice questions. Of course, the official guides to the SAT and ACT will give you explanations too, but they are not always thorough or satisfying. Check out the level of explanation you are going to get with each practice question. Is there a text explanation? Are there diagrams to help you sort through difficult math problems? Are there video explanations? (One thing many of our students love about Magoosh is that we provide video explanations for every practice question).
Personally, I think this is one of the most important things to be looking for in online test prep. You don’t want to feel like you are floundering out there all alone struggling to prep for these tests. They can be hard. And scary. If you are still confused by a question or concept, do you have anyone you can ask? Does your online test prep product provide tutors or a student help service for when you have questions?
Feedback and Reviews
You should definitely check out reviews of an online test prep product and ask for the opinions of others who might have used it, but take all of this feedback with a grain of salt. Just as on something like Yelp, people have all sorts of motivations for reviewing a product and their reviews may not always be fair. So make sure to look at the whole picture.
If a test prep company stands behind their product, they typically offer some type of guarantee. Is there a money-back guarantee if you are unsatisfied? Is there a score guarantee? Take this into account: you don’t want to spend a ton of money only to find out that the product is not helpful to you.
Choosing an online test prep product for the ACT or SAT is not a decision to be taken lightly. There’s some great stuff out there, and some really terrible stuff. The standardized tests you take in high school can have a huge impact on your future, so make sure you are making good choices.
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia currently focuses on our MCAT and LSAT Prep, but she also has expertise in a wide range of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as college and grad school admissions. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004. She enjoys the agony and bliss of long distance trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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