From fourth grade through college, I played the tenor saxophone. I was no music major, but I was certainly decent – at least good enough to stick around in marching band. Once I had my cap and gown, though, I took a hiatus from the sax. It sat in its case, following me from move to move. That is, until two weeks ago, when I decided to see what I remembered from over a decade of classical and jazz instruction. And what did I remember? The angry-goose-like noise that came from my neglected Yamaha answered that for me: very little, apparently.

Faced with the daunting (if self-determined) task of getting good enough to play a tune in front of my wife without embarrassing myself, I explored my options. I found thousands of hours of instructional videos and practice materials available for free online. I learned a nearby community college offers reasonably priced group classes. And, if I was willing to commit to the process, both with my finances and my time, I could get private lessons. 

I realized it wasn’t too far from the decision facing many of our students as they begin test prep. Certainly, the stakes in my case are lower – college acceptance and scholarships vs. getting through “Careless Whisper” without hurting my pride – but the processes are quite similar. With that in mind, let’s discuss the three ways students and parents generally go about improving students’ test scores.

Self-Study: Discipline Required

If you want to learn a skill, you can probably find a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching that skill. Plenty of talented teachers have devoted their time and energy to uploading high-quality subject-specific material. Whether you’re looking into the saxophone or the SAT, you can find information on what you’re looking for. It’s not limited to YouTube either: a quick search for “Test Prep Self Study” gets you somewhere in the ballpark of 160 million results. Hundreds of test practice books claim to be the authority on the subject. 

Sifting through all that to find actually helpful study materials is a task all on its own. How do you know what your student needs to know? How do you know what your student will respond to? Self-study, by design, leads to a lot of experimentation. By and large, self-study resources cater to students who are self-starters and have a good idea of their test-taking strengths and weaknesses. If they’re not self-starters, they’ll need an external source for that motivation, which is more than likely going to be you, my dear reader/parent. Watching “You HAVE to know these 4 Tips to take the ACT in 2023” is not enough – students will need to practice hard and be willing to seek out the answers to their questions to make a self-study plan work.

Here’s a quick tip for you regarding study materials: the most accurate materials come from the tests themselves. Test books and programs that come from sources that aren’t the SAT or the ACT will be someone else’s idea of what the test is like. Previously-administered tests are closer to the tests your student will take, and are available from the testing organizations themselves. You can find previous SAT tests here: Full-Length SAT Tests, and ACT tests here: Free ACT Resources.

Let’s think back to my plan to re-learn the sax: what if something happens that the video doesn’t explain? Who do I turn to for advice when my instrument just doesn’t sound… right?

Group Classes: Specialized School

Students are used to learning in groups. They’ve been doing it since Kindergarten. Most group test prep classes offer a more favorable student-to-teacher ratio than a standard classroom (think 8-to-1 compared to 20-to-1), but beyond that, the format is pretty familiar. The set schedules and curriculum are great for students who thrive in routine. Students will naturally bounce ideas and solutions off of each other, and the guiding hand of a good tutor keeps the exploration and flow headed in the right direction. Additionally, group classes are offered at a lower price point than private tutoring, which is always going to be a relevant factor.

For students who may be intimidated by the idea of a 1-on-1 tutoring session, a group class is a great way to get comfortable with both the tutor and the test prep subject matter before committing to private sessions. A good group class should equip students with solid generalized strategy and content. The tutor will be able to answer questions about that content, but won’t be able to take the deep dives that may be required to truly understand something, as it just won’t be relevant to enough of the students to be worth the time investment.

The set-in-stone nature of the group class unfortunately carries the same drawbacks as its in-school counterpart. Some students won’t be able to get all the individual attention they need to succeed. Teaching to more than one student requires using a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, and students certainly don’t all learn the same way. And much the same as an in-school class, if a student misses a class, they can miss a lot. Group classes can cover a lot of good strategy and content, and if your student has some time and tests ahead of their test score deadline, they can be a great entry point to test prep.

One size unfortunately doesn’t fit all. Even though the community college class is near my house and affordable, a quick glance at the course summary lets me know they’ll be spending a lot of time on stuff I already know. Not every group class works for everyone. I have a specific goal in mind, so how do I accomplish that as fast and effectively as possible?

Private Tutoring: The Fast Lane

Every student starts their test prep at a different place. Some of our students never took an ACT or SAT before they began working with us. Others have sat for the test 2 or 3 times, but haven’t reached their college acceptance or scholarship goal score. Still others are high flyers looking to tack a few points onto their already 93rd percentile score. Whatever the case, as private tutors, we’re able to give each student the personalized approach and individualized content they need to succeed. 

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Fast, good, cheap: pick two.” This certainly rings true in the world of test prep. Private sessions with an experienced tutor who comes well-recommended are going to cost more than group classes, and will definitely set you back more than the price of a 400-page self-study book. But a good tutor will also save you time (the “fast” mentioned above) by developing curriculum tailored to what you specifically need. 

Private tutoring offers the structure and accountability of group classes alongside the flexibility of self-study. Students are busier than ever, especially 2nd semester Juniors and Seniors, and 1-on-1 tutoring is easier to squeeze into a schedule than a group class. Not all students need all the material: I’m able to lay down some ground rules for strategy, and then leave the typical curriculum behind once I learn about my student’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Edward and I are also able to work with students to set personalized broad and incremental goals – something that isn’t always feasible in a group setting.

There are a lot of well-reviewed and well-respected private saxophone teachers in Atlanta, I just don’t know if my needs justify that level of commitment. I’m not competing for a scholarship – just trying to play a couple tunes. My timeline isn’t cause for alarm, either. If I had more to gain, as a lot of our students do, 1-on-1 lessons would be my pick.

How can I pick an option?

We believe that all students are capable of improving their scores if they work at it. Seriously! Group classes will help faster than self-study, and 1-on-1 is both the quickest and most effective way to raise test scores (statistically speaking – here’s a study from the ACT that says as much). Whatever you and your student choose to do to improve your scores, make sure you understand your context: how far do you need to go, and how quickly do you need to get there?

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Eli Epstein

Eli is Lee Tutoring's go-to guy for teaching reading comprehension and the humanities. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, where he loves to cook, hike, and overshare about esoteric American history.

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