11/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #2: SAT Prep, The Good, The Bad, And The Goofy

It's fall. Normal happy people watch the leaves change color, but parents of seniors care only for the stark black and white landscape of inked circles on bubble grids. Adults whose SAT prep involved two sharpened number two pencils and a good breakfast invest in test prep because we're terrified not to. If the test-prep czars ran the automotive industry, we'd all be out buying cars; they're that good at creating desire.

Just days before the first Super Saturday of the fall test season, seniors are finishing up weeks if not months of prep classes, private tutoring, guide books, on-line classes, or any combination of the above. Juniors are already underway; I know eighth-graders who take sample tests. Sometimes it feels as though standardized test prep is going to knock juice-and-nap time off the kindergarten itinerary.

How much are we betting? While thousands of students protested University of California system-wide tuition hikes that brought this year's tuition and fees to about $8700, a test-prep company amusingly called Revolution Prep quotes $7599 for one high-end package and won't even publish the total cost of the more expensive and extensive Global Elite Tutoring. Power to the people, indeed.

On the theory that it's never too late to save a little money, I suggest we try to deconstruct the process and look for cheaper ways to achieve results:

• Test-taking strategies: If there's a consensus on anything, it's that your child doesn't want to spend valuable time reading the instructions for the first time on the day of the test. Before you pay for sample tests in a room at a prep center, or proctored by a tutor, consider a few free sample tests at home. If a student's reading comprehension isn't strong enough to make sense of the instructions, test-prep is probably not going to turn him into a star.

• Success, SAT math: A wildfire one-word chant, "Sudoku," went up when my daughter was in high school. No hard research but lots of enthusiasm among parents who saw a link between the obsessive working of Japanese number puzzles and good math scores. If your kid can't work even the easy puzzles, then you can always consider prep or find a school that no longer requires standardized tests.

• Success, SAT verbal: This strategy really should be put into play before the training wheels come off, but it's never too late to start: Encourage your child to read when he doesn't have to for school. Reading helps with tests that require you to, yep, read. Compare the cost of a library card to a stint in Global Prep.

Parents in the Bellevue, Washington school district endorse the test-prep equivalent of home-cooking, a lonely but comforting voice in the for-profit test-prep wilderness. Are you brave enough to try it?

Nah, at this point we all want results; we want our kids to be at the high end of the advertised score hikes. But test-prep carries risk, like any investment, so let me share a couple of potential odds-busters, to take junior off the hook if the score report is south of what you'd hoped for:

Finger length: Hormone levels in utero affect brain development - and finger length. Ring finger longer than index finger, innately greater math abilities. Index finger longer than ring finger, stronger verbal skills. And yes, researchers see a correlation in SAT scores.

• Menstrual cycles: Scientists say there's no significant relationship between test performance and a girl's cycle - and yet a prominent educational psychologist advises parents to make sure girls schedule the SAT to avoid the last four days of their cycles and the first four days of their periods.

• Personal psychology: Put one kid in a class with seven other students and he will be inspired to competitive excellence by all the ambitious energy in the room. Put another kid in the same room and the ambient anxiety sticks to him like H1N1 germs on a doorknob. You may not find out which type you have until it's too late.

Still, the two-generation peer pressure can be enormous; I'm only trying to provide a safety valve so you can get some needed rest before the exam. And for no charge whatsoever, I'm going to toss in one sophisticated tidbit that surfaced when the new essay section of the SAT was introduced a few years ago:

"Write big."

That's it. Readers slog through stacks and stacks of blue books for hours on end, and the word is that some of them get a wee bit testy, and quite possibly start to confuse volume with effort. If an essay covers a lot of pages, it must be serious; if it doesn't require the reader to turn the page, perhaps the student is blowing off the test. Big writing, it seems, matters as much as big ideas.

I have witnesses. Honest.

Next up: Admissions Freak-out Countdown #3: The Squeeze Play - Early Decision, Budget Cuts, and No Vacancy Signs.

Karen Stabiner is the author of the upcoming novel, Getting In. Write to or visit to find out more.