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Only one thing was stopping Justis Slattery from playing soccer in college: his SAT scores. He found a school he wanted to attend, and soccer coach he really wanted to play for, says his mother, Stacy. He earned a coveted spot on the team, and an admissions counselor told him he shouldn’t have any problem getting in.

But then he learned his highest SAT score was exactly 100 points below where it needed to be in order to get accepted. “It’s kind of heartbreaking,” said Stacy. “Nothing matters to him unless it’s soccer.”

Like many students, Justis had tried studying for the test on his own. He bought the Official SAT Study Guide. (Known as the “Blue Book,” it costs about $22, depending on where it is purchased.) But with a full schedule of classes, along with soccer practices and games, he didn’t spend a lot of time going through it.

But when he learned 100 points was the only thing standing between him and his dream, his priorities changed. His mom hired his middle school math tutor, who also tutors students preparing for the SAT, and they went to work. Before and during spring break they spent seven hours working together.

And it worked. Justis took the test again and scored exactly 100 points higher. He was in.

Is It Worth It? Maybe

Stacy says the key was having someone sit down and go over it with him. And that’s often the case, says his tutor, Linsea Mohr. “As a tutor, I see myself more as a puzzle decoder. I just show students how to arrive at the answer the most expediently and then they fly solo.”

Parents often agonize over whether to pay for test prep classes or tutors, but ultimately many do spring for it; the tutoring and test prep industry makes billions of dollars a year. Often, when they do pay for it, they wonder if it’s worth it.

“It’s absolutely worth it,” says Debbie Stier, a single mom with two teenagers who wrote the book The Perfect Score Project about her experience taking the SAT multiple times in an attempt to earn a perfect score. She didn’t get one, but she did raise her score by 330 points — and she helped her son raise his score 590 points (of a possible 2,400 composite for all three portions of the test).

Overall, though, the track record isn’t so hot: a 2009 paper published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling says research has found the average gains from test prep to be “more in the neighborhood of 30 points.”

Stier has since created an online course in critical reading and tutors students one-on-one as well, but she emphasizes that parents don’t have to spend a lot of money on prep. She recommends students rely primarily on the official College Board material to study but can also “use non-official material to build the muscle. Any nonfiction college-level material works.”

For example, she recommends teens read one article a day from The New York Times, The Economist or the The Wall Street Journal. The parents get homework too: Together, you “talk about the main point,” she suggests. “Research shows that studying out loud leads to deeper, more meaningful learning,” she adds.

My daughter recently took her first official SAT as a sophomore. She was invited to be a beta tester for truePrep, a company that is blending technology and the personal touch. She started by taking a practice SAT (using an official College Board test), which was then used to assess her strengths and weaknesses. The company says it uses a proprietary algorithm to hone in on the specific areas students need help with, and to help pinpoint areas where students have the greatest potential for raising their scores. Her tutor worked with her on those key areas via sessions on Skype. She took additional practice tests and, again, her plan was fine-tuned. When she finally took the actual test, she scored 160 points higher than her initial score.

Although my daughter is generally an organized and self-disciplined student, she says she appreciated the forced discipline of her tutoring sessions; between homework and extracurricular activities, she’s not sure she would have made the time to prep — at least not during the school year. And she liked the fact that those sessions didn’t waste her time on areas where she wasn’t having trouble.  “We’ve built our program to be super-efficient,” says truePrep cofounder Andrew Finn. “You can really zero in on the student’s weaknesses.”

Of course, motivated learners can always tackle the test themselves. Katherine Long says she earned a perfect score on the SAT using the Blue Book as her only study guide. “It wasn’t hard, just time-consuming — you have to dedicate the hours into it,” she says. “When I started, I wasn’t good at attention to detail so I kept messing up on the math section, but fixed it by just forcing myself to be more attentive. For the verbal section, I didn’t know SAT vocabulary when I started, but just kept learning and used flash cards. For reading comprehension, you have to remember that the answers are already there in the passage, you just have to find them.”

In addition to the College Board materials, there are dozens of free and low-cost tools and apps that can help students learn vocabulary words, take sample test questions and prep at their convenience. (But be sure to read reviews — some have been criticized for giving wrong answers.) One of the most popular? The College Board’s own free Question of the Day. And the Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to provide free test prep tools, including new ones that will help students prepare for the redesigned test to be launched in 2016.

How to Pay for SAT Prep

If you decide to pay for a class or hire a tutor, here’s what not to do: raid your child’s 529 college savings funds. If you do, you’ll have to pay taxes and a 10% penalty. “It would not be a qualified expense,” warns Jim Ludwick, CFP and founder of Main Street Financial Planning. That means you’ll either have to shell out the money out of your current income or savings, or find another option.

1. Use Interest-Free Financing 

If you must pay for a package deal upfront, you can consider using a 0% credit card offer to pay it off over time while avoiding interest charges. Some card issuers offer 0% for up to 18 months on purchases while others offer similar deals on balance transfers. (Credit.com publishes a list of the Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards in America.) Just make sure you can pay off the balance before the free financing period expires. And if you take advantage of a balance transfer offer, keep in mind most, though not all, issuers charge a balance transfer fee of up to 4% of the amount transferred.

2. Create Your Own Payment Plan

While some programs may charge you upfront, tutors often work on a pay-as-you-go basis. TruePrep, the program my daughter used, for example, charges $75 an hour, and doesn’t require a long-term contract. If you sign a contract for tutoring or test prep, make sure you understand the commitment you are making. The last thing you want is to stop paying and have a debt turned over to collections, where it hurts your credit scores. (You can see if a collections account is affecting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

3. Get Creative

Kreigh Knerr says he once bartered his services as an SAT tutor for voice lessons. “My old voice teacher had a high-school-aged child, and we traded voice lessons for SAT prep,” he says. A former teacher who now runs the Knerr Learning Center in Milwaukee, he normally charges $250 per hour-and-a-half tutoring session, and his voice teacher’s rate was $100 an hour, “but we just did a straight exchange of SAT session for voice lessons,” he says.

Charlotte Baker says she found an SAT course her daughter Eva really wanted to attend, but couldn’t afford it. (Eva, who blogs about money at TeensGotCents.com previously shared her SAT experience with Credit.com.) Says Charlotte: “After speaking with the instructor I found out that if I hosted the class by finding a facility, helping advertise the class, and being there that weekend to do anything needed that the class would be free for my children! I did all that was required, lots of other people attended and I didn’t have to pay a dime! It was a great way to get some incredible training for my daughter that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Ann Logue says she bought an SAT prep book for her child from Amazon using her Chase credit card reward points. But that’s it. “My kid’s school uses Naviance as part of its college counseling, and one of Naviance’s features is online SAT and ACT review,” she says. (Naviance offers a online test prep program called PrepMe.)

Stick to Basics

Finally, keep in mind that throwing money at test prep doesn’t guarantee a better score. Sometimes just taking the test again can raise your score, especially if you feel less stressed and more comfortable the next time around. Also keep in mind that scores on standardized tests are just one factor many schools look at. Grades and extracurricular activities help as well. There are schools that don’t even use those scores, so if all else fails, you may want to try a different school.

“I ended up at Wharton,” says Long, who studied and earned a perfect score. But she says that wasn’t everything. “Outside of academics, I had founded and was running a business (a fashion magazine) on the side. If you’re looking to get into an elite college, after you hit a certain level in SAT scores, it really doesn’t matter — it’s about your passions, extracurriculars, and hook.”

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