The Three Biggest Lies in High End Tutoring

The most expensive version of anything is not necessarily the best


$1500 per hour for an SAT tutor? There is one guy in New York City who is not only charging this rate, but has a waitlist for his services. Good for him. It is both a new definition of chutzpah and the most brilliant marketing concept since lite beer.

Whether parents buy into Rolls Royce pricing because they truly believe higher price equals higher quality – or for bragging rights – is for them to discuss with their shrink. But it says a lot about the market when the audacity of the price is the most effective marketing tool. It suggests that the proxies for tutoring quality and effectiveness can easily mislead anxious parents.

Just about every tutoring company uses the same three proxies to convey the promise that junior’s test scores will go up significantly: a company name that is some variant of an Ivy League moniker; a roster of tutors who all graduated from elite colleges and themselves scored perfectly on the SAT; and endorsements from happy customers whose children got into top schools.

So how can families evaluate a tutor and ensure that they are getting value for their money, time, and family sanity? Here are three of the most common lies companies use to snare pressured parents – and what you can do to reduce the stress and make better choices.

Lie #1: Higher price equals higher quality. If this were true, it would be tantamount to simply paying for scores. Nevertheless, this golden rule of everything that is considered high end, from luxury schmutter to the restaurant biz is exactly what is implied by the pricing strategies employed by tutors and tutoring agencies. Most companies have three or four tiers of pricing ranging from $200 to $500, or higher. Is the $400/hr tutor really twice as good as the $200/hr tutor? While a higher price should indicate more experience, this may not be backed up by actual company policy. You will never know why the $400 tutor was promoted to the higher priced tier, or when. If a company needs a few more $400/hr tutors, they will promote someone up to meet that demand — regardless of the tutor’s experience or test-type expertise. It is up to you, as a potential client to vigorously question what is on offer. Not easy because as soon as they get you on the phone, a tutor agency will bombard you with questions in a way that implies they are weighing up whether to help you or not. This is balderdash, they want your money.

Independent tutors are free to charge whatever they think the market will support; their pricing is more a function of the zip codes they are servicing than the quality of service they are providing. I know one tutor who tested his market by raising his price by $50/hr for each new customer who called. He wanted to see how high it would go. He picked up five new students before he met resistance. The tutor (and tutoring) didn’t change; just his income. He had the confidence to conduct this experiment because his full time job at a marketing firm was starting to get too busy for him to continue as a tutor.

Lie #2: Match matters. Tutoring is a skill based profession, not a dating service. Lots of companies will tell you that they will match your son or daughter with the right tutor. The implication is that a great match will magically unlock all of your student’s hidden potential; that your child will clap with glee every time the tutor knocks on your door; and that great chemistry will result in “better” tutoring and higher test results.

Here’s the truth about “match.” On the company side, match comes down to pure logistics. Who do they have available at 4 p.m. on Tuesday in Tribeca who can teach physics? Companies make scheduling matches but sell them as fit matches. Most parents never know the difference because “fit” is nearly impossible to define.

True, fit is good to have, but there is no magic algorithm that can predict it. A shared interest in baseball, dance, or math does not guarantee an effective tutor-student chemistry. Most 25-year-old part-time tutors will have no problem making friends with your child. But do they have the experience to move a score?

Professional tutors know how to connect with lots of different personality types, but their job is to change behaviors on test day. They will know, for example, that high achieving students can be difficult because they have had success on their own and are reluctant to try a different approach. Eager students can be hard because they tend to rely on the tutor’s brain rather than their own. Second children whose older siblings are “rock stars” often refuse to take the test seriously for fear of not measuring up. Low confidence students can talk themselves out of any right answer.

Veteran tutors will assess the particular student’s needs quickly, and will respond accordingly. In fact, figuring out what makes each kid tick is the very thing that keeps the job interesting and what makes the good tutors good.

Lie #3: Better schools or better scores make better tutors. Just because a tutoring company names itself after an Ivy League institution and restricts hiring to Ivy grads with 750-plus SAT scores – perhaps reluctantly allowing an Amherst, Stanford, or MIT grad to join the esteemed ranks – is no guarantee of effective tutoring. The implication is that a Yale grad will be a better tutor than an NYU grad or a Boise State grad. Not true. Over 20,000 students graduate from Ivy League schools every year. They are not all great tutors. There is nothing in the water in New Haven that magically transforms a bunch of high-school over-achievers into future super tutors.

Actually, more often the opposite is true. Math tutors who breezed their way to perfect scores can’t understanding why the answers are not equally as obvious to their struggling students­. Absolute mastery of the subject material is clearly a minimum requirement for an effective tutor, but it is no guarantee that those who have it will be great. Ivy League or high scoring tutors may be easier to market, but they are not necessarily better tutors.

The best proxies for quality in this industry are simply experience, dedication, and a past full of happy students. Whether they are independents or agency tutors, you are looking for professionals who are making a career out of their skills with kids and high stakes tests, and who have the track record to show for it. If they can succeed in a word-of-mouth business for 10 years, they must be doing something right.

Interestingly, this can happen at any price point. To stretch your tutoring dollar, hire your neighborhood college student for general homework help, and save the more expensive experts for high stakes outcomes, such as test prep. Also, be flexible. Tutors are always looking daytime hours or ways to group their students by geography. Assuming they have control over their own rates, they will often make special deals for students who are willing to work with their schedules.

Ultimately, how do you know if a tutor is good? There is one constituent I have not yet mentioned, and that is your child. Kids generally know quality when they see it. By the time they hit ninth grade, they will have seen, on average, 35 different teachers in action. Believe me, they are happy to tell you all about the bad ones, and they will happily push themselves for the good ones. Ask your son or daughter early and often. If they say things like, “how come they never taught me this in school?” or, “I learned more in the last hour than I did all semester!” then you know you’ve made the right choice.


Neill Seltzer is the CEO of Noodle Pros. The Three Biggest Lies in High End Tutoring