The Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Course
The SAT and ACT really only measure how well you can do on the test. Sure, you need to brush up on your subject matter knowledge, but you also need to acclimate yourself to the test itself. Luckily, science has shown that taking practice tests is the best way to do both. Our top picks have plenty of authentic practice tests and customized refresher modules to help you bump your score even higher.
Number of Practice Tests
Most Practice Tests
40 - 50 hours
34 - 80 hours
4 - 5
Best Free (SAT Only)
72 lessons (1-10 min. each)
Most Engaging (ACT Only)
The Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses
By 10th grade, all students should be proficient in the subject matter on the ACT and the SAT. That doesn’t mean they’re ready to take the test. Edward Carroll, a standardized test expert and tutor at The Princeton Review, said it best: “The SAT, more than anything else, shows how well you take the SAT.”
Think about it like this: A high school basketball player knows how to shoot a free throw, but shooting free throws in the driveway isn’t the same as sinking one during the fourth quarter of the state championships. That’s why we practice, practice, practice.
Taking the SAT or the ACT can feel like suiting up for the state championships. The best test prep courses will help students prepare for that feeling, to acclimate them to the test and its oddities, and help them practice — so when the clock is running down, their practice kicks in.
“The best test prep programs not only prepare students for the test, but also help enhance their knowledge of the subject matter covered in the test. They offer personalized learning that helps build on the student’s strengths and shore up their weaknesses across subject areas, so students feel confident they are prepared for and can do their best on the test.”
Kaplan and The Princeton Review are both huge names in the test prep world. We liked Kaplan’s $299 basic program and its video-centric materials. But we loved the number of practice tests it came with: It sends 8 practice tests in its Big Book of SAT Practice Tests (if you’re studying for the ACT, it has a similarly giant book called the Big Book of ACT Practice Tests). The Princeton Review is also $299 for the basic program and stood out for having the simplest way to connect with one-on-one help. The basic program includes three hours of chat help, and it’s easy to buy more by the hour ($50 per hour) and a lot simpler than trying to hire a tutor.
Our top pick for SAT prep app is Khan Academy — a nonprofit online learning resource with courses in just about anything. For its SAT Prep, it partnered with the creator of the SAT, the College Board. Take a few diagnostic tests, plug in your test date, and get a customized study plan. The materials include video lessons and seven practice tests written by the College Board.
The best ACT prep app is ACT Online Prep. Like Khan Academy, ACT Online Prep partnered with the creator of the ACT (which is also called ACT). This program was the most fun — tons of games and quizzes to take — and had a continually updating expected score that kept us motivated.
Our Picks for the Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Course
Most Practice Tests
Kaplan is a powerhouse in the test prep industry, offering many review courses, including several for those taking the SAT or ACT.
Its options are on the pricier side: A basic, online self-paced program is $299; unlimited online and in-person classroom instruction through December of your senior year is $1,599. (It’s certainly possible to pay much more for SAT prep — the four-week residential summer intensive at Kent Prep is nearly $9,500, airport shuttle not included.)
Kaplan’s $299 course features video tutorials, more than 1,000 practice questions, and progress reports to help students track their performance. It also includes eight full practice tests for either the SAT or ACT — more than any other company we looked at. Khan Academy includes seven; ACT Online Prep offers two; and The Princeton Review has four each for the SAT and ACT.
Kaplan is a bit different from Khan Academy and ACT Online Prep. Kaplan emphasizes live and archived review sessions more than the others — upgrade to the $599 level or higher to participate in live review sessions and ask questions of the teachers in real time in a classroom format or via private Q&A.
The teachers are knowledgeable; all Kaplan teachers must themselves score at 90 percent or above on the test they are teaching. They discuss strategy for individual topics, and there are supplementary dives into test-taking strategy with videos such as “Creating Your Perfect Study Plan” and “SAT Mindset Training.” These videos are archived on the site, so if a student isn’t available when it’s broadcast, they can watch it at their convenience.
