No matter what you decide to do after high school, a good score on your ACT or SAT can help you get there cheaper and faster. Unfortunately, the preparation that students receive to help them with these tests can vary dramatically. New research has even shown that time spent preparing in classrooms hasn’t led to higher scores.

The best way to prepare for these college entrance exams? Consistently meet classroom requirements and push yourself with more advanced science, math, and language classes.

But there's also another way to prepare: SAT and ACT prep classes. These have helped my family make significant gains on the tests. As the mom of a child who used these courses to successfully work through difficult ACT issues, I think they're worth looking into for any student with post-high school academic ambitions.

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What Are SAT and ACT Prep Classes?

Designed to help expose students to the kinds of questions they’ll be asked on the ACT, SAT, MCAT, and other standardized tests, prep courses come in all shapes and sizes.

Back in the ’90s, the only way to prepare for exams was to hire a tutor or buy a large, annually updated study manual. These options are still available, of course.

But people who don’t have time and money for a tutor — and don’t love the idea of dragging around a 650-plus-page study manual — have new choices today. Most SAT and ACT prep classes are available as online resources. Many of them even offer the ability to design flash cards and quizzes for use on mobile devices.

Popular brands of test prep products for today’s ACT and SAT include:

  • BenchPrep
  • Kaplan Test Prep
  • PrepExpert
  • PrepScholar
  • Princeton Review
  • The ACT’s official prep course

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While there are dozens of companies offering services, not all offer self-paced online options. Some stick with live virtual tutoring, while others provide unlimited practice testing, but no more.

The best product combines some form of practice testing with a personalized path of skills mastery best suited to help you overcome the weaknesses unique to you and your education. Consumer reviews can also guide you in making this important decision.

(My daughter, like most high schoolers, was extremely busy with school, work, and social activities. Having a course that was mobile friendly and could track her progress from multiple devices was essential.)

How Much Do These Courses Cost?

Prices range drastically for these programs. Some options have introductory offers or select trial pricing that cost a student $99 or less for a single test.

The other end of the pricing scale can cost a family $1,000 or more for individualized tutoring done by way of video chat. Throw in the cost of optional study materials such as flash cards, workbooks, and mobile apps, and a student can pay from $300 to $1,500 for mastery of both the ACT and the SAT.

Many companies offer a bundle discount for students hoping to study for both tests.

Are SAT and ACT Prep Classes Worth It?

Depending on the course, you may be able to get a guarantee on performance with purchase. For example, the PrepExpert product, developed by Shark Tank celebrity Mark Cuban, promises a four-point increase on the ACT if students use the course as directed.

Other courses pledge comparable results, although some offer money back if you didn’t raise your score by even a point.

What can a student hope to get from paying out hundreds of dollars for a resource like this? In my homeschooled daughter’s case, quite a bit. After choosing a class to guide her through preparation for the ACT, we managed to raise her score by three points in just six months.

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The impact was significant, as it qualified her for a new level of scholarships at her college of choice. The result? An additional $3,000 per year in scholarship funding based solely on her ACT score.

If you're looking for financial aid, check out Scholarship Owl. It allows you to apply for multiple scholarships on one platform.

For other students, the payoff may not be solely financial.

If you're applying to a highly competitive institution, an increase of just a point or two can mean the difference between acceptance and the wait list.

In specific fields of study, such as medicine and law, incoming freshmen may be able to jump to the front of the line for admission and even apply to some academic programs early if their math or science subscores meet a higher threshold.

On the other hand, students who score well enough overall to get accepted may still have to take a basic math course if their math subscore isn’t up to par. This will cost money and not count toward a degree.

Cost-Saving Tips

When faced with the choice of paying for an SAT or ACT prep class or using many of the free options available, it can be tempting to go cheap. There are some ways to shave some dollars off these course costs, including:

  • Checking Groupon or other deal sites for coupon offers for online courses. (This is how we managed to get such a good deal on our course of choice.)
  • Asking your school guidance counselor if there is a schoolwide account with a company for exam prep.
  • Using the free trial of an SAT or ACT prep service to see where your weaknesses are. You can then come back to use the paid service after you’ve brushed up a bit.
  • Focusing on a single test or subject and purchasing resources à la carte for that subject.
  • Applying for the fee waiver for the ACT review program. This is available to low-income students on a first come, first served basis.

When added to the cost of taking multiple tests, prep resources may be out of some students’ reach. That’s why it’s recommended that you check to see if you qualify for a fee waiver. Low-income students can apply for waivers for both the ACT and the SAT and take their exams for free. These waivers save from $46 to $63 per exam, not including additional fees, which students may choose for prep services.

If You're Undecided . . .

Still not sure whether SAT and ACT prep classes are right for you? That’s okay. It often helps to use some of the free resources that are available, especially when deciding whether to take the ACT, the SAT, or both.

The practice tests on the ACT website, the SAT website, and the free SAT prep course at Kahn Academy are good tools for students to consider. They're certainly better than nothing when it comes to getting up to speed on these exams.

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A Special Note for Homeschoolers

It’s also worth mentioning that homeschooled students may have to work harder to get access to certain ACT and SAT resources than those in public or private schools. Obtaining a waiver, for example, is possible. However, you’ll need to contact ACT directly instead of going through a guidance counselor.

More and more homeschoolers are entering the college system. As a result, admissions teams are putting more significance on these standardized test scores when accepting these students, especially since GPA scores are still sometimes viewed as arbitrary.

As such, investing a bit more in your pursuit of a higher grade will be particularly worthwhile for homeschoolers to help demonstrate your child’s abilities and college readiness.

My homeschooled daughter felt far more prepared for her first year of college after taking the ACT a few times and using a comprehensive ACT preparedness program designed to map her growth over time.

The Bottom Line on SAT and ACT Prep Classes

Whether you pay money or get all you can out of free resources, it's important that you prepare in advance. Waiting until the last minute to cram for your ACT or SAT is a bad idea.

Most students who do the best overall start making their study plans as early as the 10th grade. Once you’ve completed geometry and two years of high school-level reading or literature, it’s time to adopt a serious study strategy, whether you go to SAT and ACT prep classes or take advantage of other materials and services.