Is SAT Tutoring Worth the Cost?


The costs can be obscene. The value can be suspect. But, if you can afford it (even if it requires some struggle), shouldn’t you hire an SAT tutor for your child? Isn’t it your obligation as a parent to give your kids a jumpstart on a great college, great career, great life?

As a longtime SAT tutor, I can attest that SAT classes are no longer the sole purview of the rich or the overachieving. As colleges become more and more competitive, parents have taken up their own sort of arms race to make their children more competitive than their peers—“If my child doesn’t take an SAT course, will she lose her spot at college to a kid who did?”

At Princeton, the admissions rate is 9%, but almost 22% of students with SATs between 2300-2400 got in. (Under the old system, the top score used to be 1600. Now, the top score is 2400. Each section is still worth 800 points, but in addition to reading comprehension and math, there’s now a mandatory writing section.)

Similar statistics hold for most of the top universities; as much as I recognize that the SAT is a flawed and sometimes biased test, there’s no denying that it matters.

How Much SAT Prep Actually Costs

Private SAT tutoring can easily cost $125 a session in major cities like New York—often even more. One upscale Manhattan tutoring company offers private tutoring starting at $195 per 50 minutes. Presumably, if you want to see serious score improvements, you’ll schedule tutoring for your child at least once a week for at least a few months. With hardly a blink, you could drop $3,000 or more trying to raise your teenager’s test scores.

Certainly, there are more budget-friendly options like Kaplan, which starts at about $300 for a self-directed online course, and ranges up to about $600 for an 18-hour class led by “top-scoring teachers.”

But the real question remains: Will my kid’s scores even go up?

Eh, Maybe

OK, let me rephrase that: You kid’s scores may go up. I’ve had students whose scores have gone up hundreds and hundreds of points after taking formal SAT classes. But I’ve also had students whose scores see little to no difference.

In my mind, whether or not your teen’s score goes up depends more than anything on how much she cares. If you want your child to go to a top school, but she would just as soon skip tutoring and spend more time practicing soccer, I don’t think you should spend the money.

I’ve found that there are three general types of SAT students:

  1. Smart kids who could use help with test-taking. This is the group with the biggest score improvements. After I teach them techniques to deal with the SAT, they learn quickly and the mental block evaporates.
  2. Kids who need more help with the underlying material. I’ve taught privately and in class settings, and when I have a class, I can see the students separate into these first two buckets within weeks. The ones who could use more fundamental help with math or vocab, for example, may start at the same level as the first group but don’t improve as quickly. That said, with a good tutor and a motivated kid, they can definitely see improvement, too.
  3. Kids who simply don’t care. It’s sad but true—this sometimes makes up the majority of my students. Their scores may improve a little, but they’re not getting their (parents’) money’s worth from the course. 

Signs You May Want to Skip the SAT Tutor

SAT tutoring isn’t for everyone. If you go it alone, this is the best prep book in my opinion, because it’s actually from the CollegeBoard, rather than from companies like Princeton Review trying to guess at SAT-esque practice questions. I didn’t have any SAT tutoring before I took the test, back in the day. But I did spend hours holed up in my bedroom with this book of sample tests, timing myself.

There are two cases in which I think you may not need to fork over tons of cash for test prep:

  1. Your kid is extremely self-motivated, already understands all the core concepts and has been successful with self-study for other standardized tests like AP exams or the PSAT
  2. Your kid doesn’t care, won’t put in the work and will potentially be a distraction to the rest of the kids taking the test

Signs You May Want to Pay for SAT Prep

  • Your kid cares about her score, but may not be self-motivated enough to do the studying on her own
  • Your teen is a nervous test-taker (confidence translates to real score increases!)
  • Your child is struggling with core concepts and would benefit from extra help
  • Your kid is having trouble finishing the test during the time constraints
  • Your teen is trying to hit a score “landmark” but is having trouble getting there (like trying to pass the 2100 threshold)

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