Kaplan’s format is also different from our other picks. When you purchase any Kaplan program, the company sends two books: Kaplan SAT Course Book (or ACT, if that’s the test you’re taking) and The Kaplan Big Book of SAT Practice Tests. Students reinforce their online work with the substantial, 756-page Course Book, and then read the practice tests in the book while filling in the answers online. The online courses integrate material from the books, and are designed to work together. There are additional assignments in the book that can be input online for instant feedback.
For students who want a mix of book assignments, online video assignments, live classes, and practice questions both online and in the books, this program is worth exploring. Sure, its videos are good, but the ability to interact with instructors is what sets Kaplan apart.
Best for One-on-One Attention
Like Kaplan, The Princeton Review is one of the behemoths in the industry. It offers far more than just SAT and ACT prep courses. Also like Kaplan, The Princeton Review prep courses start at $299; the SAT (or ACT) Ultimate course is $849 to get another 25 hours of live instruction, 140 more lessons, and three hours of private tutoring.
The Princeton Review program is not unlike Kaplan’s in terms of the scope of offerings: The primary learning vehicles are subject modules — each includes four sections: “Getting Started,” “Discover” (a video), “Explore” (a handful of practice questions with answers explained), and “Stepping Back,” where you rate your confidence in your abilities with the topic you’ve just reviewed. But there’s no place where you can see at a glance how you did overall on the practice questions in each module. A rather sparse dashboard serves as home base, recommending the next module to embark on.
What we liked about The Princeton Review is the included “Chat with a Teacher” feature — even the basic $299 course includes three hours of chat time. Click the ever-present blue “chat with a teacher” button in the upper-right-hand corner and assistance is yours. If you use your three hours, it’s easy to add more (at $50/hour). For the student who has a decent understanding of most concepts, but occasionally wants a little live assistance, this is an easy way to get one-on-one help.
Best Free SAT Prep
The nonprofit Khan Academy has partnered directly with the College Board, which created the SAT, for its “Official” SAT prep course. In fact, all the practice tests on Khan’s website are designed by the College Board testing staff. And, it’s free.
Yes, you heard us right. The review and practice materials are free; the interactive quizzes are free; and so are the video lessons, reference articles, and all seven full-length practice tests written by the College Board.
After a couple of short diagnostic quizzes, Khan builds a customized program with suggested areas to review. (You can even link your past PSAT and SAT scores to your Khan Academy account, and it’ll use those to help create a study plan.) One thing we liked about the diagnostic quizzes is that they start giving SAT test-taking tips from the outset: “On this diagnostic, you should select ‘I would be guessing’ if you don’t know the answer. But on the real SAT, there’s no penalty for guessing and you should always choose an answer.” We felt more prepared for test day by minute two of our first practice session.
We felt more prepared for test day by minute two of our first Khan Academy practice session.
Those reviews include short videos of an instructor, Sal, working though test questions and answers. They’re educationally sound — and super useful — but they’re not very fancy.
In the math videos, Sal works through problems and shows his work (but never his face). He’s a lot like a gentle, jovial math teacher, but there’s no denying the video is still a math review. In the reading comprehension videos, Sal reads through the passages, gives tips, and shares his thought process along the way.
Who is this Sal guy? It’s Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, which he started as a YouTube channel where he made videos for his cousins. He posted tutoring videos on YouTube and millions of people started watching them. He doesn’t make all the videos anymore, but does make a lot of them.
After the video lesson, students can test themselves with timed mini-tests, and, when they feel ready, with a full SAT practice test — or seven. Those practice tests feel super real, too. Khan Academy recommended we block off four hours on a Saturday (ideally starting at 8:30 AM); print out an official practice SAT bubble sheet for our answers; and sit down with our scratch paper, no. 2 pencil, and an approved calculator. We took the test, snapped a photo using the College Board’s app (Daily Practice for the New SAT), and our scores were uploaded to our Khan Academy dashboard, which recommended new areas to practice.
Khan Academy also offers strategies and tips for taking the SAT — discussing format, time management, and how to interpret the sometimes tricky questions. We can’t stress how important this is: Not only is test strategy a subject unto itself, but also taking a practice test is one of the most effective ways to learn new information.
Tests enhance later retention more than additional study of the material, even when tests are given without feedback. This surprising phenomenon is called the testing effect.
