Choosing between an independent GMAT tutor and a large GMAT test-prep firm

 

In a crusty old GMAT blog post, I discussed the most important characteristics you should look for in an independent GMAT (or GRE) tutor. In this post, I’ll take a step back, and look at a broader decision: should you hire an independent GMAT tutor in the first place, or are you better off looking for a GMAT tutor from one of the established GMAT test-prep juggernauts?

As with many decisions in life, there’s no foolproof, one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few ways to think about the tradeoffs between hiring an independent GMAT tutor vs. a tutor from a large GMAT test-prep firm:

Tradeoff #1: Quality control vs. potential genius

Imagine that you’re trying to choose between two restaurants for dinner tonight. One restaurant is a national chain that you’d find in every major city. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that national chain: consistent food and a consistent overall experience. Will you have your mind blown by something new, innovative, and incredibly delicious at that chain restaurant? Probably not. But if you enjoyed your last experience at that chain restaurant, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it again tonight.

But what will happen if you walk into an independent restaurant you’ve never tried before? Well, there’s some chance that you’ll enjoy one of the most unique and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten – and it may be far better than anything you’d eat at the chain restaurant. Or there’s a chance that you’ll get a terrible bellyache. Who knows?

To be fair, no GMAT or GRE tutor will ever give you a bad case of food poisoning… but, well, some independent tutors aren’t great. And others are absolute geniuses who will teach you far more than any one-size-fits-most test-prep company ever could. And that’s arguably the biggest tradeoff: are you interested in risking a few dollars in search of a GMAT or GRE virtuoso, or would you rather play it safe?

There’s obviously no right answer, but that’s arguably the heart of the decision you face if you’re thinking about hiring a GRE or GMAT test-prep tutor.

Tradeoff #2: One-size-fits-most vs. individualized solutions

I started my GMAT and GRE tutoring career at a large test-prep firm about 15 years ago. Our training was, of course, standardized: every test-prep tutor and classroom teacher learned the same processes, and taught from the same scripts. And that makes perfect sense: when you walk into the company’s test-prep center in Denver, you would expect to receive exactly the same GMAT pedagogy as you would in New York City.

That standardized approach to test-prep instruction works really, really well… unless it doesn’t. For some test-takers, the curriculum at, say, Manhattan GMAT or Economist GMAT is absolutely perfect. For some people, it’s pretty good. For others, it’s a mild disaster. But GMAT and GRE tutors at large test-prep firms are generally required to stick to their individual firm’s teaching methods. Their training is 100% rooted in those methods, and their managers expect tutors to adhere to them.

So if those standardized teaching methods don’t work for a particular GMAT or GRE student, the tutor may not be able to do much about it – either because they don’t have the freedom to select different teaching methods, or because they simply don’t know about them.

As independent GRE and GMAT tutors, we’re free to explore the wide world of test-prep pedagogy, tailoring our methods and materials to each individual student. That sounds great, but there’s a catch: it’s easier for a tutor to follow a single test-prep teaching methodology than to try to synthesize dozens of them – and of course, not all independent tutors truly understand a broad range of pedagogical techniques. But the best GMAT and GRE tutors are constantly learning, and constantly expanding their teaching toolkits. And that’s something that even the best of the GMAT test-prep giants will never be able to offer.

Tradeoff #3: Free materials vs. freedom

One of the biggest reasons GMAT and GRE test-takers often prefer large test-prep companies is that they offer plenty of test-prep materials: books, worksheets, online trackers, and practice tests, all of which are included in the price of a private GMAT or GRE tutoring package. Sure, I’d argue that those goodies from test-prep companies can never be as good as official GMAT materials, but free materials are still better than no materials. Many independent GMAT and GRE tutors – myself included – do offer some free materials, but they’re obviously nowhere near as flashy as the ones produced by GMAT and GRE test-prep behemoths.

But again, there’s a price tag to those free materials: they limit the pedagogical freedom of the big companies’ GMAT and GRE tutors. If you work for, say, Kaplan, your bosses probably wouldn’t want you to recommend materials from Veritas – and certainly not from some wacko contrarian independent GMAT tutor guy. But independent GMAT tutors can maintain flexibility: if we think that you’re going to benefit from a GMAT or GRE test-prep guide written by another company, we’ll tell you to buy it.

In other words: large test-prep companies rely on just one set of materials. Independent GMAT and GRE tutors can draw on every available set of materials to optimize a student’s progress. We just can’t give you many of them for free.

And when you think about the overall cost of the MBA investment or the cost of private GMAT tutoring, maybe the price of a few books isn’t terribly meaningful, anyway?

Tradeoff #4: Personalization vs. potential clock-punching

There are some fantastic GMAT and GRE tutors working for some of the large test-prep firms – I’ve met plenty of them over the years. Many of them are very passionate about helping their students succeed. But others think of it as “just a job.” And maybe that’s the one risk to hiring a GMAT or GRE tutor from one of the large test-prep companies: you might be getting a smart but passionless person who’s just punching the proverbial clock.

Independent GMAT and GRE tutors – or at least the ones with staying power – are much more likely to be a different breed, with a unique perspective and some fire in their bellies for teaching. Independent tutors aren’t just cogs in a larger machine – we’re our own machines. It’s just that we’re very tiny machines, with less flash and fewer freebies — and far less standardization.

 

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