For most high school students, summer means extra time for travel, suntans, summer jobs or relaxing with friends.
But for college-bound students, it also means a head start on preparing for the most feared step of the college admission process--the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
This three-hour exam is used by most American colleges and universities to help choose applicants, and it is often weighed as heavily as the student's grade-point average.
Many students take the SAT in 10th or 11th grade, then retake it early in 12th grade in hope of boosting their scores.
Since a SAT score can actually make or break college plans, it's a good idea to add a test preparation project to your list of summer activities.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to prepare which can satisfy any budget or schedule.
The most inexpensive and convenient way to prepare for the SAT is to study on your own using practice materials included in your SAT registration packet and study guides from the school library.
Some schools offer free or inexpensive SAT prep courses as part of their summer school programs, so ask your counselor about it.
Hiring a tutor is popular because it allows more convenience and individualized 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.
These courses can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000. Participants are taught the test's format, types of questions, scoring methods and strategies for analyzing and answering questions. Students usually also take timed practice exams.
Test preparation companies are abundant in Southern California, and each claims to teach the best secrets to a high SAT score. So before you sign the sales contract, make sure the prep course will be right for you.
Here are some guidelines for choosing the right SAT study plan.
If you will be taking the SAT for a second time to raise your score, get some opinions on whether you even need a prep course.
Talk to a college counselor and representative of some prep 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 sufficient for Cal State Northridge, but not for UC Berkeley.
Calculate how much money you can spend on a course, then explore only those that you can afford. Make sure you have been quoted the total cost and that no hidden charges 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.
Ask what guarantees of success are offered by the company. Some, for example, will let you repeat their prep courses for free if your test score does not increase by a certain number of points.
Ask about the training of the instructors. Those with teaching licenses or classroom experience and special knowledge of the SAT are most desirable. Asking a prospective instructor his or her own best score on the SAT may be revealing too.
Get a list of the materials that are used. Avoid programs that rely heavily on books you can just buy for yourself in a bookstore, and look for programs that give you take-home assignments to help focus your learning. Also, courses which utilize computers are great, but only if you're comfortable with the machines.
Besides the teaching materials, ask about the teaching methods. 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 match 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.
Talk to friends who have completed the programs you are considering. This may be the best way to collect candid opinions about what works and what doesn't.
Finally, bear in mind that there's an alternative to the SAT: the American College Test (ACT) is the other aptitude test that is accepted by most colleges and universities, including all Cal State and UC schools.
Many students say the ACT is easier because it tests more kinds of skills and has a much less intimidating format.
As with the SAT, there are a variety of books, tutors and courses available for the ACT, and the right study plan can be chosen by using the same guidelines.