test prep industry

How to find a good private GMAT tutor

Let’s suppose that you live in a city large enough to have a decent population of private GMAT tutors, and let’s suppose that you’ve collected a list of tutors from Craigslist or gmatix.com or Google or some other website. (And let’s suppose that you’re not looking for an online GMAT tutor, otherwise you would have called the number on the sidebar, right?) So how, exactly, should you go about figuring out which private GMAT tutors actually know what they’re talking about? Before I continue, let me be painfully honest about my own history as a private tutor: when I first started teaching GMAT lessons at a major test-prep firm more than a decade ago, I barely knew what I was doing. I was always a lively teacher, but you really shouldn’t have hired the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja; the GMAT is an incredibly nuanced exam, and it took some time for me to truly understand how to help my GMAT students succeed. I worked hard at my craft from the very start, but I know—with the benefit of hindsight—that I wasn’t the world’s best GMAT tutor when I first started out.

So if you’re looking for a great private GMAT tutor, you want to avoid shoddy, inexperienced teachers (such as the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja) and find a veteran instructor who can really help you achieve your goals.

To help you in your quest, here are a six ways to help you separate the best private GMAT tutors from the rest of the crowd... with the caveat that this is probably the longest GMAT blog post I've ever written. Consider yourself warned.

Hire a GMAT specialist, not a math generalist

Once upon a time, I placed general advertisements that offered my tutoring services for every major standardized test, including the GMAT, SAT, ACT and GRE. You shouldn’t have hired me back then, at least not for the GMAT.

Here’s the problem: the GMAT has shockingly little in common with most other standardized tests. The GMAT is a frustrating experience for many students exactly because its questions are unusually twisted; the quant section of the GMAT tests your ability to read convoluted math questions and make tricky logical connections. Sure, a general math/GRE/SAT tutor can help you polish your algebra and geometry basics, but an ideal tutor will help you to understand the bizarre quirks that are unique to the GMAT.

So if you find a general math tutor who claims to teach the GMAT well, make absolutely certain that the tutor can tell you exactly what makes the GMAT different from other standardized tests. Ask the tutor to talk about the difference between the GMAT and the GRE or the SAT. If he tells you that the tests are basically the same, then you’re better off finding another private GMAT tutor.

Ask if the tutor has taken the GMAT

As you undoubtedly know, the GMAT is a strange little creature that features a painfully broad variety of questions. Sometimes, it feels like the GMAT is a test of psychological strength, not just a test of verbal and math skills.

Any great GMAT tutor understands what it feels like to struggle through the GMAT, and completely understands the physical and psychological stresses unique to the exam. If your tutor hasn’t taken the exam often enough, it’s unlikely that he truly understands how to help you succeed on the test. So make sure that your GMAT tutor can have an intelligent, detailed conversation about his experiences in the testing room before you hire him for a tutoring session.

Hire a teacher, not just a test-taking wizard

Although you definitely want to make sure that you hire a GMAT tutor who regularly takes the exam, you should never hire a private tutor based solely on a high GMAT score. Just because somebody got a high score doesn’t mean that he is a great GMAT teacher.

Think of it this way: many people who get extremely high GMAT scores actually think that the test is pretty easy. If somebody doesn’t struggle with the test, it’s possible (or probable) that he would be incapable of figuring out why somebody else might find the GMAT difficult. And if a GMAT tutor can’t understand why the GMAT is difficult for you, you’ll probably waste your money by hiring him.

Obviously, you want to make sure that your GMAT tutor knows the test well enough to earn a high score, but don’t fall in love with a tutor just because he scored a 780 or an 800. Make sure that your GMAT tutor is an experienced, dedicated teacher who can have an intelligent conversation about his teaching strategies.

Listen for adaptability and flexibility

If you’re interested in hiring a private GMAT tutor, you probably decided that a one-size-fits-all GMAT prep course isn’t the best thing for you. You probably understand that your challenges and strengths and weaknesses are different from those of your test-prep classmates. You know that everybody has a different way of learning… but does your GMAT tutor know that?

If you speak with a GMAT tutor and he offers a rigid “plan” or “program” that he uses for all of his GMAT students, you might be wasting your money. The point of private tutoring is to receive a customized program designed specifically for your needs. If you speak with a tutor and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in adapting his teaching to suit your specific needs, you might want to look elsewhere.

The bottom line: make sure that the GMAT tutor is willing to have a detailed, engaging conversation about your specific needs. He definitely shouldn’t have all of the answers based on a phone call, but he should be able to broadly outline a unique GMAT tutoring program tailored specifically to your goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t let the tutor’s price fool you -- in either direction

Many people make the mistake of thinking that high prices and high quality always go hand-in-hand. In the wonderful world of private GMAT tutoring, I don’t think that this is necessarily the case.

During my years as a private tutor, I’ve met some spectacular teachers who massively undercharge for their services, and I’ve met some great teachers who charge a small fortune. I’ve also met crappy teachers who charge $20/hour, and crappy teachers who charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

To be honest, tutoring prices have very little to do with the quality of the teacher. Don’t assume that a high-priced GMAT tutor is necessarily good at what he does, and don’t assume that an inexpensive tutor is an unseasoned rookie. Some people are simply more aggressive than others from a pricing and marketing perspective—and that often has nothing to do with the quality of their teaching.

