The test-prep industry in the US, of which I am a part, has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Many families may find themselves wondering if the time and energy spent preparing for college admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT is justified. That’s a valid concern since there are so many ways to prepare, from books for self-study to online courses to group classes to private tutors. So before asking “Should I get a tutor?” you may want to ask yourself “Should I prep at all?” That’s an easier question, and the answer, for most students, is a resounding yes.

It works
The SAT and ACT are demonstrably consistent tests. They’re measuring the same skills each time and are remarkably similar from test to test and from year to year. That’s why test prep works. Success on these tests requires a set of skills that is often different than that which is required for success in school, but they are skills that can be taught, practiced, and learned. And students can dramatically improve their scores. After all, can you think of anything that you can practice and not get better at doing?

The journey not the destination
What’s more important than the score increase, however, can be the real lesson students learn: hard work pays off. Running the gauntlet of junior year standardized tests and the subsequent college admissions season can be one of the first real “adult” trials of a teen’s life, with consequences seemingly stretching years into the future. While those consequences are surely not as dire as many students fear, the perception remains, and how students handle this stressful experience can inform their futures more than any numbers on any test ever could. Setting a goal, working hard to achieve it, and, with any luck, finally doing so can be a tremendously positive and gratifying experience. It is exactly the behavior you want modeled for young people about to head off to the independent working environment that is college.

So should I get a tutor?
So with all the test prep options out there, how do you choose the right approach? I like to make an analogy between preparing for the SAT or ACT and getting in shape. (But then again, I’m a test prep tutor, so I like analogies). Both require hard work that’s not often fun, a significant time commitment, and a certain level of expertise. Just about anyone can get in shape by exercising at home, but it takes lots of time and determination and can put you at a risk for injury. In the same way, most kids can utilize free test prep materials to self-study, especially those with a surfeit of time and self-discipline, but they may either use their time inefficiently or focus on the wrong things. Back to exercise, going to a gym is easier and more efficient; you have access to a larger variety of tools designed by experts and helpful people float around to be sure you’re using them correctly. This gym experience is roughly equivalent to taking a test prep class. You’re in a more serious and supportive environment that can help you focus more clearly on your goals, and that might be all you need. Going up a level, obtaining a private tutor is much like hiring a personal trainer. A talented tutor or trainer is there to give you that extra push to ensure you’re working at the leading edge of your comfort zone to help you get better results in less time; they’ll keep you motivated and focused on the correct goals; and they can be a partner in your journey. A really good one even makes the whole process fun!

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so the key is to understand your personality, your score goals and your learning needs so that you can get the right level of support to be in tip-top shape on test day.

Aaron Golumbfskie is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 20,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring. He continues to tutor every day, but he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time creating pedagogical materials and leading the training and mentoring of new tutors at PrepMatters. Aaron is a member of the NTPA Board of Directors.