Prep Talk Blog > November 2009

Prepping for the SAT becomes a crucial part of life for any junior or senior who is serious about college. While some opt for prep books or in-school classes, many rely on commercial test preparation services, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, shelling out thousands of dollars for what they hope are higher scores. But how much do these classes really succeed in helping students improve their grades?

A recent report commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) explored this question by analyzing the impact of test preparation on SAT scores. The gains? “Positive, but small,” according to the report. While many test preparation services claim increases of 100 points or more on the SAT, research suggests that there is a substantially lower average gain of only 30 points.

A thirty-point difference can, however, be between you and your acceptance letter. While these points are small, the NACAC reveals there are some universities and colleges that “make inappropriate distinctions” among applicants. A few higher points can give a student a lot of leverage.

The report has prompted NACAC to discourage colleges and universities from putting a heavy weight on the SAT when determining admission. But until the colleges and universities listen to the NACAC, below are some low-cost SAT alternatives.

Many high schools offer summer SAT prep classes. Check out announcements from local high schools.
As part of their marketing, commercial test-prep services offer special SAT “boot camps”. Princeton Review offers free SAT Strategy Sessions, classes, and practice tests.
If you prefer a more interactive approach, check out test prep video games. My College Options features the free interactive action game, Zero Hour Threat. Aspyr Media Inc.’s “futureU” PC game, designed with Kaplan Inc., helps students study for the SAT using math, reading, and writing games. “My SAT Coach”, designed by Princeton Review, is available on the Nintendo DS and offers timed drills, more than 2,000 practice questions, as well as two full tests.
Always pecking away at the iPhone? released a list of the “Best iPhone Apps for the SAT”.

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College freshman Hannah Holmes discusses the new stresses of college life and offers advice on how to handle pressure:

Anybody who’s in school now will have to agree with me; pressures abounds.

There’s pressure from professors. Do these fifty questions, read this thirty page chapter, and pass this exam, all this week, all in one class. There’s pressure from friends; as a freshman, my first important task was to make friends. Once I had accomplished that, the next task was to keep the friends. Help them out when they need it, because I might need the same, spend time with them, be the kind of person they want to hang out with. There’s pressure from the family; whether they’re tough on you or (like my extremely wonderful parents) supportive, they still want you to succeed at this university that they’re, in all likelihood, at least helping to pay for. And a phone call every night wouldn’t hurt either. There’s the pressure to get involved on campus, to be doing something, separating yourself from the pack; in all your “spare time.” For me and some others, there’s also the pressures of a job; my employers ask occasionally how classes are going, but I’m not sure how fully they recognize that the job is, by far, not the only thing I do… and that I don’t get a day off.

Whether you have more or less than I do going on in your college life, chances are pretty good you’ve felt stressed at one time or another. You’ve probably had a day where you needed to be five different places at once. Or spent three hours on chemistry homework and still didn’t understand a word of it. The question is, how does one stay sane? Here are some things I’ve been doing. They may help you, they may not, but they’ve helped me.

Even though I don’t get a day off, I always make an effort to schedule down time into my day. Even on my craziest days, I have to have some time that’s sacred for relaxation. For example, I don’t think I’ve yet studied through a meal. It may only be fifteen minutes of wolfing down a sandwich, but I always read for fun or hang out with friends while I eat, even when I don’t really have time to. I’m not going to be able to get very far without eating, and the same goes for relaxing. I have to have pressure free times, when I forget about the things I have to do, and all the people I have to please, even myself. For me, taking a walk makes a great study break. The exercise, of course, is good for you, and it’s a time to kind of escape, to spend some alone time (or catch up with a friend) and catch up with you (or someone else). Part of successful studying is knowing when to stop, to walk, watch a T.V. show, or SLEEP! That’s another thing I’ve refused to sacrifice. I know some people who don’t seem to need sleep, but I find I’m at optimal functioning capability if I get a square eight hours. And when I’m awake, I almost always have my iPod in my ears. It helps keep me sane; when life is getting to be a little too much, I jam my headphones into my ears, put on a happy song and blast the volume. Suddenly, it’s a lot easier to have a positive perspective. And a positive perspective makes everyday, no matter how crazy, livable. When you find yourself in a place where you feel like you need to laugh or cry, always choose to laugh. It’s definitely the best alternative.

Well, I’m off to chemistry and biology, where new pressures await me… but then I’m coming back to my room to watch my favorite show for a blissful pressure free hour!

For more stories from students themselves, check out the archives for previous columns in The Freshman Experience.

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As someone who cannot resist laughing (loudly) at her own jokes, I regret to inform you of the following truth: Cute and funny does not cut it when it comes to getting in to college!

If you're drawing tips from Legally Blonde or any of the National Lampoon movies- stop and rewind now! Perfumed stationery and confessions of hilarious pranks are not going to translate well to an admissions committee that is trying to determine how you are going to positively contribute to their campus for the next four years. Remember my previous blog post “Get Up Close and Personal for a Great Essay”? The purpose of your college essay is to show admissions that you are an applicant with character and life experiences that have prepared you to become a successful graduate of their institution.

Andrew Flagel, Dean of Admissions at George Mason University, wrote a great blog article entitled “College Admission Essays: Can Funny Get You an Admission” with horror stories of applicant essays gone wrong- the culprit: a misguided sense of humor. 

Here is Dean Flagel’s advice: “…if you have to TRY to be funny, this is a huge mistake, and may be in error even if you’re the next Seinfeld/Tina Fey reincarnation. Many of you, of course, aren’t funny. You might check with friends – if they’re REALLY good friends, they’ll tell you. Even if you are, however, you have no idea if the admission counselor(s) reading your application have any sense of humor at all.”

As you are writing your essay, think about how you are presenting yourself. You want to write with an honest, clear voice and stand apart from the flock of other applicants. You want your answers to resound with creativity and character. Most importantly, you want to answer the question: “Why should I admit this student over others with a similar GPA, test scores and course background?” The question is serious and deserves a serious, heartfelt answer.

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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
Yes. If it's out there, it's fair game.
No. If it's not part of my official application package, it shouldn't be considered.
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Don Munce