By Megan Ernst and Leighton Rowell

It still holds true today: SAT scores, along with a student’s high school transcript, are among the most important factors in getting into college.

And it’s becoming more competitive. The evidence is in the ever-expanding SAT preparation market.

Many public and private schools in the Atlanta-metro area offer SAT prep courses as part of their regular curriculum. Pricey private tutors offer one-on-one help. And test-prep companies continue to be a big business.

Holly Chesser, who began Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School’s SAT prep program, says that college admissions offices care about SAT scores.

“The SAT has become so important that in many cases it is seen as equivalent to years of work and a GPA you’ve built over four years,” Chesser said. “It’s unfortunate, but we have to bow to the system, so students have to prepare better.”

Public and private schools routinely offer classes to prepare for taking the SAT as a part of their normal school day.

North Springs Charter High School, for example, offers two classes of SAT prep daily, and students who pass the course receive elective credit.

“Although some of our students take courses from Kaplan or others or have private tutoring, many walk into the SAT ‘cold’ without any preparation — economically disadvantaged students in particular,” said Lisa Meyers, North Springs SAT prep and literature teacher.

Different than private tutoring and some private SAT courses, the student-to-teacher ratio for an SAT prep class taught in public school is, roughly, 18 to 1. In addition to relatively large class sizes, SAT-prep teachers may not specialize in all subjects covered on the test. For instance, a literature teacher may not have a strong background in math.

Many students see a free course that’s offered in their high school as a logical choice in preparing for the SAT.

“The fact that the course was free and fit into my daily schedule was very convenient,” said North Springs sophomore Haley Greenberg. “The course at North Springs offered me the same information and direction that I could have received from an outside source.”

Private schools, like Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, can get more creative with scheduling, yet the concept is the same: exposure to the test.

Holy Innocents’ offers the free class to juniors as a weekly class that continues through the school year. The first semester is traditional SAT prep work; the following semester offers a choice of individualized lessons or preparation for ACT, an alternative, standardized college admissions test.

“If we can teach our students how the test works and what to expect, because there are no surprises on the test –- there are patterns you can learn to recognize –- so if we can do that, we can make them more comfortable with the SAT,” Chesser said.

Anna Marie Sokolowski, a senior at Holy Innocents’, says that she chose the class because it was cost-effective and convenient. Sokolowski said she focused on SAT prep more because she associated it with her normal schoolwork.

“The class at school was perfect because it was the same information I’d get anywhere else, but it was during the school day,” Sokolowski said.

Chesser also serves as a private tutor for the Critical Reading and Writing sections and essay portion of the exam. She charges $75 an hour, which she says is “in the more reasonable range.”

She recommends tutors who specialize in a specific portion of the test because they know their sections in depth.

She said individual tutoring can help both high-achieving students and those who aren’t as motivated.

“If I’m working with a kid who just needs exposure to the techniques and can do all the practice on their own, I may meet with them six times, but for those students that will not read the passages unless I’m sitting next to them reading over their shoulders, the process is longer; it may take a dozen or more sessions,” Chesser said.

Appelrouth Tutoring Services has created a niche business that focuses on private tutoring and specialized workshops.

Most tutors for this type of company teach all sections of the SAT. The tutors teach the common company method, but the benefit of one-on-one lessons is preferable for some students.

“I didn’t want to be in a class with a bunch of people with their own unique study needs,” said Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School senior Meghan Barrett. “I wanted to have my own tutor who could help me with my struggles instead of focusing too much on topics I probably didn’t need to.”

Tutoring packages from Appelrouth range from $980 to $1260 for a minimum of 8 hours and $2,650 to $3,700 for 30 hours, but the company also allows clients to pick the “any” hours option which charges $150 an hour plus an additional $100 fee.

SAT prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review offer classroom courses. Despite being a less personalized method of preparation than studying with a tutor, the classes expose students to the test and give them strategies to take it.

Some students said the broad-brush courses don’t zero in on specific areas of the test.

“We wanted to go through a company with proven and respected methods,” said North Springs junior Court Granish of the classroom course with The Princeton Review. “[However,] the content covered wasn’t always geared towards my problem areas.”

The courses typically include mock exams and essays. The materials provided by The Princeton Review’s classroom course “allow you to practice beyond the classroom,” said Granish.

The cost of classroom courses range from $125 to $999. Classes generally meet twice weekly for approximately one month, ending two or three days before the test date.

“Every company, class and tutor will tell you they have ‘the key,’” said Chesser. “Let me tell you, it’s all the same strategies; it’s a matter of whether the student is willing to put in the work.”