Questions & AnswersProductsAbout Mitch Adler


Dear Mitch,

A few weeks ago you said you would say why a good, independent tutor can be more effective than a tutor from one of the more established review companies like Stanley Kaplan or Princeton review. Why is that? (Because I would have thought the opposite!)

Vicki V.C.


Dear Vicki C.,

A family's choice of tutor is a complicated and personal decision which involves many factors. These include price, availability, and finding the right match so that the student feels a comfort level that facilitates learning. So the effectiveness of the tutoring situation can be very difficult to predict even in general terms. STILL, my experience and the experience of friends and colleagues with students and members of their own family seem to indicate that for people who do not know of a particular independent tutor they've either used before or had recommended by a trusted friend/acquaintance in the community, the safest approach to take for a big test is to go with one of the well-known and established companies. That way, they can be at least reasonably confident that they will get a tutor who has competence of some basic standard, even if isn't always outstanding. A parent can feel safe by going this route until, for some reason, they come to believe that they are not seeing the progress they were led to expect.

This approach is similar to the thinking behind an American tourist traveling in foreign territory who finds himself seeking out a McDonald's restaurant; the fare will be up to a familiar standard, even if it is not the best meal that can be had in town, the tourist is avoiding what he may feel is an unnecessary risk of going to a restaurant based on its storefront; the local citizen, however, is likely to have knowledge the tourist does not and can get the exact kind of meal he wishes.

To clarify, by "Independent tutor" I am referring to any tutor who is not contracted by a company (such as the two you mention), and is therefore free to buy and use books by both of those well-known companies as well as materials produced by one or more of the eighty or ninety other respectable test-prep companies. And, of course, the experienced tutor will have developed his own materials to supplement standard texts in areas that he or she has developed his own techniques for and which students find more effective than other techniques for the same type of problems.

Additionally, the expert independent tutor has the freedom to continually tailor the lessons to the student's needs with more flexibility than a tutor who has sold a standard package of lessons in advance or as part of an overall program devised by a company that has no personal knowledge of the student's learning style or rate of progress. And, of course, for one of the large famous companies to incorporate pages from one of its competitors presents a copyright/intellectual property issue that runs afoul of the law.

Why is the flexibility of texts so important?

Here's why: No company has come up with all the best ideas. For some topics, one company has a great system, for other topics, another company has the sharpest approach. Just as a person who is fond of the products from a particular store would find it limiting to be required to obtain each and every item he/she ever purchases from that particular store, because the company that makes his favorite kind of sweater may not be the same company that makes his favorite type of shoe, being limited to one company's range of ideas is, well, limiting.

As a final example, even when fashion models sign contracts in which they agree to wear clothes from a certain store or clothing company, very rarely will they sign an exclusive contract that would prohibit them from ever wearing garments produced by any other company.

Lastly, as mentioned, there are always risks when making important decisions. One such risk that comes to mind regarding tutors for important exams like the SAT exam (for which the preparation can last up to a full year, albeit with periodic two-month breaks), an independent tutor can become ill, etc. However, this type of risk if usually exaggerated, as parents can always manage to find a respectable substitute, even if it means switching to one o the standard courses.

The only approach I do find hard to understand is the parent/guardian who keeps his/her child in the same course or with the same tutor despite several disappointing experiences together on previous sittings of the same test.

CHANGE, of course, always comes with its own set of risks, but in such a case, parents, TAKE THE RISK!

Hope this helps,