Although this site has amassed, over time, a fair amount of loyal readers (thanks guys! <3 u!) the single greatest source of traffic for this site is still Google. Which means a lot of people find their way here by searching for “SAT tips,” (I’ve got some) or “is C the most common SAT answer” (no) or, hilariously, “5 hour energy on day of test” (I wouldn’t if I were you).

I’ve done a fair amount of SAT-related Googling myself, so I know what else is out there. There’s some good stuff (for a sampling of what I think is good, see the “Brothers and sisters in arms” section in the left sidebar on this site). There’s also a lot of junk. Some of it’s benignly awful—space-filler articles in local newspapers that purport to tell you how to do well on the exam but actually just tell you to bring #2 pencils and get a good night’s sleep the night before. Those aren’t helpful, but they’re usually written by well-meaning people and they’re mostly harmless. Then there’s the more insidious stuff—the folks who try to squeeze large sums of money out of you or your parents by stoking your anxieties about the SAT, and then claiming they’re the only ones who can help you. You should avoid these charlatans like the plague. Which means you need to know how to identify them.

The two biggest, most glaring indicators that you should be skeptical about the efficacy of a test prep resource are big secrets and big promises. 

Big Secrets

The last major change to the SAT was in 2005, which means folks like me have had the better part of a decade to dissect and analyze the test in its current format. SAT prep is big business, and profitable business, so even though they’re not all blogging about it there are many sharp minds thinking about how to do prep the right way. On the fundamentals, there are more similarities than differences among expert test prep providers. Most of us use plug in and backsolve when appropriate, and we all talk about dangling modifiers and run-ons, even if we use different terminology for those techniques and concepts. Sure, many of us have little quirks that are fairly unique, but those are like the paint job on a car—a cool paint job is only worthwhile if the car actually runs.

Slick marketing and quality test prep don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but you need to make sure there’s steak behind the sizzle before you sign on the dotted line. If a potential prep provider claims to know something about the test that nobody else knows, or claims to have unlocked the secrets of the test, but won’t back up her claims until you’ve opened up your wallet, keep your wallet closed and find another resource that will be more forthcoming about the test prep process.

Big Promises

Nobody can sprinkle fairy dust over your head and raise your score 400 points; people who claim otherwise are suspect. A large score increase depends more on you and your hard work than it does on even the most adroit tutor. If someone on the Internet is willing to guarantee huge score increases in just a few hours of work before even meeting you, he probably either hasn’t been in this business long enough to be any good, or has his fingers crossed behind his back.

The Bottom Line

Gimmicks, secrecy, and salesmanship are all too common in the SAT prep world, but only good teaching is worth paying for. A good tutor or prep course teacher is good because she knows how to communicate concepts and ideas effectively—if you’re not resonating with her when she explains something the first time, she figures out your learning style and alters her approach accordingly. If you’re considering spending some money on test prep, seek good teaching.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong and there is a tutor out there who can improve your score 700 points just by whispering some gibberish in your ear and doing a special dance. I’m just saying I wouldn’t bet my hard-earned money, or my precious time, on it.

[See also: Six questions to ask a potential SAT tutor]