Unlike some of our other top picks, Khan Academy doesn’t have a dashboard where a student or parent could get a full picture of the work done to date. The simpler profile page lists recent activity, a personalized study schedule based on your test date, and your current skill level.
There’s also no way to connect with a live teacher for questions. But it’s robust, useful, and even energizing. And did we mention that it’s free? There’s no reason for anyone taking the SAT not to have a look.
Most Engaging ACT Prep
ACT Online Prep is also affiliated with the agency that creates its test (which is also called the ACT), so it has a behind-the-scenes view. But that’s not the only reason we chose it as a top contender. Of all the programs we tested, this was one of the few that was — dare we say it? — FUN.
The eye-catching appeal of the layout, plus the ability to easily track yourself throughout the process, made using this program more of a game than a chore. It wasn’t exactly like playing Grand Theft Auto V, but ACT Online Prep is likely to engage even the most reluctant of scholars. More than any of our other finalists, this program gave us a feeling that we were making progress at a steady pace — and that we would be more than ready by test day.
The robust dashboard gives students an appealing at-a-glance sense of how they’re doing, assesses their strengths and weaknesses, and suggests what they should tackle next with progress bars that will fill up as they improve. It was a lot less stressful to see we were “beginners” in science and math once we saw ourselves progress into “basic” for both of them. Review lessons are text-based and comprehensive, with plenty of examples.
Once we’d reviewed lessons and taken several timed quizzes, the dashboard told us we could, at our current level of understanding, expect to score 30-35 in the English section, and that our average score on practice questions was 87 percent correct, which put us in the 55th percentile of those taking the tests. In math, we weren’t in such great shape: Our expected score was 12-15.
To improve our scores, we hit up the discussion area to connect with other students; played games in a game center; and practiced with the 450 e-flashcards to drill ourselves on vocabulary, science, and math concepts. Act Online Prep was the only one of our finalists to offer extras like this, and we found them to be welcome — and useful — review tools. The games were fairly simple, each of them a variation of matching a correct answer among a series of possible answers, but they were a nice change from the text-based drills. Knowing we had three full hearts of life and a leaderboard really did make it more fun to find the definition of a parallelogram.
We channeled our inner teen. We took on the role of a student who is pretty good in English, but struggles in math. (It was easy because it was true.)
Another unique aspect of ACT Online Prep is the ability to choose your learning plan: Students select either a structured plan, which goes through all the material covered in the test in order, or an adaptive plan, which suggests lessons based on student performance in practice quizzes and their confidence level in the material. We tried out both options (it’s easy to switch back and forth) and were pleased to see that the adaptive plan took our abysmal math results to heart and served up a math-heavy schedule for us.
Six months of access is $50. For an additional $134 upgrade, students can access live online classes sponsored by Kaplan. (ACT Online Prep helpfully pointed out that we might benefit from the 90-minute “Math and Science Short Test Review” that next Saturday.)
How We Found the Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Course
We started out with 37 of the best-known ACT/SAT prep courses and dug into the details of each of them to see which courses were the best at reinforcing a student’s knowledge and building test confidence.
We required courses to include at least two full-length practice tests.
Few people enjoy taking tests. But there’s ample evidence that practice, practice, and more practice is one of the best strategies for preparing for the SAT or ACT. By the end of 10th grade, students have already seen much of the ACT and SAT subject material in their classrooms. But, recalling all of it in the time-pressured and high-stakes environment on test day is another story.
There are a few reasons for taking a lot of practice tests. The first is that taking a test is one of the best ways to study for a test. This method is called retrieval practice.
We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student's head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there — when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes. Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable, and more accessible.
Not only does taking a test make it easier to find and retrieve information come test day, but it’s also the best way to learn and practice test-taking strategies. Should students guess at answers they don’t know or leave them blank? How long should they spend on each section? By taking multiple practice tests, students can become familiar with the format and style of the test.
We expected the programs that excelled to offer students a variety of past-year tests to practice — not merely assess — their skill levels. We also gave preference to programs that have devoted curriculum to a discussion of strategy. Knowing how to take the test is as important as knowing what will be on the test.