In the strange world of private tutoring, you don’t always get what you pay for. Ask the right questions, and you might be able to find a great GMAT tutor at a reasonable price.

Don’t hire a GMAT miracle salesman

Improving your GMAT score inevitably involves lots of hard work, and any great GMAT tutor will acknowledge that fact. If your GMAT goals are ambitious, and you hope to gain 100 or more points on the test, you should probably be prepared for a long, hard battle. The best GMAT tutors will always make that battle much easier, but if you call a private tutor and he says that you’ll be able to gain 200 points in a few weeks, you should definitely call somebody else.

Also, be very careful with score improvement statistics, which are frequently manipulated by test-prep firms. If a GMAT tutor claims to have an average score improvement of, say, 120 points, you need to look more closely at his claims. Many GMAT tutors and test-prep firms use questionable GMAT diagnostic test data as the “before” scores, and truth is that we rarely have truly accurate data on our students when they begin working with us.

Think of it this way: if a student has never taken the real GMAT test before hiring me as his tutor, how can I possibly take credit for a specific score improvement? If a student took the GMAT, then took a mass-market GMAT prep course, and then contacted me for tutoring, how do I know how much of her score improvement was due to my efforts, and how much of the improvement was a result of the GMAT prep course?

The bottom line is that statistics simply aren’t all that useful in the wonderful world of GMAT tutoring. Hire an honest person who willingly shares stories and references, and you’ll be much less likely to get burned by an ineffective GMAT tutor.

a ridiculous, costly GMAT myth

Before I make the main point of this blog post, a few disclaimers: 1) I have absolutely nothing against GMAT prep classes; on the contrary, I think that they're more cost-effective than a private tutor for many students. 2) I have absolutely nothing against any of the major GMAT test-prep companies. In fact, I had an absolutely wonderful experience working for one in the early 2000s. 3) The following is meant to be informative, not bitter or critical. OK. Just wanted to make sure that I made it clear that I'm not trying to be a jerk here.

But I had to share this with anybody who might be interested. I just started working with a new student here in NYC, and she's using her GMAT tutor as a supplement to a test-prep course. Her classroom teacher apparently said the following: "If you're debating between A and D on a GMAT question, the answer is probably A."

Whoa. Really? This deserves a special place in the Crappy Test Advice Hall of Fame, alongside the old adage about picking C whenever you need to guess.

I would be shocked if the GMAT doesn't randomize its answer choices. Randomizing might be a little bit tricky on, say, data sufficiency, but I'm pretty certain that A and D are both correct about 20% of the time on GMAT. It's an awfully sophisticated test; why would they do something stupid like making A the answer most of the time?

As soon as my student said this to me, I probably got a crazed, skeptical look on my face. I started searching for any conceivable explanation... was it on sentence correction, and the teacher just meant to say that people are often overly reluctant to choose A? Was it on data sufficiency, where the same might be true? Nope. My student insisted that they were discussing a plain old math problem solving question.

Again, (here comes disclaimer #4), this is second-hand information, and I'm wondering whether something got lost in translation from teacher to GMAT student to GMAT tutor. But if a major test-prep company is making blanket statements about A (or D or C or any other letter) being a fundamentally better guess than other choices, that's pretty scary stuff.

what? the test-prep industry isn't totally awesome?

I just read a great article in the Wall Street Journal that pretty much hits it on the head when it comes to the test-prep industry: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124278685697537839.html. It doesn't specifically mention the GMAT, but it's still an interesting commentary that applies, in some ways, to everything in the test-prep industry. Basically, the article quotes a bunch of academic studies that suggest that the average score improvement from SAT and ACT prep courses is minimal: about 30 points on the SAT, and less than 1 point (!!) on the ACT composite. The article, based on some solid reporting from students at Lowell High School in San Francisco, also accuses test-prep companies of rigging their "diagnostic tests" so that they can claim that their students had huge score improvements.

They wouldn't really do that, would they?

Um, yeah, they would. It's the oldest trick in the test-prep book, and I'm surprised that parents and students are still duped by promises that a certain private tutor or test-prep class "will raise your score by 240 points... guaranteed!" I've been teaching test-prep for nearly a decade now, and I can tell you that there are never any guarantees--some students, for a host of reasons, will never gain 240 points on their SAT score, no matter how brilliant their test-prep course or private tutor may be. (Similarly, there are some people who will never gain 240 points on their GMAT score.) And yes, many companies still rig their "diagnostic" tests so that they can claim that you made a huge score jump.

Don't get me wrong: score increases of 240 points happen on the GMAT, but they're exceedingly rare. Familiarity with the test will definitely improve your score, and a thorough review of basic test content is always productive. A great private GMAT tutor will help you with the psychological aspect of testing, and any good teacher will help you to get a grip on the trickiness inherent in the test. But everybody is different, and there are limits to what prep courses and private GMAT tutoring can achieve for any given individual.

All I'm saying is that it's good to be wary of the claims and statistics. The lively forum debates help keep GMAT test-prep companies honest, but there are still plenty of snake-oil salesmen in our midst.