Once we agree that all tests–especially the influential and high stakes ones–should be prepared for (and they obviously should be) the next questions focus more on methods and means. Considering the wide range of test prep material out there from books to online programs to classes to tutoring, teens and their families can be understandably intimidated by the choice, especially when factors like fit, quality, cost, and interactivity come into play.
I answer questions about which types of test prep are best for different students, but rarely are my answers recorded. Luckily, my Tests and the Rest partner Amy Seeley and I were recently interviewed by the unstoppable Linda Abraham. Not only has Linda, as the founder of Accepted, helped countless applicants gain admission to top medical, law, business and graduate schools over decades, she is also a leading educational podcaster. Amy and I had her on our podcast to discuss Getting Ready For Graduate School, then met her again on her own Admissions Straight Talk show to talk all about choosing the right forms of preparation. While our focus was on prep for graduate admissions tests, most of what we shared applies equally to those consider high school or college entrance exams. Here are some salient excerpts from Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You?
LINDA: There are lots of test prep options out there. Regardless of whether you’re taking online or offline grad school, applicants need to choose between self-study, what I’d like to call online guided self study (online courses that you go at your own pace), formal courses and individual one-on-one tutoring. How can students choose the right approach for them?
MIKE: I’m glad that you phrased the question, assuming that everyone’s going to prepare for these really important tests, because that should be the foundation of the conversation. If you are taking a GRE or GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, any important test – you’re going to study. You’re going to prepare. Just like if you’re taking the final exam for your course. If you don’t, you know what happens. So, everybody should prepare, especially because selective admissions is highly competitive. Understanding that preparation is key is the first step.
The second step is being brutally honest about who you are as a learner and that there are some individuals who are autodidacts. Anything that they’re interested in, they can learn themselves to a very high level. I have a friend who never played music before. One day he picked up a guitar and fast forward, 30 years later, he’s a rock and roll lawyer. He likes the rock and roll part more than the law.
He taught himself to be a phenomenal musician, engineer, song writer, everything. But most people aren’t like that. I picked up a guitar lots of times. I put it back down when everybody asked me to stop, whatever it was that I was doing. Most of us need some kind of support, whether it’s a class or something more individualized. While many people begin with books and they begin with self-study programs, people often find that they just wasted time and put themselves off track, because they started that first, when they never really learned that way effectively in the past. Amy, do you agree?
AMY: I’m going to add something very practical and that would be, I think you’ve got to consider things like your timeline, your budget, your goals. Depending on when you plan to take a test or when you need those test scores, you’ve got to consider what amount of time that you have, because that may influence whether you have different options or you can start as a self prepper. Maybe you elevate that prep versus knowing you have to have a test score by a certain time. If you have a certain goal in mind, you may realize that trying to fiddle at this for a while, you don’t have the time to be able to achieve that goal.
Lastly and obviously, for some students, it’s going to be the budget. How much money is at stake here? In the world that Mike and I operate, often with college admissions, we see lots of students who are trying to leverage test scores for the financial benefit of scholarship. Oftentimes the conversation is about what’s going to be the return on investment. I can justify spending a certain amount of money knowing that at the end of the line, if I get a $10,000 year scholarship or more, putting in $500 or $700, you get a huge return on that. So, to me, those are some of the considerations about how you may look at what kind of preparation you might want to embark on.
LINDA: Let’s say for a moment that all options are equally expensive (or inexpensive, depending upon your perspective) and a student has four months to prepare so they’re doing okay in terms of time. In that case, holding the other things constant, what are some of the criteria? Would distance away from target score be a factor? Would difficulty in one particular area or in both areas of an exam or multiple areas of exam, depending upon the exam, be a factor? What would you advise that client?
MIKE: I’ll just jump in and say that those factors definitely dictate because the more specific a person’s need, the more likely individual instruction is necessary.
AMY: 100%. I would also say that, and I do, when I talk to families where let’s say the student is really starting at a high level, there is no question that a few tips or tools or suggestions may be all that student needs. So, self prep is just a need for some guidance. Some guidance in launching. For lower starting test score, it’s often very difficult to self prep, because you don’t know what you don’t know. You are getting a low score because you don’t know or don’t understand material. Being able to sort of teach yourself is oftentimes not as much in the card. I would certainly use a benchmark of average to below average scoring on whatever test it is. I think it makes self prep a much more difficult and frustrating road.
I often use this analogy of short leash, long leash test prep. I’ll tell families or students if a student is starting at a high score, I’m probably going to keep them on a long leash, which means I’m going to let them loose with some guidance, suggestions, some ability to reach out and here’s what you should be doing independently. Versus that short leash with someone who’s got a lower score, I’m going to keep them tight because I want to make sure I’m monitoring that and giving suggestions at every little step to make sure that I can even help with frustration so that someone doesn’t get so frustrated that they want to give up.
MIKE: I would also say that this ties into how important it is that when a person has a sense of his or her timeline and budget that he or she seeks out the highest level of expertise possible, because what Amy just described is a realization that is earned over decades of working with students and understanding different types. So, assuming that the calculus is that higher test score on a graduate admissions exam opens up the opportunity to have a better chance of getting into the target school and knowing, and Linda you can attest to this, that the more prestigious, certain graduate programs are, especially on the business and the law side, the more money you’re likely to make when you graduate.
Knowing all of that, you want to invest in expertise. You want to look at it, it could be an individual or an enterprise, but when you’re considering who you’re going to be personally working with, how much experience does that person have? How effective has that person been? If that person is part of an organization, what is the history of the organization, especially in terms of positive word of mouth, lots of referrals. Do they have a specific curriculum that’s proven? Do they use official practice tests? For all of the graduate exams, there’s abundant material available. There’s a lot of different questions you want to look at and not just seek someone out because that person impressed you in a phone call or comes in $10 per hour under others. Think about how successful that individual has been and how experienced that person has. Because test preparation is definitely the kind of trade that people get better at iteratively.
This exchange involves just 5 or 6 minutes of a 57-minute podcast, and the full recording of Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You? is highly recommended. But as far as the central question of choosing the right form of test prep goes, be realistic about learning styles, motivation, timeline, and budget. Always research potential providers or programs diligently and look at exceptional prep not as an expense but an investment in success. Considering the rate of return in terms of access, scholarship, and future earnings, the best test prep usually pays for itself many times over!