We meet Lauren Gaggioli on the podcast today, and she is the founder and chief of Higher Scores Test Prep, which specializes in SAT/ACT tutoring.
From treading the boards to tutoring
Lauren’s background starts in an unlikely place – a theatre major graduating from NYU – where she realized soon that she would need to make money after graduation. So she packed up and headed to the West Coast. She opted not to work part time waiting tables as other wannabe actors and actresses do, but instead went into tutoring because it was always something she enjoyed doing. Specifically, she chose test prep and worked for a firm, but she felt the customer service side was lacking.
She knew she could do things better – and for less – and she left acting for good. That was seven years ago, and she’s now become an entrepreneur with Higher Scores Test Prep.
She likens the SAT and ACT to a logic puzzle. “Theres a lot going on beneath the surface, that if students can figure out how to pull that apart and learn the game, learn the rules they can make huge leaps far beyond what dealing with the academic side can do,” she explains.
How has prep changed?
- The landscape has changed from when parents were in college – it was less expensive and the competition was also not as intense.
- Preparation therefore has become ‘a thing.’ The higher your test scores, the more money you can get in scholarships and other merit aid. So, there is a real benefit in the return on investment.
And, it doesn’t just stop at a higher score. That score will impact how much you end up paying at your chosen schools, therefore driving where you end up going.
What to consider before investing in test prep
Commit to the process as a family – Know where your student is at when it comes to being motivated. If you have to drag your student along, no amount of money or preparation will raise their score.
Lay out a testing timeline – you can take as many tests as you want; there are 13 SAT test dates offered every year. However, don’t get silly – Lauren recommends taking no more than three of any one test, with two being optimum. And, she also counsels her students to take both ACT and SAT exams.
What a family decides to do all boils down to who the student is, as a test taker and as a person.
Never practice with a real test – it could end up on your transcript, and this is what test prep is for. Practice tests and working with a tutor allow you to gauge what gap exists between your practice score and your target score, and set help you goals to work toward.
Having a test prep tutor also helps students identify the set of logic and patterns in the exam. Lauren says she can acts as a sherpa for her clients, leading them up to their highest peak.
Test Prep from a financial perspective
- Take some test – perhaps the PSAT – relatively early to garner some number to project what score you would get on the next test.
- If you’re on track to get a score of 2000 on the SAT, but your target schools are looking for a minimum score of 2200, you’re not likely to get a lot of aid. So you have two options: change your target schools or take on test prep to raise your score.
The bottom line is understanding where your student measures up based on your list of schools.
Ultimately Lauren and I agree that this decision is a family affair, and should include a conversation among parents and student about what the student’s goals are and whether college is right for that student at this time.
My student’s not a good test taker…
There are some students with test anxiety or perhaps a learning disability that makes it more of a challenge. They need someone to show them the nuts and bolts of this big beast of a test called the ACT or SAT.
Lauren cautions that you don’t want the disparity between what your student knows and what his or her test result says to show up on their transcript. Not every student will score a 2400 on the SAT, but she says it’s important to know what score your student can achieve to not detract from the rest of their body of work on their transcript.
So begin your process with the end game in sight. Often a student’s imagination conjures up a massive score. Looking at the students short list of schools and determining what scores they will need to improve the likelihood of admission can take the guesswork away and alleviate the pressure, while helping them to set a goal toward a score based in reality.
No pressure, higher confidence in the process therefore becomes a winning combination.
Average students – can they succeed as well?
Your student does OK. Bs and Cs, but when it comes to college entrance, parents worry that even a state school may be out of reach. Lauren says she works with all types of students, not just the AP student.
Surprisingly, students in the middle are on more even footing in some regards, she explains. AP students can overthink exams, while for average students it’s more about academic brush up and understanding the tactics in the tests. She sets target scores accordingly and (for the timed ACT prep) sets a quota of questions they should complete.
Test taking strategies – an example
- There are 75 questions on the English portions of the ACT to be answered in the 45 minute test. Lauren tells students to focus on the first 60 and set aside the other 15. Once they get through the first set, she tells them to select the same letter answer for the remaining 15 to likely net another 3 or 4 points because the ACT doesn’t penalize for guessing. The trick is convincing students that it works.
- SAT tests DO penalize for guessing, so in this case students are told not to answer the remaining questions. Of course, you still need accuracy in the rest of the test, but leaving questions blank can actually improve your score.
This is the puzzle that Lauren enjoys putting together for her individual students – finding the right combination so when it’s all working together their scores rise.
How do families find the right option for tutoring?
Deciding how you’re going to prepare involves some questions:
- How does your student learn?
- Are their any learning disabilities?
- How busy is your student’s schedule?
- What’s your budget?
Online test prep has come a long way, so if you’re schedule and your budget is tight, that may be the best option.
Books are also an option, but it will only work for the student who will take the time to read and use all of the information in the book, and not just answer the questions that they are most confident in.
Make sure whatever you choose, it’s comprehensive to cover all aspects of the test, and not one that is overly intensive.
For most students a 6 – 8 week tutoring session is optimum according to Lauren.
Six Questions to ask once you’ve decided how you are going to prepare
- How much of the material you use is published by the test maker? There are a lot of ‘fake’ books out there, so stick with materials that reflect the tone of the test you’re prepping for.
- How long has the instructor been teaching? Some tutors are on their way to doing something else. Make sure it’s an instructor with at least one to two years’ experience. If you aren’t sure, ASK. Be a squeaky wheel while letting the course know you’re savvy.
- Scheduling: How long is the course? How long is each meeting with the instructor and when do you need to meet? Make sure it fits your schedule so you’re not missing anything.
- How many hours of homework should you expect? If the answer is none, or meets only once a week and doesn’t at least have the student experience the test material at least two or three times a week, it may hinder how fast your student can grow.
- How many full length practice exams are included in the course? We are a short-attention span culture, and unless the student has experienced the 4-hour test in practice, they won’t be ready for the real thing. Like a marathon, working out ahead of time will give you more energy and yield greater success. Lauren feels two are about right, three or more may cause the opposite effect on test day.
- What is the instructor’s average student improvement on the ACT or SAT? It’s not about the number of points necessarily, it’s whether the instructor even knows. A good instructor checks back after the exam…it’s about customer service and for a larger firm, about following up on their employees. 150-200 for the SAT, 2 – 3 points on the ACT is good.
These questions will help you get the most for your money and the greatest outcome on test day.
Lauren’s 3 Quick Tips
- Talk – check in regularly with your student on how things are going, what they’re thinking, etc. It doesn’t need to be more than once per month, but opens up communication between student and parent
- Reach out to admissions professionals – Lauren enjoys taking phone calls to answer questions, and it’s the best way to make an informed decision
- Get educated – arm yourself with real information, through reputable online sources, books and do so cautiously to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth
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Brad is not affiliated with Lauren Gaggioli or Higher Scores Test Prep.
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