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Should You Hire an SAT Tutor?

A recent celebrity college admission scandal saw actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman being charged with bribery and fraud, accused of going to devious and illegal measures to ensure their kids were admitted to colleges that they might not otherwise have been accepted to. The scandal illuminated the lengths to which some students and parents will go to ensure attendance at their school of choice. While most of us won’t break the law, there are certainly increased measures one can take to broaden their chances for university admissions. Scoring particularly well on the SAT is one obvious tactic. Some students chase this goal via significant self-study; others pay for private SAT tutors and SAT prep courses.

Some people pay a LOT of money for SAT coaching. How does it work? It is it worth it? It depends.

Is there too much focus on SAT scores?

The College Board spent decades, beginning in the 1950s, claiming that external test preparation courses and SAT tutors could and would not lead to any significant increase in scores. Some evidence has proven the contrary; studies have shown that formal, guided test prep can help boost scores. The College Board themselves even changed their tune, in 2016, by offering their own test prep services. Students must remember these test prep courses are businesses with the goal of increasing their revenue, though, and should plot their SAT success paths accordingly. The claims of point increases due to using a test prep service range from an average increase of anywhere from ten to 300 points. However, that the claimed point amounts vary so much is reason to question the validity of such SAT courses and tutors. Further, that the College Board is now touting its own test prep services is similarly suspect.

Is private SAT coaching worth it?

There is good reason to want to score as high as possible on the SAT exam, outside of basic college entrance. A very high SAT score might earn a National Merit scholarship, which could cover tuition ranging from a few thousand dollars for a partial scholarship, to a full ride; it could also lead to other national academic scholarships. Additionally, individual institutions often offer forms of tuition breaks to in- and out-of-state students who score well.

It makes sense that paying for an SAT tutor or SAT prep course might be well worth the investment. SAT coaches can cost anywhere from $50 per hour on the low end to $500, or more, on the high end. If you do 20 hours of tutoring, that’s an investment of anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 or more in SAT prep. That might seem like an incredibly high amount. And for some families, in fact for many families, it is literally unaffordable and out of the question. That’s why the question of equity and fairness in the university admissions process is an important and valid one.

But the fact is, the lifetime earnings and career prospects that result from getting into a college you otherwise wouldn’t be accepted to can, in many cases, FAR outweigh even a $10,000 investment (assuming you can invest in SAT prep). Imagine getting into Harvard on the back of a 99th percentile SAT score when you otherwise would not have. The lifetime value of a Harvard diploma is very high. There is also a lot of value available from scoring high on the SAT an earning scholarship money. Many less selective schools give scholarships based on SAT performance. So, a few thousand dollars spent on SAT prep – if you have that money to spend – can be earned back in the form of scholarship money for the next four years.

How do SAT tutors help?

Of course, an online SAT tutor might help explain a mathematics or English concept that a student doesn’t understand. They can review important SAT test taking strategies like the process of elimination or reading the possible answers first. Timing is critical on the SAT, and a tutor can help with SAT pacing strategies.


There are two other important reasons to hire outside SAT prep help though: motivation and accountability. Even the most motivated high school student is just that--a high school student. Any teenager who must balance a plethora of high school courses, an ever-changing social, personal, and family life, and an approaching college career could certainly use the structure of scheduled tutoring sessions and the SAT study plan that a good SAT coach will design. Indeed, an experienced SAT tutor or prep course can help the student realize their own strengths and weaknesses, and help them tailor the study material accordingly. Adhering to a schedule and ensuring there is someone else present who will simply help keep the focus on studying, is bound to facilitate a better SAT prep experience.

What is a reasonable SAT prep timeline?

What isn’t much different, between hiring outside help versus studying solo for the SAT, is the timeline leading up to it. After a student assesses the colleges they’re interested in and the schools’ corresponding requisite SAT scores, the student should determine and register for their desired exam date, and plot a study schedule leading up to that date. Generally, they’d want to take this first test by the end of their junior year. The schedule should include at least one full practice test, as well as time to retake the official test, should they wish to improve their scores. Having outside help to help a student adhere to that schedule is unlikely to harm those important SAT scores.

Outside help might come in the form of a private SAT tutor, or enrollment in an SAT prep course. A private tutor is typically going to be the more expensive option, but the student would enjoy the benefit of very focused attention, a major advantage if they have specific problem areas. It might be best to hold off on a private tutor unless the desired University is particularly competitive, or the student has a very short time frame or needs to quickly retake the test. A less expensive option might be to start with an SAT prep course, in which multiple students are enrolled. The disadvantage is that the in-person or online SAT prep would be less focused, to cover a broader range of student needs. The downside to both options is there are simply no guarantees.

Ideally, the discussion over the best way to study will happen before the student begins their junior year. Families will have to determine for themselves between the routes of private tutoring, prep courses, or self-study. Ultimately, the best path to SAT success may be to worry less about how many points a company or tutor promises, and instead consider the student’s needs in terms of motivation and accountability.