3 Bad Good Questions To Ask A Tutor


What the heck is a bad good question?

Let's say you're touring a college. The sun is shining, the architecture's beautiful, and attractive people are everywhere. You're in a good mood, and your parents told you to ask questions, so you say,

"What's your average class size?"

"12 students," the tour guide says proudly. That sounds good, right?

But your question was a bad good question - a question that seems good, but that in fact yields information that may be deceptive or unhelpful without follow up.

In that case, you might also want to ask, "what's the average class size in MY intended major?", and "what percentage of classes in my major are taught by professors as opposed to teaching assistants?" I.e., who cares how small the class is if the person teaching it has no experience?

When you're getting to know a potential tutor, there are plenty of good questions you can ask. How long have they been tutoring? What's their process like? What are the factors that tend to produce success? But I often get bad good questions from parents, so I've analyzed a few here. Let the badness begin! 


1. What's your average score increase?

First of all, there's no way you can verify the answer to this question. But let's say the tutor you ask kept records, and he says, "our average ACT score increase is 5 points". I know from experience that not all students report their test scores back to tutors. As you might imagine, the ones who don't are often the ones who were disappointed or embarrassed by their scores. So that tutor's "average score" might not really be an average.

But for the sake of argument, let's pretend the tutor's claim IS a real average. That 5-point increase might sound good, but there are a lot of other factors to consider:


  • How was the increase measured? Many companies use self-written, artificially difficult diagnostic tests to scare students into thinking they need lots of help. When the student takes the real test, it looks as though they improved a lot. But it's possible their improvement was really small, too. Even if the company used an official practice test, students sometimes score really low if they take the test completely cold. With a little familiarity, their scores jump. So to get a real baseline, the student should learn about the test for at least one tutoring session before taking a diagnostic test.
  • As much as we don't like to admit it, your tutor doesn't know for sure if the tutoring caused the increase or if tutoring was only one of many factors. Sometimes students do poorly at first because of nerves, and do way better the second time just because they're more familiar. Granted, the tutor probably was a contributing factor, but it's hard to attribute all improvement to the tutoring.
  • It's so hard to compare students to other students. The more differences in things like grade level, school, classes taken, tutoring hours, homework hours, student motivation, etc., the more difficult it is to have confidence that your kid will improve similarly to former students. It's like asking a personal trainer, "how much weight does your average client lose?" The "average client" is a composite of lots of things, and it's inevitable you're different in many ways from that composite.

2. What did you get on the test?

Every tutoring company out there seems to claim its tutors score in the 99th percentile. Ok, I don't buy that, since there are thousands of tutoring companies!

But more importantly, who the hell cares?


  • Any tutor who has been in the business for a while can probably get every question right on a given day. After all, we not only see these tests every day but we explain them to students every day. It would be weird if we couldn't score really high!
  • Though being able to get questions right is a prerequisite for being able to explain them, many people who score really high are terrible at explaining questions. I interviewed tutors for several years for a tutoring company, and though I wanted to see their scores at least in the 95th percentile, I was way more interested in their personalities, kindness, and patience. 

3. Do you offer a guarantee?

Forgive me if I go back to the personal trainer analogy again, but would you offer a guarantee if you had a client coming in once or twice a week to work out? No way, right? Even if you put them through the wringer with every workout, they could go home every night and eat pasta while smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds.

In fact, I would view any kind of guarantee in the test prep business as a potential bad sign. The company knows the promise of the guarantee will more than make up for the money they lose having to refund a few people. Plus, there's usually some fine print involved. Many companies merely let you retake the course (what good is that if it didn't work the first time?), and I've seen another company make you prove you've watched hundreds of videos. 

Experienced tutors have learned that no matter how good they are, there are many variables in their students' lives they have no control over - and that those variables can make a big difference on test day.


The Bottom Line

When you talk to a tutor or tutoring company, notice what they focus on. Are they talking about things like statistics and guarantees? Or are they more interested in candidly explaining the process and listening to you talk about your situation? 

Questions For Discussion

  1. What's your favorite type of pasta? (mine is gnocchi).
  2. Did you choose your college because of the number of attractive people there? (Be honest.)
  3. What's a bad good question people ask in YOUR industry?

Go Back