I looked in the mirror. The spots were still there.


Warning: this newsletter contains descriptions of a mysterious skin condition. Reader discretion is advised.

A few years ago, my shoulders and upper arms developed what looked like a mild rash. It wasn't painful or itchy or anything, but I couldn't figure it out by Googling it, and nothing I did seemed to make it go away. (TMI, I know, but bear with me.)

Had I developed a cat allergy? Was I allergic to something in that weird Whole Foods salad? Was the California sun wreaking havoc on my virtually melanin-free skin? I had no idea, but I figured it wasn't normal, so I made an appointment with a dermatologist in La Jolla.

Now you've probably been through this, I assume. You call the doctor's office and ask for an appointment. "Dr. so and so's first available appointment is a month from now, but I have Jim (a physician's assistant) who can see you Friday."

I didn't want to wait a month, so I opted for the P.A. But after studying the spots, he turned out to be as mystified as I was, and after leaving his office, I was back to square one. Now I admit, there are plenty of competent P.A.s out there. Just not that one.

A few months later, the rash was still there, so I decided to go to a different dermatologist, and this time, got an appointment with an actual doctor. He took one look at the rash and identified it (I'll spare you the gory details), prescribed some medicine, and it was gone within a week.

We all love convenience (how much did you spend on Amazon last month?), but sometimes we give up quality in return.

In my industry (test preparation), I see some of our local competitors do things that we don't (my reactions are in bold):

1. They provide tutoring on school subjects in addition to test prep, serving as a one-stop tutoring center. (We stick to SAT, PSAT, ACT, and GRE, since the more subjects someone offers, the less experience and expertise she can bring to any one of those subjects.)

2. They teach classes that claim to prepare students for the SAT, PSAT, and ACT at the same time. (We recognize that it's much easier to master a test if it's the only one you're focusing on.)

3. They pay their new tutors an average of $30 an hour (try Googling the name of one of our competitors + the word "Glassdoor", a site which publishes reported pay rates, or  + "Indeed", where you can see what they offer in their job ads). (Our average tutor makes more than triple that. We attract and retain veteran tutors - our average experience level is 8 years. Their tutors are usually younger - and greener.)

Now this isn't to say our competitors are throwing efficacy out the window to offer you more convenience and to make themselves more money. There are some great tutors who work for some of our competitors. There are a lot of downsides to big companies like The Princeton Review, but even they have some talented, experienced people.

The bottom line is this: No matter who you use for test prep, don't rely on the brand name. Don't rely on how convenient it is to work with them. Find out who, exactly, the instructor is and how much experience they have. Meet them in person and get a feel for how warm, friendly, communicative, and knowledgeable they seem to be. 

Reminds me of that quote: "You think experts are expensive? Try hiring an amateur." If you want a decent score, you have lots of test prep options. If you want an great score, find a real expert. Get rid of that rash the first time.

Questions For Discussion:

1. Do you think doctors brag about how long patients have to wait to get an appointment with them when they're hanging out with their doctor buddies at the golf course?

2. How long will it be before we're making our medical appointments on Amazon.com?

3. What's a service that you think it's absolutely worth paying more for to get the best quality?

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