Does my student need an ACT/SAT test prep course?

I have been getting a number of questions about the ACT/SAT and prep courses. I put dubious value in these courses and here is why I say that:

Your kids are who they are. No five-week course will change that. Back in our day, we took the 4th grade Iowa Basic test, a high school entrance exam, and then the ACT/SAT…so there was value in learning how to take a standardized test. Nowadays kids take 4-5 standardized tests a year with the MAP & PARCC tests. They’re used to them.

I already know what my boys will get on the ACT/SAT based on their MAP scores.  Every year they take these tests and every year they get +/- the same percentile score. Using the most recent ACT and SAT percentile rankings, you can approximate what your student will score.

Rather than putting undue pressure on the kids for these tests (and you do that by sending them to multiple practice classes), have them take one class, but no need to go overboard.  Despite their claims and promises, no class is going to get your kid a 30 ACT if they haven’t been in the top 93% on other standardized tests in the past.

Here is my (free of charge) 5-Point Test Taking Course:

  1. You start with 4 choices; you can probably eliminate 2 right off.
  2. You now have a 50-50 shot, select the first answer that pops in your head.
  3. Don’t change it! Unless you are 100% sure it is wrong (it probably isn’t).
  4. Don’t get bogged down on a question, not sure – skip it and move on.
  5. The goal is to answer as many questions correctly as possible.

As for retaking the test, ACT.org found that while 57% of the students increased their composite score, 21% had no change and 22% decreased their score. Most increases are 1 or 2 points which is not going to make a big difference (see below). Think about retaking the test only if your score percentage is out of line with historical performance (ie. MAP tests). You should tread lightly here as you have nearly as much of a chance of a lower/same score as an increased one.

If you want to set your kid up for success and reduce college costs, look at colleges where they’ll be in the top 25% of that school’s student population. These are the kids that get merit aid and academic perks. If you are sweating that last ACT point, they are probably going to be in the bottom 25%.  In that case, a conversation with the financial aid office usually goes like this: If you don’t like paying full price, I’ve got 100 kids lined up waiting to take that spot.

Why pay attention to what I’m saying here?  I’ve been at this for nearly 20 years, which means I’ve been through the process more times than your neighbor, cousin, or sister-in-law. I work with families of all income levels, from $17K to $700k. I help 100+ families with the FAFSA every year. Many of these parents and students become tax clients. I do 500+ tax returns annually, so I have a long-term perspective of life post-college.

Final thought: these tests and the college they ultimately choose will not be the determining factor for a successful life. It’s your kids, not the school they attend that deserve the credit for their success!