We eliminated any courses without a self-paced option.
Between school work, extracurricular activities, possibly a part-time job, and social activities, your average high schooler doesn’t have a lot of schedule flexibility. With that in mind, we gave preference to programs that allowed students to log on for half an hour, say, at 11 PM, when they finish their homework, or for an hour or two on the weekends. If the program had a tablet or smartphone app, all the better.
Although connecting one-on-one with instructors in a more structured way may appeal to some students (and parents), we didn’t want to assume it would be worth it (or possible) for all students. Paul Weeks, senior vice president for client relations at ACT, agreed. “Test prep is a very individual endeavor, and the best solution will vary from student to student.”
We looked for customizable options and an assessment tool.
The SAT tests reading comprehension, writing ability, English skills and math; the ACT adds science to the mix. Few students will need equal practice in every area. We wanted to maximize study time and decrease boredom, so the student who’s already confident they’ll ace reading comprehension, but isn’t so sure about their algebra abilities can take a few diagnostic quizzes and end up with a program that’ll include lots of math review and not as much reading practice.
We also made sure that the programs gave students the opportunity to assess their progress. Some programs featured eye-catching dashboards that kept a running total of the student’s quiz scores and progress. Our ideal site monitored all that, and offered recommendations for lessons customized to that student.
That left us with seven finalists to hands-on test.
We took on the role of a student (who’s great in English, not-so-great at math) and tried each of our seven finalists.
The Finalists • ACT Online Prep • Barron’s Test Prep • ePrep • Kaplan • Khan Academy • PrepScholar • The Princeton Review
If a diagnostic test was offered, we took it. (Courses offered through ACT Online Prep, ePrep, and The Princeton Review didn’t offer a diagnostic test per se, but rather offered guidance once you took a practice test.) In most cases, we were offered a personalized program heavy in math and light in English — just what we needed to maximize our test-prep time.
Then, we started studying.
Many of our finalists used videos to help students review. Some featured text-based refresher material; others had games and flashcards. We looked at it all, focusing on how logical it was, how helpful, and how engaging — some videos had enthusiastic instructors; others seemed like they were filmed in a basement circa 1973.
We also took a ton of quizzes to see if the students had an easy way to check their answers and find out why they were right or wrong. The best options continually adjusted their recommendations for study based on how we performed in the quizzes — why keep drilling on grammar when it’s algebra that’s the real challenge? ACT Online Prep’s adaptive learning plan nailed this; it refreshed itself continually based on quiz results. Barron’s and PrepScholar also did this well.
Did You Know?
The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests, but they’re not identical.
Both the SAT and ACT test math, reading, and writing (the SAT includes five reading passages, while the ACT includes four), and have an optional essay. Math sections for each test arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry. The SAT has an additional data-analysis portion and you can use a calculator on some, but not all, of its questions. The ACT includes science; the SAT doesn’t.
Available Test Dates
|January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December.||February, April, June, September, October, and December.|
|$45, or $57 with essay. There may be additional fees.||$42.50, or $58.50 with essay. There may be additional fees.|
|Three hours; add 50 minutes with essay.||Two hours and 55 minutes; add 45 minutes with essay.|
|Scale of 400-1600||Scale of 1-36|
More and more schools are making the ACT and SAT optional.
FairTest, a standardized test watchdog, has a listing of more than 925 colleges and universities that are test-optional. Nazareth College, in Rochester, New York, is one of them. The school chose this route for two reasons, says Ian Mortimer, vice president for enrollment management. “The first is that we have not been able to make a concrete connection between students’ performance on standardized tests and their first-year GPA at the college. The rigor of the high school and courses, engagement in positive extracurricular activities, and ability to engage the community are much more predictive of success and satisfaction.”
Second, Mortimer says, studies show that test results are correlated to wealth and high school resources. Relying on them gives unfair advantage to those from wealthier school districts that can afford more comprehensive college prep.
Despite that, more than two-thirds of the incoming students at the college do submit test scores, and, Mortimer says, “They can be helpful in better understanding a conflict on a transcript, super strengths such as math, and other supporting information.” Taking a standardized test is a pretty good idea.