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Private Tutoring VS. Test Prep Companies

By November 21, 2011September 28th, 2018About Tutoring

We learned in part one of this article that test prep programs simply don’t help students, and their guarantees are mostly empty. On the other hand, we all know that preparing for tests does work – if it’s done right.

Test prep companies advertise intensive programs that claim to teach all sorts of tips, tricks, and secrets; to be staffed with experienced teachers; to comprehensively cover the SAT; and to cost far less than private tutoring. Where do they go wrong?


Let’s look at these points one by one.

Learn to fly in just 24 hours – Intensive Study.

Through marketing slight-of-hand, test prep companies promote the intensive nature of their courses as a benefit to their students.

Unfortunately, intensive study is by far the worst way of getting better at a difficult skill. The ideal learning period for something new and challenging is about 45 minutes – that’s why classes all the way up to college are under an hour. After a 45-minute session of working on something novel, your brain needs time to rest, process, and assimilate the material.

If this wasn’t true, and learning could happen without rest, we’d all be able to finish college in a month, pick up a musical instrument in a few weeks, and learn to fly in a day.

And yet, test prep companies claim to be able to subvert this fact of human nature. Courses running over the span of a few weeks chain their students down for 3-hour sessions, while some truly egregious test prep offenders try to inject – intravenously- an entire course in just 12 hours over a single weekend. It simply doesn’t work.

Cramming material into long, drawn-out sessions over a short period of time goes a long way towards maximizing company profits, but it does very little to help students learn.

This is why good private tutors suggest that students who want to significantly improve their scores start preparing a long time (several months) in advance. They meet with their students once or, at most, twice a week, for an hour at a time, and progress slowly but surely toward their goal.

We have the secret formula – Tips, Tricks, and Secrets

Each test prep company claims to have the secret formula – their own special insider knowledge of the secrets of the SAT.

The SAT, however, has been taken by millions of students over the course of more than five decades and is utterly devoid of secrets and mysteries. The best way to get better is to practice. Trying to “cheat” the test is actually counterproductive.

For a student trying to improve their score on the math section, it is much easier to learn to understand and solve the problems presented than it is to amass a hodgepodge of error-prone tricks and shortcuts. Get the big blue book, and start doing the tests. If you want to ace the math section, get in the practice of solving difficult questions. If you feel that you do better with help, hire a tutor.

The reading comprehension section is much more difficult to improve on and is even less susceptible to various test-taking strategies. The only way to really get better is to read, a lot, and for many years. Barring that, students can memorize lists of SAT words and practice the verbal section using a book like the Kaplan SAT Critical Reading Workbook.

Globally, the only real strategy that one needs for the multiple choice sections is to know when to guess, how to manage your time, and which questions to omit. Any book and any private tutor can help you with this.

Finally, the writing section is rather new, and as such, most colleges don’t factor it heavily into their decision-making process. Unlike the reading comprehension section, however, getting better at the writing section isn’t as difficult. It involves learning how to write the type of essay that the SAT expects. The Kaplan SAT Writing Workbook will help you understand what the College Board wants in an essay, but only diligent work and feedback from a good tutor will help you become a better writer. Like every other skill, this is not something that can be picked up in a course in a few hours – it must be practiced over a long period of time, ideally with the help of an expert.

Let’s go over everything – Comprehensive Test Coverage

Having a syllabus or curriculum that boasts covering everything seems like a good idea, but it is, in fact, an extremely inefficient way to improve your test scores.

Students have different strengths and weaknesses. They excel in certain areas, have a good understanding of others, and usually have a few, often serious, deficiencies. Real gains in scores are made by focusing on the deficiencies first.

That being said, each student in a prep class will have different areas that they need to work on. A course that covers the entire SAT curriculum in a shotgun fashion will be in large part irrelevant for any particular student. When a topic comes up that a student does need help with, it won’t be covered with the depth or thoroughness that the student might need to solidify their understanding.

Good private tutors work in the opposite way: they focus first and foremost on the topics the student needs the most help with, and they don’t waste time going over things that the student already knows.

Private tutors, of course, are usually more expensive per hour than class-based or even group-based courses offered by test-prep companies. This brings us to…

What are you paying for, anyway? – Cost.

Princeton Review’s “small group” instruction, for those students who want individual attention – the only attention that really counts – is $1500. Other prep companies have similar courses with similar prices. A 40-hour course with individual attention for $1500 comes out to $37.50/hour – much cheaper than just about any private tutor.

While the entire course is 40 hours long, however, only 24 of those hours are “live instruction.” What are the remaining 16 hours used for, you ask? They are used for students to take 4 practice SAT tests – something that students can do on their own with the help of an egg timer and a $10 dollar book. If you are worried about grading the writing section, fear not: the College board is more than happy to sign you up for their Online Prep course which will, among other things, automatically grade 40 essays for you – for an additional $60.

Removing the 16 hours of test prep, we are left with 24 hours of instructor time. $1500 divided by 24 hours comes out to $62.50/hr. Not so cheap anymore, though still a bit cheaper than what most private tutors charge.

However, for $62.50 an hour, the instructor is still following a syllabus, trying to cover everything possible, and you are sharing said instructor with three other people.

Even at $100 an hour, a private tutor seems like a steal– and there are many out there that are cheaper.

Only the best – Experienced Teachers

Every single course claims that their teachers are experienced SAT prep instructors. For most definitions of the word “experienced,” this simply isn’t true. Most of the people that teach SAT prep courses are in fact new recruits.

First off, experienced tutors simply don’t like working with groups of people or lecturing to a class – they prefer to help one student at a time. Secondly, test prep instructors are very poorly paid in proportion to how much money the test prep company takes in. For example, four students paying $62.50 per hour comes out to $250 that goes to Princeton Review. The tutor, on the other hand, will usually be paid about $20 for that same hour. It’s not hard to see why these inexperienced, underpaid, and overworked tutors fail to inspire or truly help their students, and why good, experienced tutors will never be found teaching a test prep course – they simply have better options.

Compared to test prep instructors, private tutors that work for agencies keep much more of what you pay for their hour (50% or more), and independent tutors, the ones that work for themselves, keep 100%.

Private tutors are thus much more invested in their work, in their students, and in getting results.


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