More test preparation services compete for affordability and accessibility

Kelsey James-Kavanaugh, a prospective graduate student in wildlife conservation who lives in Oakland, aims to return to sub-Saharan Africa to continue working with lions, a project she had begun as an undergraduate. But before realizing her dream, she had to weigh her options for preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test that measures verbal and quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills for graduate school admission.

Instead of choosing one of the traditional test prep companies, she opted to go with a relative newcomer, the Magoosh online review program. Founded in 2009, Berkeley-based Magoosh offers an online review package for $99, which includes six months of access to hundreds of practice problems, video explanations and e-mail correspondence with instructors.

In contrast, The Princeton Review, a Framingham, MA-based company that has been providing test preparation services for more than 30 years, offers a range of GRE review packages including a $499 self-paced online review and a $1,299 in-person review class. The company also offers one-on-one private tutoring.

“Costs definitely becomes a big factor” in choosing a test preparation service, Magoosh content developer Chris Lele said. With all their review packages given online, Magoosh does not need to spend money on physical space rental for classes.

Kavanaugh majored in wildlife, fish and conservation biology at University of California, Davis. Applying to a graduate program in wildlife conservation is competitive and her GRE results would matter, she said. While she was in Africa working on wildlife research, her mother found an advertisement for Magoosh.

Kavanaugh said she spent a lot of time doing practice problems within a time limit. With the Magoosh program saving her practice activities, she said she was able to track her own progress in knowing solutions and links to developing answers.

Compared to her former SAT preparation experience, for which she had a tutor and a paper-based exam, Kavanaugh said that her Magoosh experience was “definitely an adjustment” with a computer-based test and no physical instructor.

In the actual GRE, getting the right answers on harder questions gives test-takers higher scores. With Magoosh’s questions ranked according to their difficulty level, Kavanaugh said she felt Magoosh “actually prepared me for the actual test date.”

Although she didn’t reach out to Magoosh instructors through e-mail, Kavanaugh said she felt that they are “actually keeping an eye on you.” While using the review package, Kavanaugh said there were days when she just focused on watching a lot of videos showing solutions and approaches to questions. Then, after the system noticed the amount of time she spent watching videos, she said she received an email from an instructor reminding her it’s also important to do practice problems. “You can tell there’s actually people there who care how you’re doing,” she said.

Students usually look for guidance, and Magoosh is “going and growing” in that department, said Lele. Lele creates lesson videos, blog posts and product content for Magoosh. He tutored students for the SAT before coming to the company, and worked for The Princeton Review in the beginning of his career. He said that Magoosh provides an “interactive approach in seeking help” as a way to “help people figure out how to study.”

Christian Baker, operations director for The Princeton Review in Northern California, said that their company “continually stays abreast of the latest test changes” with their wide range of review packages, including online courses. “The growing number of online test prep sites has made for a more competitive field for sure, but competition is good, and good competition is better,” said Baker.

Baker said that The Princeton Review’s online review program “continues to grow” to become more convenient for families. Despite that, he said that in-person classes are still the most in-demand form of review.

The proof of better teaching approach lies on students’ review outcomes, Magoosh CEO Bhavin Parikh said. “I do recognize that some students might be better served by a physical tutor,” he said, “but I believe many don’t need one, and our students’ scores seem to indicate the same.”

Lele, for his part, said that he has coached five students who later received perfect SAT scores.

Kavanaugh took the GRE last December 2014 and said she received an average of 90 percent in her essay, verbal and math portions of the exam. Now, she is on the hunt for the best wildlife conservation graduate program.

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