At $500 to $2,500 per course for the more popular outfits, are test prep courses really worth it?  They rarely lower performance, but will they get you better results than studying on your own?  Indeed it is a huge business.  Companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review offer prep classes for everything from Middle School entrance exams to Graduate School entrance exams to tests of English as a foreign language.  They provide a legitimate, valuable service.  But, what is the payoff, and is it worth the time and money to you?

Such courses lend help across two dimensions: classes are structured to help students build and expand upon critical skills through instruction and practice, as well as to train students to employ pacing and problem solving strategies that will help them manage the time constraints of the actual test.  They add structure to the study process, and instill students with test-taking skills and confidence.  Yet, despite what the outfits that offer them want you to believe, there is no guarantee that they can help you do better on a test.

Here’s why: most of these outfits gauge whether and to what extent students improve by measuring scores recorded at the beginning of the course vs. those recorded at the end.  Naturally, the scores go up and the outfits equate these improvements with their potential to get results.  Yet, students who show similar self-study habits often cultivate similar improvements and attend top schools.  In other words, the testing outfits attribute better results to professional instruction rather than some other factor; this, in the absence of any evidence that a controlled, statistically relevant study has ever been conducted*.

Despite the questionability of improvement statistics, if you can afford one, don’t rule test prep courses out.  They may not teach you things you could not have learned yourself in any absolute sense, but they do cut to the chase on a few tips and tricks that would have taken you longer to figure out on your own.  Yet, much of what is offered through prep classes is simple practice—running drills on as many questions as possible, identifying areas of weakness, and developing a strategy to tackle troublesome questions.  They can be of particular help to procrastinators, students with poor study skills, and personalities who work well under deadlines imposed by other people.

*If you have seen one, let me know.

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