The Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses
How We Found the Best ACT/SAT Prep Courses
5 Experts Interviewed
37 Programs Considered
4 Top Picks
The Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses
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.
How We Chose the Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses
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. For one, 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.
Taking a test makes it easier to find and retrieve information come test day, and it’s also the best way to learn and practice test-taking strategies. For this reason, we required contenders to offer practice tests. We also gave preference to programs that have devoted curriculum to a discussion of strategy. Knowing how to take the test is just as important as knowing what will be on the test.
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.”
Customization and assessment
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 we focused on contenders that allowed customization on an individual’s area of study.
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.
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.
The 4 Best ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses
Why we chose it
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 nine full practice tests for either the SAT or ACT—more than the Khan Academy which offers eight and ACT Online Prep’s offering of four.
Live and archived aid
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.
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, +700-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.
Points to consider
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 over $10,000, airport shuttle not included.)
Why we chose it
Most practice tests
The Princeton Review's basic program—dubbed the SAT & ACT FREEPASS—offers more practice tests than all the other contenders we reviewed. In all, there are 28 practice tests to choose from which are broken up based on whether they apply to the SAT, ACT, or even PSAT.
- 15 (SAT)
- 8 (ACT)
- 5 (PSAT)
The Princeton Review SAT & ACT FREEPASS has another potential perk for high achievers: The company offers a refund if your test scores help you get into one of the country's top schools. However, there are quite a few steps to secure the refund: First you have to finish the test prep program, take the test, and be accepted into one of the "top 100 most selective colleges" as defined by the Princeton Review. Then you have to submit your test scores and acceptance letter to Princeton Review within two years, along with a testimonial about "your experience with the SAT & ACT FREEPASS program or how The Princeton Review helped you get accepted into the school."
We liked the access to experts — even the basic $199 course includes five 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 five hours, it’s easy to add five more ($200). 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.
Points to consider
We would have liked a more in-depth dashboard UX. As it stands, there’s no place where you can see, at a glance, how you did overall on the practice questions in each module. Compared to other dashboards with Khan and Kaplan, we were left wanting to see a little more information to help us gauge our progress both on a broader and smaller scope.
Why we chose it
Yes, you heard us right. Khan Academy's 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.
Engaging study plans
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 just two minutes into our first practice session.
The program offers videos of Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, working through problems and showing his work (but never his face). He’s a lot like a gentle, jovial teacher. These videos are educationally sound — and super useful — but they’re not very fancy.
Students can test themselves with timed mini-tests, and, when they feel ready, 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.
Strategies for taking the test
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.
Points to consider
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.
No live chat with teachers
Another thing notably missing from Khan Academy was the ability to speak with educational staff or teachers. We found this feature helpful with Kaplan and Princeton and it provided some reassurance as the deadline to the big test drew near.
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.
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.
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.
Points to consider
No private tutoring
If you’re someone who does better sitting face-to-face with a teacher or tutor, then ACT Online Prep might not be the best fit. As the name suggests, much of your study and preparation will be online and, at this time, they do not offer private tutoring.
How to Find the Right ACT/SAT Test Prep Course for You
Talk to your guidance counselor
Your school’s guidance counselor will have access to information and, possibly, resources that can help you prepare for the ACT or SAT. Spending some time with your counselor and telling them about your higher education aspirations will allow them to better assist you and point you in the right direction toward a test prep course that’s right for you.
Make time for test prep
We only considered programs with self-pacing options to accommodate for the often chaotic and busy schedules of high schoolers. If you’re going to shop around for ACT/SAT test prep courses, we recommend choosing a program with enough flexibility to work with your busy schedule.
Shop for a good price
The price of test prep for the ACT and SAT will vary depending on where you look. The top picks we outlined offer pretty decent prices with Khan offering SAT test prep for free. Another thing that might help you get your money’s worth is focusing on a prep course with practice tests and educational resources in the areas you need to focus on most. Some programs like Kaplan and Princeton let you customize your curriculum to match your needs.
ACT/SAT Test Prep Courses FAQ
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?
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||February, April, June, September, October, and December||January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December|
|Cost||$42.50, or $58.50 with essay. There may be additional fees.||$45, or $57 with essay. There may be additional fees.|
|Time||Two hours and 55 minutes; add 45 minutes with essay.||Three hours; add 50 minutes with essay.|
|Score||Scale of 1-36||Scale of 400-1600|
Do I have to take the SAT or ACT?
Not always. FairTest, a standardized test watchdog, has a listing of more than 925 colleges and universities that are test-optional.
Will taking any of these ACT or SAT prep courses guarantee a higher test score?
Many of the programs we reviewed, and even some of the top picks, offered guarantees in one form or another that you would see higher test results. However, they typically come with conditions like completing the entirety of the testing program, including all available practice tests.