SAT and ACT Prep: How Does Individual Tutoring Compare With a Class?

History of the SAT and ACT.  SAT/ACT preparation has been around for a long time.  In 1946 Stanley Kaplan started tutoring students in New York to do better on the SAT.  Kaplan’s business prospered and eventually offered classes nationwide.

Princeton Review got into the act in the early ’80s, emphasizing “tricks” for “beating” the exam and advocating clever strategies to out-guess the test makers.  Recently Princeton Review was accused by Kaplan of false advertising.

In the past decade there has been a proliferation of agencies offering SAT/ACT classes.  Many private tutors also offer lessons.   How does an agency class stack up against the instruction that a tutor offers?  Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal that casts doubt upon the belief that an agency course will improve your SAT score substantially: SAT Coaching Found to Boost Scores — Barely.
And here’s another article that discusses the promises made by test prep companies to elevate students’ scores: Princeton Review Curbs Claims on Test Prep Score Gains
Let’s do our own agency-versus tutor comparison:
An Agency Class: 10-25 Students.  Considerations in Favor.  Kaplan and Princeton Review classes help students achieve higher test scores in three ways.  First, just by taking such a course,  you are likely to increase your confidence, because you’re choosing a path that many others before you have taken, and it seems to have worked for them.  (The high cost of an agency course, instead of repelling parents, may actually make the course more appealing to them; a parent who pays an agency a thousand dollars or more for their child’s SAT or ACT preparation is being sold a kind of moral reassurance: “No one can say I haven’t done everything I can for my child!”)
Second, if you enroll in an agency class and take your preparation at all seriously, you are  bound to improve your skills simply by listening to the instructor’s suggestions and answering the practice questions that the agency provides. The key to SAT success is practice and more practice — and an agency class will furnish you with plenty of that. 
Third, taking an agency class will encourage the disciplined study that you need in order to do well.  Your parents are paying good money for this thing, so you’d better sharpen your pencil, sit yourself down, and do the work.
Considerations Against an Agency SAT/ACT Prep Class.  First of all, an agency class is expensive.    Second, in such a class, you’ll get an instructor whom the agency chooses, and who may or may not be a good teacher.  It’s quite important to have an instructor who can teach you well and whom you like.  Some agency instructors are very good at what they do, others are less skilled.
Third, the courses offered by Kaplan and Princeton Review do NOT use the official practice tests offered by the official test makers: Educational Testing Service and ACT, Inc.   Agencies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review create their own practice tests, which may differ from the actual SAT or ACT test in degree of difficulty and in the nature of the questions asked.  If you study with Berkeley Tutors, you will use the official SAT/ACT practice tests, along with other effective preparation materials that we have designed  to complement the official study guides published by ETS and ACT, Inc.
Fourth, and most important, a class of 10 to 25 students, even if it’s taught well, cannot give you the individual attention and guidance that you need to prepare efficiently and effectively. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: each student has an individual profile of knowledge and test-taking skills that he or she brings into a preparation class.  One student may be strong in math, but weak in English reading and writing.  Another student reads with good comprehension and writes well, but cannot solve algebra equations.  A third is an ace at algebra, but finds geometry problems baffling.   A fourth does well with the sentence correction part of the test, but needs guidance in writing a clear, grammatically correct essay.
A Kaplan or Princeton Review class instructor, no matter how skilled, cannot effectively address the diversity of needs that is typical in a class of 10-25 students.  At one time, the instructor will be going over material with some students that you already know.  At another time, you’ll be receiving useful guidance while a student next to you falls asleep.   SAT or ACT preparation is a situation where one size does NOT fit all.
It’s worth noting as well that although you’ll pay top dollar for an agency prep class, little of that will find its way into the hands of the teacher.  Although many agency teachers are competent and work hard, they are not well paid.  This situation may  somewhat diminish their teaching motivation and their patience with your particular preparation problems.
For the reasons given above,  meeting regularly with a tutor or guide who knows about SAT preparation is the best way for most students to prepare for the test.   You want guidance that from the very beginning takes your particular situation fully into account.  Returning to our comparison of the SAT/ACT to a game or sport like soccer — a coach can give general instruction to all the players.  But if you want to improve specific skills —  your dribbling, passing, heading, kicking — then you’ll need more personalized attention and instruction.  It’s the same with the SAT/ACT.  There is no substitute for guidance that is tailored to your particular abilities and needs.
The personalized instruction and guidance that a good tutor provides enables you do your very best on the SAT or ACT exam.  For more discussion of this subject see: GOOD TUTORING.
We discuss criticism of the SAT test here: IS THE SAT CULTURALLY BIASED AND UNFAIR?