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Evaluate Needs, Goals Before Picking Grad School Test Prep

Classes are one option for prospective graduate students, but they may move too slow or fast to help.

Procrastinators should not self-study, experts say. A private tutor or class can keep them focused.
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Students planning to take a graduate school entrance exam have lots of options. They can sign up for an in-person class, an online course or private tutoring, or just buy the right books to study solo.

But not every option works for every student, and figuring out which test preparation style benefits them can save them both time and money, experts say.

[Try these fixes for a low GMAT score.]

"People learn over time what kind of learners they are," says Dave Killoran, CEO of PowerScore Test Preparation, which prepares students for taking the GRE, GMAT and other exams. Some will realize they need the structure of a course, or they're an auditory learner and need to hear the lessons.

Students can evaluate their study options before investing too much time or money in the wrong test preparation choice. "You definitely don't want to waste money on a class or a tutor if you don't need one," says Charles Bibilos, who prepares people to take the GMAT and GRE.

Below, experts explain which students excel in four different study environments.

• Self studying: This option is a popular starting point for people who are preparing to take a graduate school entrance exam, experts say. Books and practice exams are cost efficient – for the LSAT, materials can run as low as $150. And unlike a class, studying solo lets students move at their own pace.

Students who decide to make this option their primary way of studying will have to be proactive when it comes to learning, says Killoran.

"If you're a real procrastinator, you do not want to self study. Because you'll put it off all the time," he says. Students who excel at self studying "tend to be internally motivated and they tend to be organized."

Students must take the lead on deciding which preparation books are best, which can be challenging, says Patrick O'Malley. He is the founder of Get Prepped, which readies students to take the LSAT.

"The quality of self prep books is kind of uneven," he says. O'Malley encourages students to "pick up a variety of books and sort of triangulate."

[Learn six tips for GRE success.]

• In-person class: A traditional classroom option can demand much of a student's time, experts say. A student in class for eight hours a week will likely spend between eight and 12 hours a week studying outside of class, says Killoran.

Students in an LSAT course should plan for two hours of studying on their own for every hour in class, says O'Malley.

Classes can also be expensive, with many ranging from $1,000 to $1,500.

This structured environment benefits students who appreciate learning in a group and getting support from their peers, Killoran says. But that's not always the case. Students should try to sit in on a class beforehand to see if it's right for them, experts say.

"If the class is moving too fast or too slowly for you, you're going to regret the investment," Bibilos says. Previewing a class ahead of time can also give students an idea of how hard an instructor will expect them to work.

• Online course: Experts agree that these are a great option for busy students or people who don't live near an in-person class.

"You can log in from anywhere," says Killoran. Some companies offer them at a price comparable to live classes, but because there isn't a brick-and-mortar overhead they are often less expensive. Learning from a video could cost 40 or 50 percent less, says O'Malley.

The dynamics of the class depend on the organization offering the course. Some allow students to submit questions in real time while others are prerecorded. Many give students the option of viewing a class's lecture, or the lecture from a similar class, again at their convenience.

Like self studying, taking online courses require students to be more focused.

An online student could be tempted to wander off in the middle of a class, says Killoran. In live classes that let students submit questions, some may become focused on writing a question instead of listening to the instructor.

"At the early stage students just need to be absorbing information, not peppering the IM board with questions," says O'Malley.