The first time Gokh Alshaif took the ACT college-entrance exam, she got a 21. Knowing how important the scores were, she wanted help to do better — but didn’t want to pay. So Alshaif opted for free Saturday sessions at Arvin High School with some of her teachers. After four workshops — two for the ACT and two for the SAT — Alshaif took both tests again. This time, she got a 26. Her grades improved, too. “I didn’t really think that paying for something was going to be totally different than something I could get for free,” said Alshaif, who is going to Cal State Bakersfield . What’s the right path for you or your kid? A recent study — and local reaction to it — provides some clues.


A study commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows average gains from commercial test preparation are about 30 points on the SAT and one point on the ACT, much lower than companies advertise. But, said Derek Briggs, author of the study and associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about 40 percent of admissions counselors from across the country say even small gains can significantly increase a student’s chance of admission. Briggs said determining whether to take a course depends on the student and financial resources available. A student’s score beforehand also plays a part. Students that already have low SAT and ACT scores will not see a big increase, regardless of the cost or type of course, he said. The lower the score, the less of a difference a 20-point increase will make. But for students with high scores competing for selective schools, 20 points can make a big difference, he said. “The effects (of a course) are smaller than what the public is likely to think,” Briggs said. “Even though they are small, for some students it might matter.” Katie Price, president of the Kern High School District Counseling Association, suggests students try free or less-expensive preparation methods first. Price said a class probably isn’t necessary for good test takers. For students intimidated by the testing process, preparation may give them more confidence, she said. “Some kids have test anxiety,” Price said. “They need to do all they can so they can walk in feeling comfortable before such a high-stakes test.”


Frank Ramirez, southern region admissions officer at the University of California, Merced, said SAT and ACT scores factor into a comprehensive review, which looks at grade-point average, community service, extra curricular activities, high school courseload and personal statement. “We look at it as a whole,” Ramirez said. “We encourage students to do as best they can in every category. There will be categories they excel in which will offset the ones they are weaker in.” Test scores can also exempt students from classes or get them into honors programs, said Kathy Miller, director of public affairs and communications at CSUB. “It really advances your college career,” she said. “Students should absolutely spend as much time as they can preparing for those tests.”