College admissions are stressful at the best of times, and students and parents are facing unique challenges in 2020.
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s ever-increasing political unrest, applications are hard to focus on.
Your child is juggling school work alongside brand new anxieties and responsibilities, so they may need extra help to make their college applications the very best they can be. But what should that help look like?
Social distancing means that many volunteer opportunities, sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities may be hard to come by for the foreseeable future.
Should the class of 2021 therefore focus more on their test scores? The ACT and SAT loom large in students’ minds, but many colleges plan to allow test-optional application processes this year, or delay testing to respect new health and safety restrictions.
College test prep courses may therefore be a useful tool for students applying to college in 2021.
But are they worth it? Let’s consider the pros and cons.
The Benefits of Test Prep
In tests, as in life, practice makes perfect (or at least better), and that’s scientifically proven.
In a recent survey, the ACT compared test scores of students before and after formal test prep, and found that across all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, scores improved.
It’s hard to argue with the idea that practice tests will help your child when it comes time to face the real deal.
This is the most appealing aspect of the test prep industry: that it will, in fact, get the results your teen is working so hard for.
Learn to Take Tests
The SATs and ACTs don’t just test students’ knowledge—they also require skills in test-taking itself.
Even if your teen has excellent grades, they may buckle under the overload of information in a standardized test, and the additional anxiety of our moment makes it even harder to focus.
From the length of the test to the wording of the questions, SATs and ACTs have their own pace and tone, and not all of it is intuitive. Learning what to expect can make the difference between a mediocre score and a good one.
The biggest benefits of taking a prep course are learning time management, process of elimination, and how to stay focused in the moment.
Of course, students can study test-taking strategies independently, but having someone to determine which areas your teen needs help in can stop them from getting overwhelmed.
Independent study can be difficult for students quarantining at home, so guided practice can really help!
The Disadvantages of Test Prep
Let’s not be unrealistic—even in the study linked above, the students tested only improved their scores by 1 or 2 points on the ACT.
In other studies, SAT scores generally only improved by around thirty points.
Small improvements may be worth it if your teen is right on the brink of the next percentage bracket, but you won’t see a massive spike in scores.
Most of these studies are released by tutoring agencies themselves, so don’t expect your child to turn into a champion test-taker overnight, or even at all!
Stress in 2020
Your teen is under a lot of pressure already. If Coronavirus and the divided state of our country are concerning to you as an adult, your child is just as troubled by these factors, if not more.
Being a minor means having little control over your world, and the world is very overwhelming right now.
Sometimes over-preparing can heighten anxiety and make both test prep harder and scores lower.
It may be a good idea to consider your teen’s quality of life before committing to a rigorous test prep schedule.
If tests are especially difficult for your child, consider focusing on polishing other aspects of their application so that their skills can shine.
Test prep tutoring can be as expensive as $250 per hour for in-person tutoring, which will likely be hard to come by this year due to COVID.
However, online and group sessions come in at around $100, which is still too high for many Americans.
It’s up to you whether this is financially viable for your family, and worth it at its cost.
How Much Do Tests Matter?
Colleges are looking for a lot more than high scores. Today, more and more admissions officers say that grades, admissions essays, and academic growth are far more important to them than that perfect 1600.
In our uncertain times, colleges are also keeping in mind that many students’ lives have changed wildly, and understand that test performance is affected by this.
Tests may be delayed or cancelled this year, so work on grades and experiences instead of pulling your hair out!
It will likely be even more key for your teen to continue to have a life outside of academics that they can draw from in their college applications.
Life in 2020 has been complicated for families everywhere, and colleges will want to hear about what prospective students have learned through their unique experiences.
So, What’s Your Choice?
You know your teen best, and understanding them is the most important aspect of deciding whether or not to enroll them in a test-prep program.
While their scores will likely improve with test-prep tutoring and they will gain useful test-taking skills, it will cost you and possibly add to your child’s stress.
Moreover, this year’s application process will certainly be impacted by the unique qualities of 2020—but that’s not a bad thing!
It may be helpful to keep in mind that college admissions officers have families, too, and they know just as much as you do about how life has changed since last year’s applications.
Whatever approach you choose, consider this a moment for your teen to show off everything they’ve learned about the world, both in school and across this complicated year.