I get weekly emails inviting me to go the nearest office of [insert major test prep company name here] to take a free practice MCAT, GMAT, GRE, etc. I have long thought these “free” tests were simply give-aways that brought potential clients into these companies’ offices, where they can be peppered with marketing materials. For years I have recommended that my tutees take advantage of these exams, reasoning that the more practice, the better.
I am beginning to believe that the motives of these companies is much less altruistic than I previously assumed. My students do significantly worse on these free practice exams (MCATs) than on other available practice materials. My classmates at Wharton tell me that they did significantly worse on practice GMATs, regardless of when they took the free exam (ie, before, during, or at the end of their GMAT preparation period). Why would this be? Perhaps these free exams are simply harder than the purchased practice materials. Possible, but this would not explain the differences in scoring — standardized exams are curved, controlling for the effect of test difficulty.
One can only conclude that these scores are kept low intentionally. There are two not-so-obvious reasons for deliberately mis-scoring these exams.
- Guarantees: Many test prep companies offer money-back guarantees for students who do not improve after purchasing an expensive tutoring/prep package. The practice test often serves as the pre-instruction benchmark. Keep that score artificially low and students will appear to have improved, regardless of reality. The stakes involved are huge — often more than $1000/student, so these companies have clear incentives to honor as few of these guarantees as possible.
- Fear. If an intelligent and well prepared takes a practice MCAT and scores a 32, she is unlikely to sign up for an expensive course. Knock that score down to a 24, and she might panic, signing up for the course on the spot!
Do I have any hard evidence to support this assertion? Admittedly, I do not. But I encourage my readers to help me gather the necessary data to analyze this apparent phenomenon.
Prepera readers: Join the discussion. What do you think about changing the requirements for medical school admissions?
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