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Magoosh CEO Hansoo Lee Aims to Topple Test-Prep Giants

Magoosh CEO Hansoo Lee

Magoosh CEO Hansoo Lee and his team are challenging existing test prep players such as Kaplan and Princeton Review for rights to prep you for the SAT, GMAT and other entrance exams. Lee and Bhavin Parikh both attended the Haas Business School at UC Berekeley for their MBAs and launched Magoosh in 2009. It’s a play on the Persian word “Magush,”  which means a person who is highly learned, wise and generous. For now, the test prep site is free to use. But they will start charging most customers in January. Hansoo answered questions from WiredAcademic managing editor Paul Glader about his firm’s strategy in the test prep business.

WA  - You are offering a free SAT test prep program for students. How extensive is that program?

HL – Magoosh SAT Complete Prep includes more than 700 unique videos (35+ hours of video in all) and 400 practice questions. These videos and questions cover all of the topics that you’ll find on the actual SAT. And we are continually adding new content. Students also get personalized feedback that compares their performance and pace to other students’.

WA – How many users do you have?

HL – We have over 25,000 users from over 200 different countries.

WA – How does your company make money after students take this free program?

HL – We are currently not monetizing this product. We will begin to charge for it on January 1, 2012. The price will be significantly less than a class or tutor. Although Magoosh SAT Complete Prep will always be free for non-profit organizations.

WA – Most of us, in the past, bought a test prep book with sample questions to prepare for the SAT, GRE, GMAT etc. How is test preparation changing?

HL – Test prep of the past consisted of books, tutors, and classes. Classes are inconvenient and marginally effective. Busy students and working professionals often struggle to find 4 hour blocks of time to attend a class. Not only are they inconvenient, but students learn with a group of 20 others who are all at different levels. Some find their class too easy and a waste of time, while others can’t understand the material and don’t get the personal attention they need. In short, classes teach to the mean. You get all of this for a price tag of $1000 to $4000. It’s no wonder that Kaplan and Princeton Review’s customer satisfaction scores are very low. Books are popular because they are affordable and accessible. However, they are not very effective. The content is very static, and books don’t provide personalized feedback and guidance. For those who have the time and can afford them, historically the best way to prepare has been with private 1 on 1 tutors. But quality tutors cost hundreds of dollars an hour. For instance, the Princeton Review offers 1 on 1 tutoring for up to $425/hour. Technology allows for test prep to be more effective, convenient, and affordable.

WA – How big a market is this business?

HL – Test prep is a $5B market.

WA – Who are your primary competitors?

HL – Kaplan, Princeton Review, private tutors, books, Grockit, Knewton.

WA – Some online colleges and other critics think SAT and ACT scores are either unfair or are a joke and don’t reflect student intellect, potential or achievement. Do you agree or disagree?

HL – Standardized exams are not a perfect tool to assess a student’s potential or achievement. But, standardized exams do have a place in assessing a student’s potential or achievement level. In addition, standardized exams are getting better over time. Decades ago the SAT included questions that were clearly biased. Moreover, the exam did not emphasize key areas such as reading and writing. However, the College Board made fundamental changes to the SAT over the past decade to make the exam a much better assessment tool. The latest GRE exam is another step forward for standardized exams. With new question types such as numeric entry, text completion, and passage highlighting, the new GRE is no longer a simple multiple choice exam. These new question types combined with significant content changes – that emphasize understanding vocabulary in context over rote memorization, for instance – result in a much better tool to assess a student’s problem solving and reading skills. As long as these exams continue to evolve, I believe they are a good, though not fully comprehensive, tool to effectively assess a student’s potential or achievement level.

WA – What do you think of for-profit schools or open universities – especially the ones that don’t require entrance exams – and their place in the higher education universe?

HL – As long as institutions don’t mislead students during the recruiting process and are forthcoming about the graduation and employment statistics of their students, then I’m all for as much variety and choice in higher education.

WA – How much does SAT test taking really connect with college achievement and college test taking ability?

HL – Taken together, high school GPA and SAT scores are good predictors of college performance – better than isolating each factor on their own. The SAT helps college admissions staff evaluate students across schools that would otherwise each have different means of assessing a student’s performance.

WA – Do private and wealthier schools and families tend to do better on SAT tests? Why?

HL – Yes, there is a direct correlation between family income and SAT scores: A higher family income level allows students to have more access to high quality educational material and support.

WA – What hope do public schoolers and poor kids have on such exams then? Other than needle in a haystack genius popping up now and then?

HL – This is a significant problem and reflects the greater achievement gap in education. By leveraging technology to create and distribute high quality educational materials to lower-income students, we can begin to bridge the socioeconomic divide. We should also focus on supporting those organizations that help students from lower-income brackets find and make use of high quality online educational material.

WA – What is your company doing to improve access to test prep for all schools and children?

HL – We are creating a high quality SAT prep product and, first, making it available for free. We will eventually charge for it, but it will be much more affordable than a class or tutor. We are also working with non-profit organizations and charter schools, such as the Mitchell Kapor Foundation and College Track, to get Magoosh into the hands of students who normally wouldn’t have access to high quality test prep. For non-profit organizations, Magoosh will always be free.

WA – How important is test prep to a young person’s future?

HL – Getting a good score on a standardized exam is critical for, not only getting into college, but securing scholarships and grants to help pay for college. One benefit of college is the ready-made network that you will have upon graduation that will ultimately lead to jobs. Also, a degree on your resume from a reputable higher education institution is still an extremely important signal that leads to gainful employment. Whether we like it or not, this brand allows companies to quickly filter through candidates. So the key question is: are there alternative ways to get all of these and other benefits that college provides, or is college still the best way to get them? Right now, I believe college is the best path. And SAT prep is a key component for admission, scholarships, and grants.

WA – What are a few keys to doing better on the SAT?

HL – Practice, practice, practice! Beyond understanding the material, the SAT testing environment is one in which the pace at which you answer questions is critical. You could understand all the material but if you are not quick enough to answer all the questions, then you will not score as well. In addition, taking practice quizzes is the best way to reinforce what a student has just learned (see: New York Times piece).

WA – I see your company offers prep for GMAT, GRE and TOEFL. Will you expand to ACT, MCAT and others in the future? If so, when? What other categories?

HL – We do plan to expand to other exams in the future. There is no definite timeline right now.

WA – Where do you want your company to be in 5 years? What will it be doing differently or additionally to today?

HL – I want Magoosh to be synonymous with high quality educational material that is accessible to all. From a product perspective, we will certainly have a lot more high quality video content. I’m thinking hundreds of thousands of high quality videos that cover a much broader set of exams and subjects. Our platform will be even more intelligent and will suggest exactly what a student should study next in order to improve learning outcomes. While a number of our students already use Magoosh on mobile devices, Magoosh will be ubiquitous on tablets, smart phones, etc. From a company perspective, Magoosh will be known for providing access to great teachers to everyone, everywhere through video and technology. We are focused on building a great culture at Magoosh, so Magoosh should also be known for a unique and fantastic culture. From a customer perspective, Magoosh will have improved the learning outcomes for hundreds of millions students all around the world.

WA – What are the 10 most-missed SAT questions?

HL – Below is a link to a recent blog post from Magoosh that discusses the 10 most difficult SAT questions:

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