Most colleges and graduate schools in the US require a standardized test for admission.
When you begin working on your candidacy, you have several options for preparing for these tests: studying on your own, working with friends, taking a class, hiring a tutor, or perhaps some combination of these approaches.
No single method of preparation is right for everyone.
What you choose depends in large part on your starting point, goals, time, budget, and learning/studying style. For example, if you don't need a particularly large score increase and you have plenty of time, you may consider studying on your own. But, if you need a large increase and don't have much time, or if you know you're not the kind of person who can manage to study consistently on your own, we recommend looking for professional guidance.
As you're looking at your options, one-on-one tutoring may initially seem more expensive. However, it often ends up being a more worthy investment of your time. Potential clients sometimes ask why one-on-one test prep is worth it. Here are my answers:
Though tests are standardized, your approach to studying for them should not be. Each student differs in background knowledge, confidence, skills, learning style, goals, and time available to prepare, among other things. For example, if you're a student who is looking to close the gap between an 80th and 90th percentile score, you have a lot of time to prepare, and you're a relatively confident test taker, you're going to need a very different approach than a student who is struggling to understand basic concepts on the test, has only a little time, and is a poor test taker. I've seen many students come to us after working alone or in generalized classes that take an approach that's sub-optimal for, or even detrimental to, reaching their individual goals. A skilled tutor can quickly diagnose where your weaknesses lie vis-á-vis your goals, and then help you structure a focused plan to address your needs.
Efficiency and efficacy of work:
A qualified tutor can also make sure that the work you put in is moving you forward, rather than spinning your wheels. One challenge with studying alone or with working through a one-size-fits-all class is that the work you may be doing may not be the work you most need to do. By thorough diagnosis of your weaknesses and needs, a tutor can assign the specific work that can get you the most improvement for your time spent. It’s like when I learned how to swim laps. From my experience at the pool on my own—huffing and puffing after only one lap—I felt my endurance was very weak, and I focused on pushing myself as hard as possible to improve that. However, after several months, I wasn't making improvement, so I hired a coach. Within 10 minutes of observing me, my coach suggested one small tweak in my stroke that nearly doubled my endurance immediately. Furthermore, she gave me a plan to address the subsequent roadblocks that she could foresee. In this case, I was putting in a lot of effort on my own, but–quite literally—not getting anywhere. It took an expert to diagnose what I really needed to work on so that the energy I put in was fruitful. In the same way, a tutor can make sure you're focusing on the highest yield items during your test prep to get you the best results as efficiently as possible.
Structure and accountability:
After a tutor assesses your needs, he or she can keep you on task. We’ve seen that this structure can be particularly helpful for busy students or those who tend to procrastinate. It's much easier to blow off deadlines that you set for yourself than deadlines set for you by an expert you hired.
With an individualized approach, efficient work, and consistent structure, your test prep will most likely go more quickly with a one-on-one tutor, assuming you're putting in enough work between sessions. I've often seen students who have taken long, spaced-out classes will have to spend double the time and effort attaining their goals because their work is not focused optimally on what they need to accomplish. Similarly, I've seen students prepare alone for months upon months to get a score increase that they could have achieved much more quickly under expert guidance. If you put a dollar value on your own time in the test prep equation, you can often end up saving a tremendous amount of money by investing in a little guidance up front.
Reduced psychological burden:
Preparing for a high-stakes test can create a lot of pressure. And, often, students who are preparing for tests are already under a lot of pressure from schools, jobs, etc. Engaging a skilled tutor can remove a large psychological burden, allowing you to be both more effective at your test prep and continue to be effective in your other pursuits. By working with an expert, you can trust that that person knows exactly what you need to do and when, and you can shed the burden of worrying about your entire test prep trajectory and score. All you have to do is focus on what they score; all you have to do is follow the study plan to get to your goal. This is perhaps one of the most underrated but most important benefits of hiring a private tutor.
It's worth reiterating again: no single preparation method is the best fit for everyone.
For most people, tutors will make a huge difference, but for others, self-study may be a viable option. As you're weighing your options, consider your goals, timeline, proclivities, and the above benefits of one-on-one tutoring when you are making your decision.