Test prep, college guides and the like comprise a publishing category that is relatively immune to fickle fashion or subject to change for change’s sake. The major players remain pretty much the same, and the focus remains steady: giving the goods on prepping for college to a constantly replenished market. When the offerings do change, the transformation can most often be traced to some macro-level shifts, like the rapid escalation of tuition costs (average for a four-year private college this year: $23,712), the ever-increasing focus on the Internet and other electronic resources by younger generations or changes in the admission process standards. Such changes are usually obvious to all, allowing publishers to make alterations in their approach. Below are examinations of a selection of some of these recent changes and how test prep and college guide publishers are responding to them.

Electronic Resources Lead the Way

Test prep publishers are using the Web and other electronic resources with increasing frequency. It’s a natural fit since, as LearningExpress editorial director Karen Wolny explains, “Most tests are now given on a computer or moving in that direction.”

Wolny explains that LearningExpress includes free access to full practice tests with instant scoring with book purchase.

Kaplan Publishing, too, is incorporating electronic resources into its test prep program. But that doesn’t mean the print book will ever disappear from the scene completely. Publisher Maureen McMahon says, “We currently have books with CD-ROMs and online companions. We’ve interviewed customers who’ve used our books to understand how they use these components and it’s clear that each format serves a different purpose: students like the portability of the print format, and they like having the ability to add notes and customize easily; they also value the convenience and instant scoring aspect of the electronic formats. Our readers view these formats as complementary, not exclusive.”

The Web isn’t just for test-taking either: College Prowler CEO Luke Skurman reports, “Last March we digitized all 40,000 pages of our content from 250 single school books and began selling online subscription access in addition to selling physical books.” The Web site is currently being made more interactive—new material to come includes a personality quiz to match prospective students with schools.

Laurie Barnett, editor-in-chief of Barnes & Noble subsidiary SparkNotes, says, “As our target audience becomes more and more Web savvy, we provide more interactive, online free study guides at www.sparknotes.com than ever before.” Also, the company’s AP Power Packs, its strongest selling non-SAT titles, mix electronic and print with practice exams, study cards and access to online diagnostic tests.

Study guides, too, are now as likely to be electronic as they are to be in print. CliffsNotes sells auditory guides to classics like George Orwell’s Animal Farm that can be downloaded to an iPod.

Standing Out in a Crowd

According to the Web site www.collegeadmissioninfo.com and other sources, college applications have been increasing across the board, meaning that admissions committees have millions more applications to assess.

“With such steep competition, students and parents are starting to look beyond the standardized one-size-fits-all test prep and college guidebooks. Instead, they look for personalized one-on-one coaching to set them apart from the rest of the applicants,” says Ten Speed Press associate publicist Susan Pi. The press is responding with stand-alone titles reliant on their authors’ voices. These include Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps: Crafting a Winning Personal Statement (Mar.) by Alan Gelb, a college essay coach with a “holistic strategy,” and Outsmarting the SAT: An Expert Tutor Reveals Her Proven Techniques, Strategies, and Confidence-Building Exercises That Will Maximize Your Score (Aug.) by test-prep consultant Elizabeth King. In a similar vein is Hack the SAT: A Private SAT Tutor Spills the Secret Strategies and Sneaky Shortcuts That Can Raise Your Score Hundreds of Points (Gotham, July) by Eliot Schrefer.

Nicole Benhabib, publishing manager for Random House imprint Princeton Review, agrees, noting, “It’s not rocket science: More students applying to college + more applications per student = higher rejection rates = more frenzy among next year’s applicants = more applications per student....” That increased competition, says Benhabib, “bodes well for all who produce quality guidebooks that help people give it their best shot.” These include the imprint’s College Navigator: Find a School to Match Any Interest from Archery to Zoology (2007), with 300 college lists culled from surveys of college advisors and counselors, and its annual Best Colleges guide, now in its 17th year of publishing peer rankings of subjects such as dorms, campus political leanings and race/class relations. The 2009 edition, out in July, relies on data from 125,000 students.

