The New SAT: Online Prep

Many colleges rely heavily on information provided by the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and families spend more than $100 million a year on coaching and classes, selecting from private tutor, classroom, and Internet service options. Teacher-taught classes often cost $700 and up and require a commitment to set hours and location. The online tutorials, however, are available for log-in whenever students have time, and generally range from $10.95 to $399.99. Available for PSAT and ACT as well, these online courses provide content instruction, test-taking strategies, and guided practice with a variety of features and extras.

What's new with the new SAT, which premieres in March 2005? Quantitative comparisons will be gone entirely from the Math section, algebra II topics will be introduced, and analogies will be to the Verbal section as dinosaurs are to the animal kingdom. In lieu of analogies there will be identifying sentence error and improving paragraph questions, and a third section, Writing, will replace the current SAT II essay test.

The online services reviewed here are gearing up for the change. Peterson's launched its new SAT course in early September, Barron's TestPrep in October, and The Princeton Review plans to launch its new SAT site this month. At the time of writing, the two other major online SAT preparation providers-The College Board and Kaplan-do not have new SAT courses for review. The College Board is slated to unveil its course this fall, while Kaplan will be offering instruction for the new SAT in January.

Barron's TestPrep

(Barron's Educational Series, Inc.)

Few bells and whistles grace Barron's TestPrep site, but the simplicity of the setup is an advantage. A SAT/PSAT Tutorials link explains with concise clarity how to log in, adjust your personal profile, access the study exam tactics, create practice exams, and understand the results. Then you're on your way.

Your options are Test Mode, with full practice tests, or Practice Mode, where you opt for Math or Verbal, then select the target category, like sentence completion, and number of practice questions (five to 50). When you're done you get a report card announcing percentage right, and a chart with your answers, correct answers, and the percentage of users who got each question wrong. Finally, you can click on any question for an articulate, concise explanation of how to reach that answer and why it's correct.

Resources, though few, include Vocabulary Lists (3,500 words) and Evaluate My Progress, with bar graphs illustrating test results. Test Tips (available for each test, category, and question type) are particularly well-written, and there are also links to Test Schedule, Review Books, and Contact Us for e-mail and phone number options.

Bottom line, Barron's TestPrep is for motivated students who'll do the drills and tests without audio extras or dancing graphics, can learn by reading articulate explanations, and prefer to pay $11 instead of $300.

A valuable math pop-up in Barron's TestPrep provides formulas for area, volume, and angles.


(Thompson Corporation)

Peterson's redesigned SAT course is easy on the eyes. You can read about the SAT, skip ahead to take a test, check out the course overview, or browse the Help or Resource pages. The layout is particularly clean and user-friendly, with just enough text per page to convey useful information without causing message overload.

The diagnostic test is key. The questions represent all the major SAT skills without subjecting you to a full three-hour practice test, and your answers lead to a customized Learning Path-a collection of tips, topics, and lessons geared toward your needs. This way, you avoid the boredom of over-practicing what you already know and instead maximize your time with lessons most likely to help you increase your skills and raise your scores.

The Learning Path program generates customized topic menus for Math (such as calculator strategy and algebra) and Critical Reading (like sentence completion and long passage techniques). You can proceed in order, or cherry pick. Each segment offers five to 15 pages of lessons, guided practice, and explanatory feedback, plus follow-up quizzes to test your new skills. The test-taking strategies are practical, and the lessons, such as those on angle equation rules and critical reading traps, are taught well and followed by pertinent practice, though the critical reading questions require awkward scrolling. EssayEdge, a new service with Ivy League grads providing written critiques on practice essays, promises to be a terrific addition.

The program is thoughtfully and skillfully designed, especially for those with limited time who appreciate a shorter diagnostic. The resource extras are useful, with exhaustive vocabulary lists and financial aid tutorials, but the college search program, which finds school matches based on your input of size, GPA, and cost, adds little. Overall, the intuitive layout, with its balance of text, graphics, and navigation arrows, facilitates easy, successful studying. A diligent, motivated student who learns well by reading should be able to take advantage of the Peterson's material and make significant SAT strides.

Peterson's indiviualized Learning Plan gives users targeted practice and tips.

The Princeton Review

(The Princeton Review)

At The Princeton Review, the SAT is the main story, but the Counselor-O-Matic school program you experience first shows you how your list of attainable schools can change dramatically as your scores go up. Move on to the Test Prep section, answer some questions about past and target scores, and then start your online course. Navigating the site is neither intuitive nor easy, but perseverance will lead you to your two main buttons: Course and Practice.

Course takes you through each lesson and strategy. Instruction, in the form of cartoon images, text, and audio narration, appears on slow-loading pop-up pages. If you follow the course in order, you'll learn test-taking strategies, take a full-length practice test, then launch lessons on specifics like algebra and sentence completion. The Practice component provides drills and more drills, assigning homework from workbooks that are included in the package. After you pursue all of the lessons, follow up with a second test and compare your scores, then review your completed test by category or section to revisit any questions for the answer rationale.

The material is thorough, but the site is difficult to navigate, in part because the slow-loading pop-up pages fill the screen, obliterating any toolbars and interfering with the larger view. The audio and animations can be great if you're a weak reader; the somewhat derisive tone of the audio criticizes the test and ETS, which can be either a bonus or an irritant, depending on your personality.

The Score Report feature is an effective method for reviewing the practice test in detail and reading explanations for answers. Sentence completion and critical reading instruction, however, are weak, tautologically explaining that answers are right because they are.

The Princeton Review's engaging animations and audio will appeal to multiple learning styles.

The Princeton Review is aimed at students who like lessons with sound and movement, and who will respond positively to a sarcastic, us-against-them tone. Also, the strategy pointers are aimed at average students trying to edge their scores into the 600s. Those trying to raise their 700s to 750s will find less content directed toward their needs.

Multiple Choices for Online SAT Prep: Click here for larger version.

Stephanie Gold is a San Francisco-based educational consultant and freelance writer.