First–full-disclosure–I teach a GRE and an SAT prep course for Texas A&M University.

Expensive courses can be worth it if you actually get the increases they claim. They could easily make you ten times as much as they cost, in the form of scholarships, fellowships, or better jobs!

What little independent research there is on the effectiveness of such courses shows little or no increase in for those who buy the prep books (although buying the books is not the same as reading the books). Those who take prep classes show some improvement, and the greatest increases are among those who get personal tutoring. This research was specifically on the SAT, but the two tests are very similar. On the other hand, students tend to be more self-motivated students than SAT students, so they might get better results from the books.

Pricier doesn’t mean better. Most courses teach pretty much the same stuff, because they all read each others books and integrate any new techniques they find. For the price of a classroom course from Kaplan or Princeton you can get live, one-on-one, GRE tutoring via the internet. That is for my tutoring, but I’m sure there are lots more tutors out there.

There are some very important things that most courses don’t teach. For example, they don’t usually teach you how to memorize all that vocabulary or how to handle test anxiety.

Most courses will give you a long list of vocabulary and tell you to go memorize it. Not helpful! There are much easier ways to memorize vocabulary. I’ve posted about this extensively already … just do a search for “memory” or “vocabulary”.

Test anxiety is another biggie. Most courses don’t talk about this at all, however, I’ve found that for about 15% of my students conquering test anxiety is THE KEY to their improvement on the GRE  or SAT … in some cases, improvements of almost 200 points came directly from reducing that stress!

The teacher is often more important than the course. Again, they all teach pretty much the same stuff, but a good teacher can really bring out what’s most important and valuable, saving you and instilling confidence. You probably know from your own experience that a good teacher can make a huge difference!

One problem with some of the big testing companies is that their teachers are often grad students working their way through school. Nothing wrong with that, but usually they only teach for a few months or a few years. You can be paying upwards of $1200 for a teacher who’s reading out of the book!

So ask about your instructor. How long have they been teaching? Are there any student testimonials available? And don’t let them tell you, “She’s a great teacher because she scored above the 90th percentile on the /SAT.” We all know that the students aren’t necessarily any good at teaching.

Beware of their claims about course length. Claiming the course is 40 hours long makes the huge price tag seem much more reasonable. In fact, they are often counting things like spent taking practice tests or time spent silently studying and reading.

Ask how many hours of actual classroom instruction are included in the course. You shouldn’t have to pay them for things that you could easily do on your own at home.

Even then, actual classroom instruction hours can be misleading. Any instructor can drag classes to twice their normal length and claim that it’s a more intensive course. In practice, I spend more on the areas my students struggle with and go quickly through areas where they are already strong. For example, some of my GRE students are trying to get into grad schools that don’t even look at the written analytical score, so for those students we don’t waste time on that section.

Finally, read the fine print on their guarantees. Often, the guarantee will simply allow you to retake the course for free. But, if it didn’t work the first time, why would it work the second time?

Most companies don’t offer money-back guarantees (at least, not without so many caveats that you’ll NEVER get that money back). That’s understandable, because much of your depends on you–how hard you’ll work at the techniques/practice and how much test anxiety is an issue for you. Ideally, you want FREE access to their instructors after the course. Many will give you a free hour or two, but then they go to hourly rates which can be quite high.

I’d love to hear your insights in the comments.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

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