Students in the Know

College Prowler’s Skurman grew up on the West Coast, so when it came time to apply to colleges, he found that he had a hard time intuiting what East Coast campuses were like from across the country. The day after graduating from Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon in 2002, he founded College Prowler, which today publishes guides to nearly 300 colleges, all based on information provided by students on everything from Greek life to dining halls.

This from-the-horse’s mouth perspective is increasingly common. Forthcoming Ten Speed titles include Getting the Best Out of College: A Professor, a Dean, and a Student Tell You How to Maximize Your Experience (May) by Peter Feaver, Sue Wasiolek and Anne Crossman. “Today’s teenagers are more savvy about the education process,” says Aaron Wehner, editorial director. “We want to help them with books that break away from the traditional, from SAT prep to admissions essays to college life.”

SparkNotes, too, is working with students. Editor-in-chief Laurie Barnett says, “Our upcoming 283 Great Colleges [July] will be like no other college guide. We know that higher education is no longer a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all enterprise. Terms like 'best’ have lost all relevance, and those all-important rankings are good for publicity but ultimately useless. So instead, we assembled a team of experts—admission officers, teachers, guidance counselors and students—to help us identify the great schools you can find all over this country.”

At Workman, the newest edition of Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT (July) was authored by six SAT aces, including student editors and high school seniors Jarey Wang and Ginger Jiang. Wang and Jiang were selected through a contest that Workman publicized via Mensa, top-ranked U.S. high schools and its own Web site, a practice the press plans to continue. “By getting new student editors every two years, we can keep the title really relevant,” says assistant editor Cassie Murdoch.

Going AP

Not only are colleges receiving record numbers of applications these days, but they’re also charging record tuition prices. While a handful of colleges have recently announced that they will be granting more financial aid to middle-income families, for most students, paying for college remains a financial stretch. Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high schools are an increasingly popular way to lighten the tuition bill, as high school students can pre-earn college credits by passing them.

“Increased high school enrollments are resulting in a current growth in the AP market of over 10% per year,” reports Christopher Brown, McGraw-Hill publisher for test prep and language. The press now offers guides to 14 of the tests and will expand its AP series further by adding Environmental Science and French next year.

Barron’s is adding AP Art History and AP Italian Language and Culture to its offerings. Director of school/library sales Frederick Glasser explains, “In the past five years, Barron’s has expanded its line of AP test prep review offerings from 17 to 43. Most recently our focus has been on publishing books with CD-ROM—17 so far—that contain additional practice tests and review material. We are also publishing AP flash cards.”

Princeton Review now publishes 16 AP guides annually. “Strong AP scores give students an application edge and college credits, thereby saving on tuition—a whole semester’s worth, potentially,” says Nicole Benhabib, publishing manager.

Wiley, too, is active in the AP category, with an expanding series of CliffsAP Flashcards and AP Biology for Dummies debuting this month. Senior editor Greg Tubach says, “CliffsNotes has been focused on the AP market since we published our first guides for advanced placement students about 30 years ago.” In June, CliffsNotes will also release three online AP test prep products. Says Tubach, “Our market research tells us that high school students are augmenting their book-buying patterns to include online materials, and AP students are no different.”

Working 9 to 5

SATs, application essays, even dining hall food are dissected at length in many guides, but what about the student with no plans for attending college?

LearningExpress publishes a wide range of vocational books and is adding new titles for future firefighters, air traffic controllers, pharmacy technicians and others. These books are experiencing “tremendous growth,” says Karen Wolny, and “the reasons are obvious when you look at the numbers: over 25 million people take vocational and professional tests every year. In contrast, only about two million students take the SAT annually. Taking it even further, 50% of all high school graduates enter the workforce, immediately filling vocational and professional licensing career positions.”

Wolny adds, “There is a commonality among all of these tests—college admissions, public service careers or professional licensing. They all test basic areas such as math, reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing ability and reasoning.”

“While there has been much talk about the effects of an economic slowdown on the publishing industry, the sales of many study aids/test prep books could actually grow while the economy declines,” posits Peterson’s editor-in-chief Del Franz. “Many people see Civil Service jobs as a fallback in a time of recession, so we expect increased demand for books such as Master the Civil Service Exams and Master the Postal Exams and are publishing new editions of these books in 2008.”

