Another sign of the tough economic times—parents are spending on test prep help for their college-bound children as never before. A number of recent articles in the national press have featured discussions of the brisk business that test prep companies are currently enjoying, in part, because of the troubled economy.
For example, the Wall Street Journal recently ran an article entitled “Families seek help with college
” reporting that some families significantly invest in test prep in order to increase their children’s chances of gaining admission not just to the top-tier schools but also access to the generous aid packages that those schools offer admitted students.
The kitchen-table questions that families are asking are: Is test prep a good investment? If so, what would be the best test prep strategy for my college-bound kid?
Though some students may be motivated enough to prepare on their own, others might need the structure of a test prep class, and still others might be best served by a personalized test prep tutoring program. A colleague who is a college counselor at a nearby prep school offers the analogy of how gym memberships are used by different people: some people are motivated enough to just go to the gym and workout on their own, some might need to enroll in a cardio-training class, and others would be best served by one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer.
The questions linger: What is the right thing for my child? How can parents determine what would work best for their child’s specific needs and aptitude?
Pragmatically speaking, we recommend that parents approach the test prep question by further informing themselves.
Of course, parents should consider test prep within the broader discussion of the entire college admissions process beginning a conversation with their child’s school counselor at school no later than March of the junior year in order to develop as realistic a sense as possible of how their child’s broader profile (transcripts, curriculum, test scores, co-curricular activities, etc.) compares to the profiles of students admitted in recent years to the schools that their child wants to attend.
The following tips should help parents answer the kitchen-table test prep questions:
1) We strongly urge parents be begin by being certain to carefully vet any test prep company that they are considering for their child in order to assure that it offers an approach to the tests that meets their child’s specific needs while also meeting best practices guidelines established by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors
. Those guidelines are: familiarity with test question format; familiarity with test administration procedures; alignment with skills necessary to master college preparatory coursework; and instruction in basic study habits and skills
2) We strongly recommend that students take a free practice test--either an ACT or an SAT, or both--with a test prep company that provides substantive and individualized test assessment to determine if test prep might be a good investment of the student’s time and the parents’ money.
3) In consultation with a test prep company educator who is capable of providing a substantive and individualized assessment of the student’s practice test, determine what type of test prep would be best suited to the student’s individual needs by considering such questions as: Is the student motivated? Might an online course be effective? Would a classroom experience be more productive?
4) Consider an approach to test prep that permits students to focus their time and efforts on those areas in which they need the most preparation; such a focused, subject-specific approach can save money. Are there certain areas of weakness that need more work than others? Might a review of just basic grammar or math suffice?
5) Create a calendar that schedules the student’s test prep program with a specific test and test date in mind. Generally, students should allow themselves a minimum of twelve weeks preparation time before sitting for an official exam.
As daunting as the college admissions process may seem, it is important to bear in mind that students and their families can wield much more control over the process than they initially think. Some smart first steps towards gaining control over the process would be to schedule an initial meeting with your high school’s college counselor; follow that meeting by calendaring application, financial aid, and test registration deadlines; compose a preliminary list of approximately 15 schools that match your child’s wishes and
aptitude—a list that should be reduced to 7 or 8 schools by the fall of the senior year; take a free online practice test
; and begin to explore whether or not your child would benefit from a test prep program.
Courtney Federle holds a PhD from The University of California, Berkeley, has both taught and served as an undergraduate admissions officer at The University of Chicago, and is currently working as a teacher, curriculum developer, and schools liaison at Academic Approach