How I Ended up Spending $8,000 on SATACT Prep

How I ended up spending $8,000 on SAT/ACT prep– and how you can avoid making my mistake.

Would you believe me if I told you that, when I was preparing my own college applications, I spent $8,000 on test prep alone? I visited 7 different test prep centers near my neighborhood, as well as asked my friends for referrals, all because I was desperate to get the best SAT scores possible. I attended 3 of these test prep centers, only to realize that my scores remained stagnant. In all test prep centers, my scores only improved by 100 to 200 points, and even that point gain wasn’t consistent. I felt stupid, and told myself that I wasn’t smart enough to compete in the statistics-driven college admissions process.

And, you know what the worst part was?

I knew my parents couldn’t support me financially. However, given that they were, and are, hard-working immigrant parents, they felt that financing me through this test prep process was something that they had no choice but to do. In times of financial stress, my dad would even joke by saying things like, “You better pay me back.”

Long story short, in retrospect, I can see that my successes and failures throughout the admissions process weren’t about the testing centers. They came from identifying which concepts I needed to master, and building the commitment and motivation I needed to work consistently on improving them, without giving up along the way.

Taking SAT or ACT exams will be a different experience for everyone. Just because one method with one mentor worked for one student, does not mean that it’s going to work for your child. Also, in terms of reading and writing sections, if your child does not already have solid grammatical and reading comprehension skills, or they are having a hard time concentrating when reading passages they are unfamiliar with, it’s going to be a difficult journey.

Therefore, as your child enters this process, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not about when your child should start test prep, or who your child should be working with. The most important thing to consider is whether your child is committed, motivated, and persistent enough to work diligently over the next two to three months, in order to get the best score possible.

Preparing for too long of a time is also not the right answer. I would say that the best thing to do is usually to spend 2 or 3 months during summer break preparing alongside a good mentor, with helpful resources, having identified and focusing on the areas of weaknesses that need to be mastered.

So, before jump-starting SAT and ACT test preparation, here are some questions that you and your child should ask yourselves:
  • Has my child downloaded, and taken, a diagnostic test from College Board, identifying which core concepts he or she may need to improve on? (Example: punctuation, vocabulary-in-context questions, circles, distance equations, and etc.)
  • If so, is there a pattern that occurs between his or her missed or skipped answers?
  • Does my child have enough time during the summer break to dedicate two to three hours per day of consistent work to test prep?
  • If I were to enroll my child in a testing center, is he or she motivated to give their best?
  • Why is this score so important to us? Is it because of competitive college statistics? Scholarships? What is our exact reason for preparing for this test?
  • What kind of teacher are we looking for? Someone who is aggressive? Kind? Patient? Strategic? In other words, who would be a good fit for my child?

I have compiled this list because these are some of the questions that I ask my current students to answer before beginning their SAT and/or ACT prep. In addition, these are all questions that I wish I had asked myself when I was in high school and going through this process.

Looking back, I can see that my parents sacrificed much for my education. Because of this, when I work with my current students’ parents, I know that they really care about their children’s futures, and that every decision made is very important to them.

Therefore, I wanted to take this moment to give you a bit of encouragement: all of the students are doing fine, and the best that they can. What is important is that you and your child find clarity in the midst of pressure, competition, and a wealth of information.


By Julie Kim Ed.M Harvard University