Que Certification publishes a wide array of IT certification texts in its Exam Cram line, including NCLEX RN Exam Cram 2/e and NCLEX PN Exam Cram 2/e. “As the exams get more complicated and scenario driven, a candidate’s preparation activities become more diverse. We are addressing these increasing demands with a much wider array of print and media-rich products that provide a candidate with as many choices as possible,” says associate publisher Dave Dusthimer.

ACT up

The number of students taking the ACT exam, a common alternative to the SAT, increased 21.1% from 2006 to 2007, according to the test’s administrators. While there are plenty of SAT guides around, the new popularity of the ACT is, unsurprisingly, leading to growth in the number of ACT titles being published.

Del Franz at Peterson’s says, “Now six states require that high school students take the ACT as part of the high school requirements: Colorado, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan. This is, I believe, double the number from one year ago. Another factor increasing ACT’s market share is that a growing number of students are taking both the SAT and ACT. Nearly all colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, and students are increasingly realizing they have a choice which test to submit to colleges. Taking both allows them to submit the scores for the test on which they score best. We’re seeing the effects of this trend in growing sales for our book The Real ACT Prep Guide, the official test prep guide from the makers of the ACT.”

McGraw-Hill publisher for test prep and language Christopher Brown says, “We’re seeing growth in our core ACT titles (our annualized guide and McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Practice Tests) as well as expanding our list with focused paper-specific guides: McGraw-Hill’s Conquering ACT Math and McGraw-Hill’s Conquering ACT English, Reading, and Writing.”

What’s Next?

Presumably, students who have relied on books to get into college will then turn to books to get through college. Several publishers are now moving into the area of guides aimed at current college students.

JIST launches 10 Best College Majors for Your Personality this month with a 30,000-copy print run. Senior product developer Laurence Shatkin, one of the book’s co-authors, says, “For several years we have had a series of Best Jobs books. One that attracted a lot of interest was 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality. The connection between personality and a successful and satisfying career seems to be generally understood in the culture, and the six Holland personality types in particular are widely used in career counseling but, of course, many young people are not yet facing a career decision and instead need to make the shorter-horizon decision about a college major.”

College Board has published its Book of Majors every other year since the first edition in 2002, but beginning this year it will revise the title annually in response to demand. Tom Vanderberg, senior editor, guidance publications, reports that the second edition outsold the first by 30%, and says the decision to go annual was prompted partly by urging from distribution partner Macmillan. “We get a lot of student data from our Web site about what’s hot and what they’re looking for,” says Vanderberg. “Emergency Management is a new major that’s hot right now. Forensics was big a couple years ago.”

In a show-me-the-money move, Princeton Review is continuing its annual updates of Paying for College Without Going Broke (the 2009 edition is due in October), a guide that, much like a tax guide, incorporates worksheets for completing the complex 100-question FAFSA form.

Sourcebooks is aiming for the college-bound among the estimated 10% of Americans with ADD with Michael Sandler’s College Confidence with ADD: The Ultimate Success Manual for ADD Students, from Applying to Academics, Preparation to Social Success and Everything Else You Need to Know, due out in April. Sandler, an ADD coach and columnist with ADDitude magazine, provides tips for keeping on point, as well as his own story of making his way through college and graduate school with ADD. Editorial manager Peter Lynch says, “We worked with the author to go beyond normal layout and build a book that is filled with icons, lists, sidebars and other elements designed specifically toward how the ADD student best processes information. Current estimates are that one in eight college students are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. But the surprising fact is that up to 25% of college students show some ADD traits, even if they aren’t diagnosed as having ADD or ADHD.”

And finally, Workman is offering examples of what not to do with this month’s Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History from Actual College Students, which features gems culled from actual papers and exams, such as: “The Sumerian culture, which was oldest, began about 3,500 years before Christmas,” and “Literature ran wild. Writers expressed themselves with cymbals.”