Your Finance: Preparing kids for SATs

Students participate in a SAT prep course at

Students participate in a SAT prep course at Mineola High School on Oct. 28, 2013. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

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Parents of high school students have to face the facts: Their child is not going to have the choices facing Kwasi Enin, the Shirley teenager accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. Most students don't have a chance at getting into any of the nation's top schools.

But an $840 million test preparation industry has grown up around parents' wishful thinking -- and their fears that their kids won't get into any good schools.

Students aren't required to spend money to get ready for the test, which is used by most colleges for admissions and scholarships.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, is partnering with Khan Academy to offer free online test preparation for the new version of the test, which debuts in 2016. Other free options already exist, including Number2.com and the College Board's own prep site

(sat.col legeboard.org/practice).

Free or low-cost help may be all a bright, self-motivated student needs to do well, said Kathy Kristof, author of "Taming the Tuition Tiger: Getting the Money to Graduate -- with 529 Plans, Scholarships, Financial Aid, and More." Her own daughter bought a $30 guide from Barnes & Noble and scored "40 points short of perfect," Kristof said.

Test preparation classes can range from $200 to $1,500 or more, while tutors or coaches typically charge $125 to $350 an hour, Kristof said.

Some tips for college prep:

Students should take the pre-SAT, known as the PSAT, to get an idea of what areas need shoring up before they take the SAT, college consultants said.

Parents might want to consider some test prep before the PSAT if their child is especially bright, Kristof said. The PSAT is what qualifies the highest scorers to be National Merit Scholars, which means thousands of dollars in merit aid and which "gets them into a different category" of desirability for college recruiters.

If parents decide to pay for help, some experts advise against spending excessively on large test preparation classes that "teach to the middle" and typically don't focus on bolstering an individual student's weaknesses.

Private tutoring with a coach who uses official SAT materials and retired tests can be much more effective, and most students need only about six sessions, said Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego.

Parents also would be smart to keep their own expectations in check, along with those of their kids. "Those of us with good but ordinary children -- the truth is your kid is not going to get in everywhere," Kristof said. But "they'll get in somewhere. They'll end up happy. College is really fun."

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