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The ACT is an increasingly popular test, but the SAT remains the go-to for most college admissions offices. Depending on whom you ask, SAT scores might not be the dealbreaker that they used to be, but there’s little doubt that a solid score can boost your resume, particularly if your GPA is sub-par or you’re applying to a top-tier college.

Of course, SAT prep has become a lucrative industry: countless classes, private tutors, books, and other resources promise to increase scores and earn acceptance into your dream school. But how do you know which prep service to use? How do you know if you need to use one at all?

Below, we’ve outlined some of the best online SAT prep courses, free online resources, and general study tips to help you determine which method works for you.

What’s on the SAT?

There are two main SAT sections.

1) Evidence-Based Reading and Writing

  • Reading: Tests reading comprehension of passages and pairs of passages covering fiction, historical documents, social science, and natural science
    • 52 multiple–choice questions
    • 65 minutes
  • Writing: Tests grammar, vocabulary, and editing skills
    • 44 multiple–choice questions
    • 35 minutes

2) Math: Tests Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry skills

  • 58 multiple–choice questions (20 without a calculator, 38 with a calculator)
  • 80 minutes (25 minutes w/o calculator, 55 minutes w/ calculator)

An optional essay section is also offered, which requires test-takers to write an analysis on a provided passage. The essay is graded on reading, writing, and analysis (50 minutes). Some schools may require an essay section, so be sure to check with admissions offices beforehand.

What Makes a Good Online SAT Course

Online prep courses are one of the most popular ways to study for the SAT. You’ll cover relevant subject areas, develop test-taking skills, and get personal feedback on areas to improve and general SAT strategies. Below are a few things to think about when you’re choosing which course to take:

Self-Paced or Live: The first decision you’ll need to make is between self-paced or live courses, each of which have pros and cons. Live courses are great if you prefer something closer to the “traditional” classroom environment. You’ll be able to interact with your instructor and receive real-time personalized feedback, as well as benefit from a structured curriculum and study schedule to ensure you stay on track. On the other hand, self-paced courses offer maximum flexibility: complete control over when you study and the freedom to focus on particular areas. Most important, self-paced courses give students the opportunity to maximize practice time. If you’re having trouble with a concept, spend as much time as you need on it. In short, it’s a question between individualized instruction or flexible, self-paced coursework that involves a little more work on the student’s behalf.

Online Resources: Be sure to research additional features to help distinguish courses. What individual support offers are available? Is content interactive or gamified? How many lessons are there, and how are they delivered? How many practice questions? By far the most important resource is the practice exam: every good SAT course should include at least one practice exam, and many include several. Not only do practice exams give you an overall progress report, you’ll figure out improvement areas and be able to hone your study plan.

The Right Instructor: Self-paced courses depend on content more than instruction, but if you enroll in a live SAT prep course, be sure to find an instructor that works for you. (This is especially important when you factor in costs — live courses are often several hundred dollars more expensive than self-paced.) Some instructors list their SAT scores, which is a helpful metric, but experience is arguably more important. How long has the instructor been teaching SAT courses? What do previous students say? Read the reviews, positive and negative, and use past students’ experiences to help make your decision.

Our Picks for Best Online SAT Courses

  • Kaplan: Kaplan Test Prep offers both live online courses and an affordable self-paced option. Kaplan’s major draw is its practice tests: all students receive 8 practice tests as well as updated online quizzes, 1,000 practice questions, 25+ hrs of on-demand lessons, and SAT prep books.
  • Princeton Review: Princeton Review is a good pick for students who want the benefits of one-on-one instruction without the price-tag of a private SAT tutor. In addition to numerous online resources, you’ll have direct access to expert instructors, adaptive course content, and a satisfaction guarantee.
  • Magoosh: One of the most affordable SAT prep courses online, Magoosh offers a wide range of features, from customizable practice questions (over 900)to in-depth explanations, detailed performance analysis, and more.
  • Khan Academy: Why not go completely free? Khan Academy’s SAT prep course is officially licensed by the College Board and features 8 official full-length practice tests, a tailored practice plan, interactive questions, and instant feedback. Twenty hours of of practice on Khan Academy is associated with an average 115-point score increase.

What’s the Best Way to Self-Prep Online for the ACT?

Not all test-takers benefit from formal courses. Self-prep should be a part of ever SAT study plan, and the 100% self-prep plan includes two major advantages: 1) Complete control over what, when, where, and how you study; 2) It’s free.

At the same time, students studying alone need to be highly motivated and practice the right habits. Below are a few key tips for the self-prep approach:

  • Make a Schedule: Your study schedule should be detailed and tailored to emphasize areas of improvement. If math is your strong-suit, focus on reading and writing. Plans should be personalized, organized, and — this is important — realistic. Don’t block out six straight hours of study. Study schedules are the only way to maintain a daily prep routine.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Test-taking is a skill, and practice is the only way to hone it. Full-length exams are a helpful tool, especially to get used to the length of the SAT. But short, interspersed questions and quizzes are equally important. And remember, if and when you get a question wrong, make sure to figure out why. If the material doesn’t include an explanation, go to online discussion boards or related communities.
  • Have a Target Score: We can’t stress this point enough: anyone who plans to take the SAT needs to have a target score. Without one, your study plan will be incoherent, and staying motivated to study will be hard. (You’ll also have a difficult time monitoring your progress.) Look up the average SAT score of accepted students at your top schools and aim to earn at least that number.
  • Diversify Your Studies: Don’t obsess over one section to the exclusion of others, even if it’s your obvious weakness. It’s counterproductive, and you’ll drive yourself crazy. Leave room to practice your strong subjects to reinforce skills and gain (or regain) confidence. Take breaks between study sessions, and switch up your sources. If you’ve been online for a few hours, try reviewing book material. Too much of one thing leads to fatigue and burnout.

Free Online Resources for SAT Prep

  • College Board: The creators of the SAT offer a variety of free resources: practice tests, study guides, study plans, tips and test-taking strategies, and an in-depth breakdown of each section of the test.
  • PrepScholar: From free e-books to SAT strategies and practice tests, PrepScholar is an excellent resource for test prep. The site’s premium plan includes a 160 score-increase guarantee.
  • PrepFactory: Pitched as “Duolingo Meets Khan Academy,” PrepFactory is one of the fastest-growing online test prep services. All SAT resources are free, and students have unlimited access. Features include video lectures, full-length practice tests, interactive content, gamification, and more.

How Long Does it Take to Study for the SAT?

As a general rule of thumb, students should spend at least 2-3 months preparing for the SAT, but every test-taker is different. The first thing to take into account is scheduling: because the SAT is only administered on set dates, students need to plan well in advance. As with other standardized tests, the best way to determine readiness is via practice test scores. Once you’re consistently within target range, you’re prepared to take the test.