There are almost exactly three months until the June LSAT, so if you’re looking to study with a tutor and don’t already have one, time’s a-tickin’! Here are some guidelines for you to follow when selecting a tutor.
Private tutoring is, in my opinion, the best way to learn the LSAT (though, as a tutor myself, I’m obviously biased). Having someone around to tailor a custom study plan to your needs and walk you through every step of the process easily trumps any other method of learning…if your tutor is up to snuff. And therein lies the problem. Anyone can wander over to VistaPrint, whip up some business cards, and walk around calling himself a tutor. Having a bad tutor isn’t just an enormous waste of time and money, but can also be enormously damaging, as they will transfer all of their bad habits and broken techniques to you. How can you ensure that this won’t happen?
Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof way. But, there are some indicators that you can watch out for to sway your decision one way or another. Here are seven of them:
1. LSAT Credentials (Demonstration of Material Mastery). I talked about this at length in a previous post, so I won’t go into it again. Like I said before, No 170, No Thanks, and I would personally demand a 99th percentile (173+) score. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for proof! Anyone can claim they got a 170, but only an official LSAC score report should convince you, and a tutor who actually thinks about things from his client’s perspective (important in this line of work!) should be prepared to show it to you on demand.
2. Demonstration of Teaching Mastery. It’s not enough for your tutor to have demonstrated his own mastery over the material – he must also be able to convey that knowledge to you. Your tutor could have scored 180 for 10 straight tests, and it wouldn’t help you one bit if he can’t tell you what he’s doing and how he got there. This is why LSAT “naturals”, in addition to being generally objectionable human beings (okay okay, that’s just my jealousy talking there), are often terrible choices as tutors. Because the test comes so naturally to them, they are unable to teach you how to replicate their success; they themselves probably don’t even know. The best tutors are almost always the ones who had to struggle through the material themselves, simply because the experience of hashing things out on your own makes it much easier for you to walk someone else through a similar process. On a related note, your tutor should almost never resort to simply telling you what’s going on, because that doesn’t serve any kind of teaching purpose. If you wanted someone to just sit back and regurgitate the standard explanation for each question at you, you could just buy some written explanations instead and save yourself some money. Your tutor’s job is to teach you how to think about the questions such that your reasoning processes allow you to get to the correct explanation on your own. He won’t be around on test day to explain difficult questions to you, so he’d better be teaching you how to do it yourself. More on this in a future post.
Along these lines, then, your tutor should be able to use different approaches to teach the same concept, because teaching is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. He should be able to “see through your eyes” and understand your point of view, and then adapt his approach to your particular assumptions and thought processes. If your tutor continues to try the same method over and over again when it’s clear that it’s not working for you, or just regurgitates explanations at you without any apparent concern for your particular questions and approach, it means that he’s just not very good at teaching. Brilliant as he may be, it may be time for you to seek out greener pastures.
Tutors often give out free trials, so take advantage! Work through an LSAT (the June 2007 is a decent one) and bring a couple of questions to your first session with the tutor. You won’t yet have a theoretical background to fall back on, but that shouldn’t stop your tutor from finding some way to explain things to you anyway. If he can explain an LSAT question to someone with no previous LSAT experience, then you know for sure he’ll be able to find a way to help you when you’re completely, utterly lost.
3. Specialization. The LSAT is a highly specialized exam with a lot of fairly involved concepts and applications. I literally spend every day of my life interacting with and thinking about the LSAT, and even so, sometimes a student will say something and I will actually have never thought of it in quite that way before. Years of experience have allowed me to build up an arsenal of effective teaching techniques, but I know there is always more for me to learn – more new approaches to think about, more techniques to refine, more experience to gain. I know this because I am primarily an LSAT tutor – my professional life revolves around just that one test, and I know it inside and out. Some guy who teaches the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, five different GRE subject tests, the SAT, the ACT, and the TOEFL may actually be quite good at the LSAT, but he probably hasn’t thought about the LSAT to nearly the degree that I have. It’s a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of situation, and you don’t want to work with a jack of all trades if your goal is anything more than a superficial understanding (and it should be).
This doesn’t mean that a tutor who teaches multiple tests is automatically bad, though. For example, if you look at my tutoring services page, I teach GMAT critical reasoning and MCAT verbal reasoning as well as the LSAT. I am able to do so because my skills from the LSAT transfer over very well, and a lot of the same concepts apply. Once upon a time, I also taught the SAT for a major test prep company, so I’m well qualified to do that if asked. However, I continue to be primarily an LSAT tutor, and that is made very clear to anyone who seeks my help in these other areas. I don’t spend my time focusing on those other tests, so they do not detract from my mastery of the LSAT. I also do not advertise myself as anything other than an LSAT tutor – being able to help with the GMAT’s critical reasoning section doesn’t make me a GMAT tutor any more than driving a car on the street makes me a street racer. Long story short, look for someone who teaches the LSAT primarily, if not exclusively. If the LSAT is not a tutor’s main focus, he probably hasn’t spent enough time thinking about it to develop the level of mastery required to teach it properly.
