Group courses are the bread and butter of test prep centers. Typically, they also have 1-on-1 tutors for students who need individual attention. This post is mostly about their group courses.
As a side note, their 1-on-1 tutors are the worst option for test prep. They are often well qualified, but they are often handicapped by their company’s curriculums.
Since I’m a private tutor, I think most people assume I only have bad things to say about prep centers. However, I actually find them pretty useful, but only in certain scenarios.
Let me pause here and explain why I’m fit to criticize test prep centers.
In high school, my dad enrolled me at a Chinese tutoring center in Flushing. I point out the Chinese part because they have a positive reputation for their cram schools.
They were more affordable than hiring a private tutor, but in my case, I already had the fundamentals down so I was only interested in taking as many mock tests as possible. They had weekly mock tests, quick review sessions, and a decent competitive environment. They also assigned plenty of homework, but to be honest, I didn’t do much of the homework. I wasn’t the best student, but I was pretty good at taking standardized exams.
Before starting Simon Tutors in 2016, I tutored the SHSAT at a bunch of small and medium-sized tutoring centers. I also worked in some administrative roles besides tutoring. I had varied but mediocre success. I observed what was working, and what wasn’t and started to develop a course in the back of my mind.
After I started my own thing, more than 80% of my students, who completed my program, have gone onto a Specialized HS. My first five students were all involved with some prep center or another. Some had already enrolled at a test prep center. And some started working with me after deciding their prep wasn’t enough.
All things considered, I know how they make the sausage, and it’s not very nice.
The three stages of my prep program
You can break down my tutoring strategy into three main stages. The general idea isn’t that special. I’m sure most prep centers have a similar framework.
The first stage is all about developing a thorough understanding of the topics on the exam. Tutoring centers are not very good at this.
My second stage is about building creative thinking skills and a problem-solving mindset. Tutoring centers are bad at this as well, but not as bad as they are with the first stage.
The third stage is all about building testing skills. This stage involves taking a lot of practice tests. Test prep centers can provide excellent mock testing environments. Because I only work with a few students at a time, my mock exams do not match the size of their classes. I’m comfortable with outsourcing this part of the process. Even so, I’m still better at developing personalized testing strategies than they are.
Pros of a test prep center:
Tutoring centers are only good for their mock tests. Towards the test date, most tutoring centers will start hosting free mock tests. I usually recommend my students to sign up for as many as possible. Sometimes I ask them to enroll in a boot camp the month before their test, all so they can attend the practice tests. I tell them to skip the lesson days as they are already ahead of the curve by that point.
Practicing in mock environments is an essential part of the prep. I try to replicate it myself by proctoring exams at libraries and public spaces. The background noises help to train my students to remain calm in unfamiliar settings. Most students agree that that is when they make the most amount of progress in the shortest amount of time.
This year I don’t think I will recommend any of my students to sign up for paid mock tests. After the recent SHSAT changes, most test prep centers are worse than before. Most have failed to adapt.
Tutoring centers have one more major perk. They can provide a competitive environment that can help motivate some students. That environment, again, is only useful in the last stage of test prep. The competitive spirit is unnecessary and probably unhealthy for the first stage of tutoring. A student’s primary goal should be to have a thorough understanding of all the topics on the exam. There is no point in competing over quiz grades until the fundamentals are solid. I personally don’t assign any practice tests until a student first covers all the fundamentals.
Cons of a test prep center:
A test prep center is not suitable for the first stage (fundamentals). This is due to the rigidity of their business models. Most tutoring centers, if not all, sell courses with a set number of classes. Because of this, their instructors are often forced to rush through topics. Furthermore, they have to rely on best-fit techniques that make sense for the majority of their classes. They typically encourage students to memorize strategies instead of real problem-solving.
For every topic on the exam, they determine their best-fit lesson plans. That is how the gaps develop in a student’s understanding. If you bring up the issue, they will bring up their 1-on-1 tutors!
Test prep centers are volume-based businesses. They optimize their curriculums for the majority in order to achieve a marketable volume-based success rate. Even then, the best tutoring centers don’t even bother publishing their success rates.
For most students, a tutoring center is unlikely to be their best option. Most students in 7th and 8th grade are already hesitant to speak up in their school classrooms. It’s even worse when they’re in a room with other people who all want to look like they are the smartest.
If a student has the mental fortitude to ask their questions, they will do much better than their peers. A test prep center might even be the perfect solution for them. For a student to be successful at a prep center, they need to be mindful about what they don’t know. If they get lost in the crowd, the test prep center will cause more problems down the road.
When I tutor someone 1-on-1, I don’t have to wait until they ask me a question about what they don’t know. I can tell from the work they show and even their facial expressions. Most of the time, I just sit back until I see the familiar signs of confusion. That’s when I drop a well-timed lecture on them.