Expert Tips for Taming the High Price of College Prep

SAT test
SAT test

The other day, a colleague was lamenting the fact that her daughter is feeling pressured to enroll in an SAT prep course. All of her friends are taking one, the young woman said, which means she'll be at a disadvantage if she doesn't take one, too. Yet she gets good grades, so won't this extra course be a waste of money?

Having just sent my first child off to college for his freshman year, I'm all too familiar with the extra strains on the wallet that occur in the years leading up to move-in day: prep courses, application essay tutors, campus visits, application costs. It can add up to a small fortune.

So I reached out to some experts to get their best tips on how to tame the growing costs of college prep. Here's what you need to know.

SAT/ACT Prep: The average price of a test prep course varies depending on the intensity of the class. Kaplan, for instance, offers an 18-hour SAT-only course for $599. If your child wants help on all the tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT), you'll pay $999 for Kaplan's standard course. But for individualized attention, you'll likely pay a lot more: Private SAT tutoring through the Princeton Review, for example, starts at $2,760.

The good news? "There are Groupons for SAT classes and test prep, so you can keep your eyes out for that," notes Jennifer Bloom, an author and co-founder of Entryway Educational Consulting. "Personally I think the best thing you can do is take practice tests on Saturday mornings, timed, under test conditions, over and over and over," she added. Then tabulate the scores to make sure they're heading in the right direction. With a little bit of self-discipline, you and your child could avoid a prep course entirely.

Essay Tutors: Ah, the college essay. One of the biggest sources of stress for students, and therefore, one that leads to some of the biggest outlays from parents. The cost to hire an essay tutors varies widely depending on where you live and who the tutor is: I've seen prices that start around $50 per hour and go as high as $500 per hour. And that's just for one session.

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Don Fraser, director of education and training at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says that they question of whether or not to hire an essay tutor really comes down to time management.

"Families and students are saying they want to hire someone to help with the essay because they haven't started yet," he says. "Students really have to use between the spring of junior year and fall of senior year wisely." If your teen starts the writing process early but still wants someone else's feedback, Fraser suggests getting tips from a guidance counselor, or an English teacher the student likes and respects.

Campus Visits: How much you'll spend on campus visits also varies widely, depending on where you're visiting, how you're getting there and how many schools you're seeing. I've heard horror stories of travel bills hitting the $4,000 mark. However, with a little creativity, you can save big bucks. One little-known trick is that Amtrak has a buy one, get one 50% off discount to help parents and kids traveling together -- but it only applies to kids up to age 15. For students 16 and over, there's the Student Advantage Card, which nets a 15% discount.

Fraser also suggests seeing if your teen's high school has resources for getting its students to campuses. If 20 kids in one class are interested in the same college, there's no harm in asking guidance counselors or principal if there's any way to get a bus or organize a school trip for them to see it as group.

Lillian Luterman, Entryway Educational Consulting's other co-founder, also suggests coordinating with classmates. "If there's another student in your class who's visiting similar schools, you can carpool," she says. "But if you're staying overnight, you can call the admissions office and they can arrange for you to stay with a [college] student. They can also arrange for vouchers for the dining hall, which is another way you can save money."

Parents, you don't need to tag along on this kind of overnight trip. Not only will it save you money, but it'll be good practice for when your student is a real undergrad.

The Bottom Line: There are many pre-collegiate services battling for your attention and your wallet. Your best bet is to budget according to your child's needs. If your son has a good relationship with a high school English teacher but is a poor test taker, skip the essay tutor and focus on the test prep classes. If your daughter aced the PSAT but can't imagine applying to a school she hasn't seen in person, skip the prep class and spend the money on campus visits. Like all good budgeting, it simply comes down to not buying what you don't need, and resisting social pressure to do otherwise.

-- With Maggie McGrath

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