Ten Years Older, Ten Years Wiser (Happy Anniversary, Veritas Prep)

As the song goes, “it was all a dream…” (and, yes, Veritas Prep founders Chad and Markus do read “Word Up Magazine”). Exactly ten years ago, Veritas Prep went from a vision – of two high-scoring Yale MBA students who foresaw a better way to prepare students for GMAT success – to a reality, a full-fledged company that would soon host classes on four continents and in nearly every time zone on the planet.

July, 2002 doesn’t sound that long ago, but a lot has happened since then. At the time, we were listening to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” (not a typo) and Puffy’s whining about J-Lo with “I Need a Girl”. Men in Black II had just been released in theaters (history repeats itself…), and Lance Armstrong was starting on the road to his 4th of 7 Tour de France championships. Also popular that July – Avril Lavigne’s track “Complicated”…and newcomer Veritas Prep’s declaration that the GMAT wasn’t as complicated as it seemed.

In the ten years that have followed, another Men in Black movie has since premiered; Nelly disappeared then reappeared only to more or less disappear again; Lance won three more Tours de France, then retired, then came back to finish third, then retired only to re-emerge as an Ironman triathlete; and J-Lo divorced, married again, divorced again and is rumored to be marring again, but to Puffy’s dismay none of those romances have been with Sean John. Also in that time, Veritas Prep has shown 50,000 students that the GMAT isn’t as complicated as they think. And over those ten years of teaching lessons, we’ve learned many lessons ourselves. Here are the top three lessons we’ve learned in the last ten years:

1) Students are smarter than they give themselves credit for.

In any good teacher-student relationship, the teacher should learn just as much as the student, and our experience has been no different. Our instructors begin as true experts on the GMAT, with 99th percentile scores and weeks of teacher training. But to a man, we’ll all agree that we’ve learned immeasurably from our students. Whether it’s a math shortcut brought in from an international student or a keen understanding of why answer choice D is such a tempting trap answer after talking with dozens of students who have all selected it, we’ve learned from every class, every tutoring session, and every Homework Help interaction. And what we’ve largely learned is that:

-Even when they’re struggling on many sections of the exam, students can bring in unique pieces of knowledge, so we need to keep our ears open.
-When students are pushed to explain their reasoning, they are never alone in the mistakes that they’re making or the gaps in conceptual knowledge that they have, and just about every one of those weaknesses can be turned around. The key is in the patient diagnosis.
-When students turn on that reasoning ability – when they truly think about their mistakes, their thought processes, and their areas for improvement – they almost inevitably realize that they should be more confident than they are. Students are smarter than they give themselves credit for – they just need to articulate what they know and what they need to know, and work together to reason through that gap.

2) The GMAT is a very well-written test.

If anything has surprised us in ten years, it’s the longevity and commitment of our instructors. Test prep has traditionally been a short-term part-time job for many – a quick way to help pay off student loans, or bridge an employment gap, or build up savings for grad school. But something is different about Veritas Prep’s GMAT instructors – a staggering number have been with us for most of those ten years, and have no intention of giving it up anytime soon. Why?

The GMAT is a worthy challenge. The more you teach it, the more you respect it. Teaching, say, quadratic equations could get stale, but that’s not what the GMAT is about so teaching the GMAT just doesn’t get stale. It’s a logic puzzle, and every time new questions are released in an Official Guide volume or a new GMAC offering, instructors bunker down to solve the “new” problems and discuss what’s interesting about them. And what’s interesting is almost always the reasoning behind them – the way that instructors have learned to Think Like the Testmaker and anticipate trap answers and sneaky-correct answers by really understanding what the GMAT is about.

The GMAT isn’t a proficiency test focused on types of knowledge, nor is it a “game-able” test that can be beaten by cheap tricks. (Interestingly, in the summer of 2002 Cheap Trick was back in the studio for a comeback, but that one hasn’t lasted ten years) In fact, when instructors deconstruct new problems one of their favorite trends is seeing the ways in which the authors of the GMAT have created questions that will bait those relying solely on tricks, as the trick leads to a trap answer.

Because of all this, the GMAT has remained fun to teach for years, and instructors who have enjoyed it have also learned quite a bit about it. We all look forward to at least ten more years of learning about this masterfully-written test, and to ten years of teaching what we’ve learned this past decade.

3) Learning is a conversation, not a lecture

For most first-time teachers, the idea of teaching equates more or less to “telling you what I know”. But over time, good teachers recognize that education is more about “talking about what we know”. Early into our ten-year tenure we saw that this was the most effective way to work with students – not talking to them, but talking with them, and that has made all the difference. Our educational philosophy has evolved along with the GMAT – we emphasize Learning by Doing, working through challenging problems with students to help them discover what they know and what they can do. Over time, we’ve seen many of the limitations of the educational system – students intent on taking copious notes during class but unsuited to think and to interact – and we’ve learned how to better engage learners in higher-order thinking, the exact style of thinking that the GMAT says it tests.

To our tens of thousands of students over the past ten years, we thank you for being part of that conversation. And to our first-time readers and web browsers, we look forward to talking with you over the next ten years.