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Updated on Aug 29, 2008

Competition for college admissions has hit an all-time high this year, as universities report record applications from high school seniors around the country. This steady increase has put even more pressure on students to improve their applications by any means necessary, especially the notoriously important SAT scores. Of course, a number of companies are only too happy to take advantage of nervous parents in the quest to improve scores. But are expensive tutoring services really necessary for your teen's SAT success?

Two tutoring services, Kaplan and Princeton Review, dominate the field of SAT prep. Kaplan Inc. offers test prep courses around the country, charging a full $2,500 for private tutoring, and up to $1,000 for a set of classroom sessions. Princeton Review courses go even higher, reaching a mind-numbing $8,000 for a package session with in-home "master tutors". Both companies are so confident in their courses that they offer full refunds if scores don't improve. In the chat function of their website, one Princeton Review representative bragged that your SAT will improve "150-200 [points] on average".

These high-priced sessions bring up an important point –  if results are guaranteed, students who cannot afford their services may be placed at a disadvantage in the application process.  Application fees and college visits, coupled with recent tuition increases, are already stretching families to the limit. Students in low-income school districts struggle to come up with the $40 fee to take the SAT, let alone thousands for its preparation.

In an ideal world, all students would have an equal opportunity to earn a spot in the college of their choice. Unfortunately, companies who offer these sessions exploit the pressure placed on wealthy families, and exacerbate the disparity in education for those at the other end of the income bracket. But if you, like most families, cannot afford thousand-dollar test-preparation, there are still plenty of ways to boost your child's scores without breaking the bank – something those companies won't tell you.

Buy the Book, Skip the Tutors
Buying an SAT preparation book should be your first step in the process. You can find a good one online or in your local retailer for a reasonable 25-30 dollars. Hint: In late spring, manufacturers begin slashing prices to make way for next year's new editions (there is virtually no difference between two books from consecutive years, so take advantage of the deal!).  A quick search on Amazon.com reveals nearly fifty different options -- you can use the handy user reviews to narrow down your choices.

You may notice that the major players in the high-priced tutoring market also have books for sale. Their core strategies (used in those high-priced sessions) are spelled out in clear, easy-to-read chapters, so that anyone can take advantage of their methods.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Most books come with at least one full-length practice test in the back. As soon as possible, have your child take a simulated test. Set up a quiet space, keep time according to the time limits on the SAT, and encourage him to take the test as if it were the real thing. According to the official ACT website, studies have shown that a student's standardized test score is markedly higher with only a single practice test.  Once you've graded the test, you'll know your child's strengths, as well as those areas that may need extra help.

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