Hoping to give their kids a leg up on college admission, a growing number of families are shelling out big bucks for private tutors and advisers. Is the money well spent? According to high-school counselors...

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Hoping to give their kids a leg up on college admission, a growing number of families are shelling out big bucks for private tutors and advisers.

Is the money well spent?

According to high-school counselors and college admissions officers, the answer is a resounding “it depends.” Some kids can really use the extra help — but there may be cheaper ways to get it.

   Don’t skip the hard stuff

Practice tests help only if you practice everything on the test.

There are free online practice SAT and ACT tests. But parents or teachers should monitor the practice sessions, according to a recent study. Researchers at Penn State found that students who take online tests tend to neglect math, science and reading portions, preferring vocabulary drills and analogies. (Analogies won’t be on the new SAT.)

Private counselors

Private college-admissions counselors guide kids through every step of the application process — from selecting colleges to writing essays.

The price tag can reach $3,000, although some counselors occasionally charge on a sliding-scale basis.

While several school counselors believe private counselors are unnecessary — duplicating services already offered in schools — others disagree.

“Some students need more guidance than their school counselor can provide for them,” says Alice Tanaka, college counselor at Holy Names High School. “In a typical public high school, a counselor has 400 students and is also dealing with crisis situations — kids with eating disorders, suicides, lots of problems. That doesn’t leave a lot of one-on-one time for college counseling.”

Private counselors often have a better grasp of college options, because they have more time to visit campuses, experts say.

Others assert that school counselors, though overburdened, do a fine job serving as advisers and sounding boards for most kids.

Prep courses

Far more popular than private counselors are SAT prep courses, like those offered by Princeton Review and Kaplan Inc.

At Kaplan, you can buy an array of test-prep options, including 12 test-prep classes for $799, and a more extensive $2,899 program of one-on-one tutoring for the new SAT. With each option, students receive a slew of test-taking tips and timed practice tests.

According to college administrators, the prep courses can be confidence-boosters.

“A lot of students have test anxieties and freak out,” says Karen Copetas, director of admissions at Western Washington University. “If a testing agency can demystify the test and help the students relax, then the students can get higher [SAT] scores.”

How much higher is difficult to predict.

A 1995 study by the Bruskin/Goldring marketing research group, for example, found that Kaplan students who attend all classes and do all their homework improve an average of 120 points.

However, a study by the College Board, which administers the SAT, came up with different numbers in a 1998 study. First it looked at students who retook the SAT without taking a test-prep course and found that their scores rose an average of 43 points. Then it looked at Kaplan and Princeton Review pupils and found that, when they retook the test, their scores rose only an additional 26 points on average.

Independent researchers have criticized both studies.

So, are prep courses the only way to boost scores? Not at all, experts say. Most students raise their scores just by going to school. Their numbers typically rise as they expand their knowledge between junior and senior year.

Lower-cost options:

Test yourself. “No student should go into the test cold,” says Tim Washburn, assistant vice president for enrollment services at the University of Washington. “Every student needs to take a PSAT or a practice SAT to see what kinds of questions are asked. But you don’t need to take an expensive course to practice. The College Board has a book of sample tests you can order [$19.95].”

Practice tests also appear on Web sites such as www.collegeboard.com and www.review.com, along with test tips and strategies.

Sign up for rigorous courses at school. “My sense is that if you take extra math classes, your score will rise,” says Karen Copetas, director of admissions at Western. “Plus you’ll get the extra benefit of having high-quality courses on your transcript.”

Read books. “Reading helps you improve comprehension and vocabulary,” Tanaka says. Among the books she recommends to students is, “The Ring of McAllister: A Score-Raising Mystery Featuring 1,000 Must-Know SAT Vocabulary Words.” (Kaplan, $13).

“But you don’t have to read novels to improve your vocabulary,” Tanaka says. “I even tell them that just reading the sports section of the newspaper you find a lot of SAT words, like plethora.”

Many kids, however, lack the self-discipline to prep for the SAT alone. For these kids, a prep-course may spur them to sit down and focus.

Sign up for lower-cost prep courses. These are widely available at local high schools and through community colleges, sometimes online. School counselors usually know what’s offered. South Seattle Community College, for example, offers two-credit courses that prep students for the math and English sections of the SAT. Each class is $138.

A list of short, 15-hour courses taught by local teachers is available at www.satprep.org . Their SAT-prep courses are $189.

In addition, a nonprofit organization offers low-fee or free test-prep classes at the University of Washington for low- and middle-income students. Visit www.EducationAccessNetwork.org.

Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine Sather contributed to this story.