How Many Test Prep Sessions Should We Have?

Originally published October 2, 2019

When meeting with parents, this is the most frequent question I get asked, so obviously I’m very experienced answering this simple, logical question. The answer is “I don’t know.”

I completely understand that this is a frustrating answer. The entire application process is complex and tiring, and offering this simple bit of clarity would go a long way to making the whole thing more bearable. Making the process more bearable is one of my main goals! But when it comes to the number of sessions, I can’t offer a direct, one-size-fits-all answer.

Most generally, one of the advantages our methods offer is that we tailor the tutoring to your child, so we shouldn’t have a pre-set timeline or curriculum. If you sat in on different tutors or different students, you would likely hear largely the same material, often in the same order. These tests, like standardized tests in general, all share fundamental aspects and fundamental strategies for dealing with them. But even if two students get the same score on a section, the reasons why they struggled and how quickly they can adopt different approaches can differ dramatically.

More specifically, to provide an accurate assessment of the timeline, here’s what we would need to know:

The Starting Point

How well does your child perform on the test right now? This is the easiest to evaluate, because we can have students take practice tests. It’s the closest we can get to reproducing the real test and test experience. Yes, there is a good bit of variability in test scores, but they do provide a very useful snapshot of their current progress and what types of challenges they might have face on the test.

The Goal

What scores will make up the sufficient, good, and ideal ranges? The actual numbers that matter here are the percentiles. The test results are only one factor among many during the admission process, and most schools don’t have a hard score requirement. Still, if we’re deciding how much work to put in, we need to know the goal. Most importantly, the gains take more work the higher up the percentile ranges we go. Big jumps can come from mastering the basic strategies, but moving up to the highest percentiles requires mastering those AND consistently applying more complex approaches to specific kinds of questions. It may well take more work to get from the 80th percentile to 90th percentile than it does to go from the 60th to 80th percentile. If you’re not sure about the score ranges, our Educational Planning team is the best resource for discussing the specific schools you’re considering and what their acceptance expectations are for the most recent admissions class.


The third aspect of what we need is the hardest to gauge. How quickly can your child adopt new approaches? While there is a good amount of content on the test, particularly in math, most of the gains come from finding better ways to work through questions. This isn’t learning in the absorbing/memorizing sense. It’s habit change. They already have a certain way they work through questions. They’ve probably been doing it that way for years. How quickly can they accept there’s a better way, learn it, and make it a new habit they apply consistently? It’s an important life skill, but usually not something anyone is evaluating directly. Overall, the process is closer to drills in sports than most classroom learning. (Exceptions would include skills such as mastering the long division process.)

Once we know more about our starting point, our goals, and a student’s adaptability, we can start to narrow the range of potential number of sessions and take another step towards making the standardized testing process more bearable and more successful.