4. Recommendations from Previous Students. Tread carefully with anyone who is unwilling to provide references, especially if he is also marketing himself as an experienced tutor. A tutor with any kind of experience at all should have someone to vouch for his knowledge and effectiveness, and he should have no issue with freely providing those references to you. This is perfectly aligned with his incentives, because he should be the first one to want to brag about what a great job he’s done with previous students in an effort to get your business as well. Experienced tutors typically have recommendation letters on hand for you to look at, pre-cleared with the respective students for that purpose; for example, mine are freely available here. The less open a tutor is about his references, the more cautious you should be. If those written recommendations don’t convince you or if you still get the feeling that something’s not quite right, ask if you can contact some previous students directly. Students tend to be very open and enthusiastic if they liked their tutor (this is how referral networks operate, after all!), so it’s exceedingly unlikely that there isn’t even a single student that’s willing to be contacted. Again, the tutor should be eager to tell you all about his past successes and showcase his body of work, so this shouldn’t be an issue. If he seems reluctant, something is wrong.
5. Personality. As mentioned above, tutors often offer free trials because they want to show you that they know what they’re doing. Another reason they tend to do so is because they also want to showcase their personality and ensure that you are a good fit for each other. My personal philosophy is outlined elsewhere on this site – I simply refuse to take anyone who isn’t willing to put in a lot of work, and I am very no-nonsense about a lot of things. At the same time, my sessions are very lighthearted and fun, and I develop very good relationships with my students. If your attitude doesn’t mesh with mine or you don’t like the way I approach things, it should be readily apparently before too long, and everyone can stop wasting their time. Look for a teacher who very clearly enjoys what he’s doing, is patient, has good communication skills, and who you get along with. You’ll be spending a lot of time hashing out some pretty difficult concepts with this guy, so he’d better be someone you’re able to learn from comfortably and without fear of asking questions. The best tutoring sessions are lively, free-flowing conversations, meaning that you have to be able to develop a certain comfort level and rapport with your tutor. Communication is key! If your tutor makes you feel stupid for asking questions, gets impatient with you quickly, is inattentive during sessions, or just plain makes you feel awkward when you work with him, look elsewhere. You have too many actual things to worry about to stay with a tutor you’re uncomfortable around.
6. Fee Structure. There’s no objective scale on this one, but a tutor’s fee should be commensurate with his credentials. For example, commercial prep courses charge upward of $150/hour for their private tutors because those tutors are selected from a pool of their best classroom instructors. Regardless of what you think about those classroom courses, the point is that these instructors have at least some body of work to back up the idea that they can teach effectively and are therefore worth the money. An experienced private tutor will be able to provide you similar assurance via his references. Some guy who’s just starting out, on the other hand, can’t justifiably charge you the same price because he can’t possibly demonstrate to you that he’s worth that amount – his credentials just won’t stack up.
Your first touchstone should be commercial tutor rates – anyone who charges the same rate as a BluePrint/PowerScore/Testmasters tutor should have comparable credentials as well, including accounting for the training that commercial companies give their tutors. Do your homework and adjust this for your local market conditions, of course. After that, rate negotiations are up to you, and should be based primarily on experience and prior results. With more experienced tutors, negotiation isn’t likely to work too well because they’ve already established that they’re well worth the price of admission and aren’t typically hurting for clients. However, newer tutors without large and established referral networks are typically much more willing to accept a lower rate in exchange for growing their reputation. Just make sure not to severely lowball them – that’s a great way to get the relationship started off on a bad foot, or possibly called off entirely.
Experienced tutors who regularly offer bargain basement rates for no apparent reason send up red flags to me. While it could be the case that you have the steal of the century on your hands, this is a good time to remember that you often get what you pay for and that there’s probably a reason his rate is set where it is. Make especially sure you do your due diligence if it all seems too good to be true.
Note that this can also be used to compare commercial test prep tutors to each other as well. If one company charges $150/hour and guarantees you a 99th percentile tutor, and another charges the same $150/hour but only guarantees a 90th percentile tutor, I think it’s fairly obvious which direction you should go.
7. Non-LSAT Credentials. Graduating from a top law school, passing the bar exam, clerking for a judge or otherwise practicing law, obtaining teaching certifications, and teaching any test for a commercial test prep company are all things that should be relevant to your decision. This stuff is important primarily for contextual reasons. Just going to a top law school indicates impressive academic credentials; graduating from a top law school and passing the bar exam shows that this person was really able to keep up intellectually with the best of the best. Additionally, going to law school means a tutor is better equipped to walk their students through the process, because they’ve been through the wringer themselves and know exactly how it works. Practicing law shows real world experience with logical reasoning, which provides crucial context for the LSAT and demonstrates flexibility of thought and the ability to apply theory to practice. Teaching credentials and experience with large, established companies goes to credibility, lending further peace of mind that this person knows what he’s doing. Think of these as plus factors – while their absence doesn’t necessarily break a candidate and their presence doesn’t prove anything, they serve to differentiate candidates and could possibly give one tutor the edge over another.
Again, there is no foolproof way to pre-screen tutors. Credentials, testimonials, and prior results can only go so far; the only way you’ll know 100% for sure is to work with the guy. However, if you consider these seven criteria while making your selection and keep them in mind while you search, you’ll have a much better shot at landing the right tutor the first time around. Good luck!