How to shop for test prep: 5 questions to ask before you start prepping for the SAT or ACT

Getting ready to prepare for the SAT or ACT, but feeling unsure of how best to study? There are a lot of options for test preparation, and deciding whether to study on your own, take a class, or get private tutoring can feel overwhelming.

Start by asking yourself the questions below. There are five main factors you'll want to consider: your grade level, test date, experience with the exam, budget, and learning style.

What grade am I in (or heading into)?

If you’re a freshman or rising sophomore interested in taking the SAT/ACT—or getting ready to take the PreACT or PSAT—you’ll want to make sure that you have a firm foundation. Some freshmen or sophomores opt for academic tutoring or self-study to help them strengthen the foundational skills necessary to succeed on these exams.

Alternatively, if you are a rising junior or senior, feel confident in your academics, and want to master test-taking strategies, a prep course or tutoring might be more beneficial to you.

When do I plan to take the SAT/ACT?

If your target test date is over a year away, your best bet is to start with self-study before taking a class or getting started with a tutor. You have plenty of time to figure out whether studying on your own is right for you or whether you'd benefit from the extra support and accountability that comes with taking a class or working with a tutor.

If you're planning to take the test in the next 6-12 months, tutoring or a prep course could be helpful next steps. And if you're planning to take the test in five months or less, consider the benefits of working with a tutor who can help you focus your studies and maximize your available time before test day.

How much test prep experience do I have?

If you're starting from scratch, self-study can be a good way to get your feet wet. However, depending on your testing timeline and learning style, a prep course or tutoring might still be a better starting point for you.

If you’ve taken the test before or completed a prep course but still haven’t met your goal, you’re a likely candidate for tutoring, especially if you know which sections and concepts you’d like to focus on. Tutors can help you target your specific needs, help you identify areas for improvement, and help you reach your goal score sooner.

To get a sense of how many hours you might need to reach your goal score with an ArborBridge tutor, click here and scroll down to check out our helpful calculator.

What's my budget?

Self-study is, of course, the most budget-friendly way of prepping for the SAT and ACT. Free resources like Khan Academy can be great ways to cover the content that appears most frequently on the exam.

With that said, there are a ton of classes and tutoring options out there if independent studying isn't the best fit for your learning style or testing timeline. Consider taking free diagnostic exams to determine your starting point and to get recommendations from our experts.

What type of learner am I?

We all learn in different ways, and learning the skills to master a test like the SAT or ACT is no different. Our learning styles and experiences exist on a spectrum, and rarely are we simply in one category or the other. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about what works best for you.

Are you the type of student who likes to cram, or do you like to study slowly and steadily? Are you a self-starter, or do you need a cheerleader? Do you need to talk about what you learn to internalize it, or are you someone who likes to sit and absorb information?

Self-study can be a good option for students who are highly motivated, independent, and organized. If you can learn well by reading and practicing on your own—and you're able to stick to a study plan—you may have great success with this method.

Students who want the accountability and camaraderie of a classroom experience and who learn best by listening to lectures may find that a prep course fulfills their needs.

Tutoring is the most personalized approach: working one-on-one with a tutor gives you the opportunity to receive direct feedback from an expert and make immediate adjustments. If you're considering working with a tutor, ArborBridge can match you with someone whose teaching style is the right fit for your learning style.

The bottom line: there's no one-size-fits-all approach.

Test prep is a learning process in more ways than one. You may find that the first test prep approach you try isn't as successful as you'd expected. Or you may find that a study method works well for you at first, and then you need to try something else to get past a plateau—and that's okay. There are many paths to the score you're aiming for, and you're already on your way to finding your personal best fit.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Josh Hsu

About Josh Hsu

Since earning his M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine, Josh has taught students of all ages for nearly every college or graduate school admissions exam. A strong advocate of the Socratic style of teaching, Josh believes that the best learning experience comes from guiding students to discover the practical techniques that work for them, coupled with a thorough understanding of the content of the exam. Josh recognizes that all students have specific needs, and he meticulously structures their programs and his teaching style to build on their strengths.

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