Does Your Hairdresser Do Your Taxes?
I just love sending the IRS a big check every April.
Actually, that was sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell. Not surprisingly, I really don't like owing money to Uncle Sam. But I do like my CPA.
I bring in all my forms, he (Brent) shuffles them around, asks me a bunch of questions, types things into his computer, and usually tells me I owe much less than I feared. There may be some black magic involved, and he's not cheap, but I'm happy with the result every year.
When I hired him for the first time, I remembered something an accountant I knew many years ago in Boston had said to me:
"H&R Block is fine if you don't mind a hairdresser doing your taxes."
During tax season, H&R Block hires lots of people, many of whom have day jobs. As you might imagine, these people are not exactly tax experts. They're underqualified, underpaid, and, if you use them, you are probably undermining your ability to save money (not to mention to have your taxes filed accurately).
The H&R Blocks of the test prep world are companies like Kaplan, Elite, and The Princeton Review. These companies have huge marketing budgets and, as a result, have become very familiar to high school counselors and consumers. I frequently meet people who, before they found me, used test prep provided by these or similar companies. What these people found out - the hard way - was that, despite the big brand names, these companies often provide test prep using a person with very little experience and use mediocre materials.
With so many test prep options out there, it can be difficult for the average person to know which are effective and which aren't - just like I have no idea how to tell if a certain auto mechanic is better than another.
However, I am one of the few people who has chosen test-prep as a career. I tutor the ACT, SAT, GMAT, and GRE full-time and have been since G.W. Bush was last in the White House. Even if you never work with me, I hope this article gives you more information about some of the options you have.
I'll rank the options from worst to best. Let's start with the worst!
1. Doing nothing.
Why: It's usually a mistake to think your normal academic work will prepare you for the ACT, SAT, or GRE. These tests aren't your friends. Unlike your teachers, they are actively trying to trick you. It's a much different game than getting an A in school, and if you don't prepare at all, well, you're making yourself vulnerable to every trick in the book. You may have a friend who scored really well without studying, but people like that are the exception, not the rule.
Overconfidence is usually worse than under-confidence when it comes standardized tests.
2. Using big company products.
If you show me a test-prep book or video course made by a big company (like Kaplan, Magoosh, or The Princeton Review), I can guarantee it won't be bad, but it won't be incredibly helpful, either. These are one-size-fits all products, written for the average student in mind. But guess what? You're not the average student. You may need much more help than a static product can offer, or you may need deeper explanations of more difficult questions. Test-prep apps and websites are undoubtedly convenient, but technology is not a substitute for conversation.
Big company books, for example, are usually not written by full-time tutors - therefore, the people who do write them cannot really be specialists in the material, since they don't see it day in and day out like full-time tutors do. Their advice and content is relentlessly mediocre. (Instead, look for books or courses made by independent, long-time tutors such as Erica Meltzer, Richard Corn, Steve Warner, Mike McClenathan, or Michael Cerro).
One of the worst things about big company products is question realism. Their practice tests are often inconsistent and usually simpler than the real test. Don't confuse quantity for quality; one or two authentic tests are more valuable than 8 poorly written ones.
3. Using big company classes.
Big company classes have all the negatives of big company products above, since instructors are required to use the company's products, methods, and scripts. However, in a class, you get a teacher to explain the book to you. The problem with this is that the teacher usually isn't very good.
Big companies and institutions (like universities) don't pay instructors very well. As a result, the instructors they do have are usually quite new to test prep. The first company I worked for (in 2007) sent me out to teach after training me for a grand total of two days! They paid me about $25 an hour while they were billing clients about five times that. No joke.
After a year or so, a big company's instructors usually 1. go on to a "normal" job, or, less often, 2. become independent tutors (a job in which they can make much more money than working as a tutor for a big company).
Big companies find it hard to retain talent for these two reasons. This is why big companies don't advertise who's teaching their classes - the teachers aren't worth bragging about. If they were, believe me, the companies would brag!
4. Using tutors from a tutor aggregator.
A natural way for a successful tutor (or savvy businessperson) to grow his or her business is to hire other tutors and take a cut of what they make. Some companies pay tutors as little as a fifth of what they charge for them, though (example: The Princeton Review); others take a small cut and make up for it by hiring hundreds or even thousands of tutors (example: Wyzant). In the first scenario, tutor turnover tends to be high - tutors usually move on to a "normal" job in their field of interest, or in the rare case that they're still tutoring after a few years, they wise up to the fact that they can work independently and not have 4/5ths of their pay taken!
The Wyzants of the world will pretty much hire anyone. Fill out an application, pass a simple online test, undergo a background check, and presto! You're a Wyzant tutor. As you can imagine, finding a good tutor at a company that hires thousands of tutors is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Tutor aggregators are also notorious for administering unrealistically difficult initial tests to make students think their scores are lower than they actually are. (Of course, this scares some students into signing up for lots of tutoring!) Make sure that if you go to a tutoring center that you can verify all practice tests - especially the initial test - are authentic. It can be difficult for the layperson to tell if a test is real, so when in doubt, ask for a copy so you can check. If they won't provide one, that's not a good sign.
There are some companies that treat their tutors well, so if you do work with a company, look for one that only has hired a handful of tutors (i.e., they have high standards). Also look for one that is transparent (they publish tutors' full names, bios, years of experience, and rates).
Finally, look for a company that ONLY offers test prep. If a company offers test prep as well as academic tutoring, it’s less likely that any one of its tutors is a real expert on a given subject or test.
5. Using an independent tutor.
Of course I am one, so I'm biased, but I strongly recommend working with an independent tutor. We have much more experience and skill than our competition. What we usually don't have is a lot of marketing dollars... so very few of us are household names. Instead, you'll usually find out about us through referrals, word of mouth, and on review websites like Yelp.
Though independent tutors usually cost more per hour than other options, we're also more efficient (not to mention effective), and you can accomplish much more in an hour with us than with another option.
If you can't afford a tutoring package with an independent tutor, try meeting them for an hour or two just to develop a study plan. They should be able to give you valuable information about how to prepare on your own or in conjunction with another prep method - information that will be more objective, and therefore better, than what you'd get from a bigger company.
The Bottom Line
You don't always get what you pay for in test prep, and as a result, people often equate spending thousands of dollars with finding an effective method. But it's quite possible to waste your money. At the end of the day, make sure you know who's teaching you and how much experience they have... and that their office doesn't have a barber chair in it.