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By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Parents of high school students have to face the facts: Their child is not going to have the choices facing Kwasi Enin, the New York teenager accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. Most students don't have a chance at getting into any of the nation's top schools.
But an $840 million test preparation industry has grown up around parents' wishful thinking - and their fears that their kids won't get into any good schools.
Upcoming changes to the crucial SAT will just ratchet up that anxiety, college consultants predicted.
"The whole college admission process feels like an arms race," said Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego, adding that families' anxiety seems to get worse every year. "Students feel there's so much pressure on them to perform."
It's not unusual for families to spend $3,000 to $5,000 on test preparation and related costs, said Todd Weaver of Strategies for College, based in Hanover, New Hampshire. Wealthy parents can shell out as much as $75,000 for a year of private tutoring, said New York City writer Debbie Stier, author of "The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT."
"Everyone's trying to keep up with the Joneses," Weaver said. "If your neighbor or friend says, 'So-and-so is using a tutor,' you have to get one too."
Students aren't required to spend money to get ready for the test, which is used by most colleges for admissions and scholarships. The College Board, which administers the SAT, is partnering with Khan Academy to offer free online test preparation for the new version of the test, which debuts in 2016. Other free options already exist, including Number2.com and the College Board's own prep site (http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice).
Free or low-cost help may be all a bright, self-motivated student needs to do well, said Kathy Kristof, author of "Taming the Tuition Tiger: Getting the Money to Graduate - with 529 Plans, Scholarships, Financial Aid, and More." Her own daughter bought a $30 guide from Barnes and Noble and scored "40 points short of perfect," Kristof said.
"You can spend a fortune on this stuff or you can spend nothing," Kristof said. "Is the outcome any different?"
It's the not knowing that drives many parents into the arms of test preparation companies and tutors, college consultants said. But Stier, who took the SAT seven times while researching her book, recommends that families focus more on building students' foundational skills rather than just on test-taking strategies.
Stier's son attended Kumon after-school programs to build his math skills and used flash cards to improve his vocabulary. Taking timed practice tests helped him build endurance and work on weak points.
"That's the kind of stuff you can do that's low cost and affordable," said Stier, whose B average son boosted his score by 590 points on the 2400-point test. "Learning the foundation stuff is not a fast process … but it's the most effective and most economical."
Ideally, this kind of test prep would begin well before the student's junior year in high school, when many take the SAT, Stier said. (About half take it twice, the first time in the spring of their junior year and then again in the fall of their senior year; whichever score is better is used in college applications.)
By freshman year, parents "should have some idea about what type of student their child is," Fox said. The self-motivated, straight-A types will need different strategies from the more distractable or less academic kids who may need more help with the basics.
"As a parent you have to know your child's interests and proclivities," Kristof agreed. "Will my kid do this on their own…(or) are they someone who thrives with in-person counseling? Then it might be worth it to spend money on prep courses."
Test preparation classes can range from $200 to $1,500 or more, while tutors or coaches typically charge $125 to $350 an hour, Kristof said.
Students should take the pre-SAT test, known as the PSAT, to get an idea of what areas need shoring up before they take the SAT, college consultants said.
But parents might want to consider some test prep before the PSAT if their child is especially bright, Kristof said. The PSAT is what qualifies the highest scorers to be National Merit Scholars, which means thousands of dollars in merit aid and which "gets them into a different category" of desirability for college recruiters, she said.
If parents decide to pay for help, Fox advised against spending excessively on large test preparation classes that "teach to the middle" and typically don't focus on bolstering an individual student's weaknesses. Private tutoring with a coach who uses official SAT materials and retired tests can be much more effective, and most students need only about six sessions, Fox said.
Finally, parents also would be smart to keep their own expectations in check, along with those of their kids. "Those of us with good but ordinary children, the truth is your kid is not going to get in everywhere," Kristof said. But "they'll get in somewhere. They'll end up happy. College is really fun."
(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance
Editing by Beth Pinsker and Cynthia Osterman)