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Do a Little Research Before Shopping for Study Plan for SAT

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. Her education column appears weekly

For many high school students, springtime means more than a school year almost finished and a summer waiting to begin. It’s also the time to get ready for an educational rite of passage--the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

This three-hour exam is used by most U.S. colleges and universities to help choose applicants. For some colleges, particularly the more selective ones, a SAT score is sometimes as important as a grade-point average.

Many students first take the SAT in 10th or 11th grade, then retake it early in their senior year in hope of improving their scores.

Because the SAT can make or break college plans, many students begin preparing well ahead of time and grope for every edge possible.

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There are a variety of good ways to prepare.

The most inexpensive and convenient way is to study on your own using practice materials included in the SAT registration packet or study guides from the school library.

Some school districts offer a more structured way to study by holding free or inexpensive prep courses for their students.

Hiring a tutor is also common because it allows more scheduling flexibility and one-on-one attention.

But the most popular--and expensive--way is to take classes offered by companies that specialize in coaching students for a number of academic exams, including the SAT and admission tests for law or medical schools.

More than half a dozen such companies have opened on the Westside in recent years.

The cost ranges from $200 to almost $1,000 for a series of these classes. Participants are taught the SAT format, types of questions, scoring methods and strategies for analyzing and answering questions. Students most likely also take timed practice exams.

With so many different SAT prep courses vying for your money, choosing the right one may seem bewildering. But if you do a little research before signing up, you can find the program that will help you the most.

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Here are some things to look for when shopping for a SAT study plan.

* If you will be taking the SAT for a second time to improve your score, get some opinions on whether you even need a prep course.

Many students are unhappy with their first SAT scores and take classes to produce an increase the second time around. But you may already have the score you need for the college you want.

Talk to a college counselor and representative of some preparation programs. Tell them your grade-point average, current SAT score and the college you want to attend. Then ask whether improvement is needed. A score of 1,200, for example, may be enough for Cal State Northridge, but maybe not for Yale.

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* Figure out how much money you can spend on an SAT prep program, then explore only those that you can afford. Make sure you have been quoted the total cost and that no hidden fees will arise later. If possible, get the exact price in writing, on the company’s stationery with a representative’s signature and date, so they cannot ask a higher price later.

* Find out if the price includes some kind of guarantee of your success. Some companies, for example, will let you repeat the course if your score does not improve by a certain number of points.

* Convenience is important. A program is useless if you don’t have the time to attend. Decide which days and hours you are available and eliminate the programs with schedules that conflict with yours.

* Ask about the training of the instructors. Those with teaching licenses or classroom experience and special knowledge of the SAT are most desirable.

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* Get a list of the materials that are used. Avoid programs that rely heavily on books you have to buy in a store, and look for courses that give you take-home assignments to help focus your learning. The better courses have computers and a good file of old tests.

Besides the teaching materials, teaching methods can also determine whether the course will help. Could you stand, for example, several hours of straight lecture? Do you need a variety of activities? Can you learn in a big group or do you need individual attention? Are the verbal and math sections always covered equally, or can you focus on the part that gives you the most trouble?

* Make sure you will be grouped only with students who match your ability level, so the materials will match your specific strengths and weaknesses.

* Finally, talk to friends who have actually completed the programs that you are considering. This may be the best way to collect honest and thorough opinions about what works and what doesn’t.

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