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Straight Up Conversation: Preparing 2 Million Students for High-Stakes Tests

Chandra Pemmasani is the founder and CEO of Dallas-based UWorld, an online learning platform that helps prepare students for high-stakes exams like the MCAT, CPA, ACT, and SAT. Launched in 2003, UWorld has been used by more than 2 million students and professionals around the world. Prior to UWorld's launch, Chandra received his medical degree in India and taught at Johns Hopkins University/Sinai Hospital. I recently talked with Chandra about how UWorld addresses the challenges of high-stakes testing.

— Rick Hess

Rick: So, what exactly is UWorld?

Chandra: UWorld is a resource for students seeking quality online learning tools as they embark on their quest to reach their target score on high-stakes exams. Whether students are preparing for the MCAT, CPA, ACT, SAT, or AP exams, we ensure that students and professionals achieve success by using active learning methods. We provide challenging practice questions that mirror the real tests and clear explanations of the rationale behind each answer. 

Rick: How did UWorld get started?

Chandra: When I came to the U.S. for my medical residency, I borrowed thousands of dollars for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) prep materials. Even so, I didn't find them highly beneficial to achieve my target score. The test-prep resources I found offered a passive approach to learning, and I knew that mastering a subject required active learning. Walking out of the exam room, I knew there was a better way to learn and prepare for these exams. 

Since several of my colleagues were in the same position, I decided to write 200 pages of case-based scenarios that would help students prepare for the USMLE. I sent the guide to several publishers, but they told me to come back when I had finished my medical training. Instead of waiting, I decided to put it online myself. With the help of some of the people closest to me, I began UWorld out of my dorm room. By the end of my residency, UWorld had made somewhere in the area of $250,000. We then launched a very successful nursing-licensure prep program, things started booming, and I realized that UWorld required my full-time attention.

 Rick: So, how does UWorld work? 

Chandra: Our products put users into an online simulated test environment. The interface—down to the font type—is designed to replicate the test they'll see on exam day, so they're familiar with it. From there, students have access to thousands of questions modeled after the actual exam written by master teachers and expert tutors. Users can access questions by topic or subject, and each question is supplemented with the rationale behind the answer, easy to digest illustrations that explain content, and problem-solving guidance. After students take a practice exam, they use the performance-tracking feature to analyze weak areas, see time-tracking improvements, and compare results with their peers. 

Rick: Who actually creates the content for your tests and designs the prep materials? 

Chandra: Wherever possible, our content is created by current or former practitioners of the area being tested. We have school teachers working on high school products, we have Ph.D.s working on physics and chemistry, and we have nurses creating question banks for nursing exams. Our content-creation process also relies on collaboration. We go through an extensive review process that ensures that anyone is able to easily understand and learn from our content.

Rick: Are your customers mostly individual students or are you more focused on selling to schools, universities, or other organizations?

Chandra: All of the above! We help individual students who want to be their own teachers and we work with educational institutions and programs, too. Participating programs get access to our reporting dashboard, which includes analytical tools to monitor and compare individual as well as group performance. 

Rick: Talk a bit about your users. Where do they come from? What tests are they most interested in? 

Chandra: We have more than 2 million users around the globe. Today, most medical and nursing students in America, Canada, and a number of other countries use our products. We help hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses a year prepare for their licensure and board-certification exams. With our recent product launches and acquisitions in the accounting, finance, and legal fields, we are now reaching far more professionals. 

Rick: What have you learned about how people learn and how users get the most value out of your materials from all this experience?

Chandra:  We've learned a lot, but two things come to mind. First of all, exam-style questions that mimic the actual exam are crucial for student success. Whether it's a case-based scenario for a medical student or an algebraic formula for a high school student, when test-takers prepare with questions that look like what they'll see on exam day, and questions that are at, or above, test difficulty, they are better prepared for exam success. 

Secondly, because 65 percent of learners are visual learners and 90 percent of information received by the brain is visual, our detailed explanations are key. Through vivid illustrations, clear and concise rationales, and unique concept summaries, our students are receiving more than a lecture. They are engaging visually in the learning process, which improves retention drastically. Our customers tell us on a regular basis that our answer explanations are what set us apart from other online learning tools. 

Rick: What do most test-prep programs get wrong?

Chandra:  There are many things that differentiate us from other test-prep companies, but most notable is our detailed explanations for right or wrong answer choices. Our content experts take painstaking detail in providing concise, yet comprehensive, explanations for every question we offer. This way, students are getting the benefit of practicing for the test and learning at the same time. With our online learning tool, students learn the "why" behind an answer choice. This ensures that they learn a new concept in order to prevent them from making the same mistake in the future.

Rick: How many languages do you offer and how do you police quality across your offerings?

Chandra: The exams for which we offer learning tools are only provided in English, so we currently only offer services in English. There are so many changes to the exam formats, test blueprints, and concepts covered, that focusing on English only is one thing we do to help maintain our quality. 

Rick: How customized are your offerings?

Chandra: The time depends on what the individual student needs. For SAT and ACT prep, for example, we offer packages that range from 30 days to 360 days. During that time, students are guided by a framework in which they can customize their own experience. They start by taking a pretest, which helps them identify and target areas of weakness. As they continue to study and improve, they can take further self-assessments. If they get a question wrong, we offer a detailed explanation of why. At the same time, our performance-tracking tools monitor the time they take on questions so they can improve their speed and compare their results to their peers'. 

Rick: How confident should students be that UWorld can actually help them? What kind of research or analysis is there regarding the impact of your preparation?

Chandra: We believe that if students are using UWorld, there shouldn't be surprises on the exam. Our content is at or above exam-level difficulty, and there is a high degree of correlation between the scores users receive on their UWorld practice exams and their scores on the actual test. Our content is constantly being updated according to what's on the exams at that very moment. Having our questions mirror what's on the exam lessens the strain students otherwise feel wondering if what they're studying is worth their time. We're deeply proud of our 98 percent user-satisfaction rating and we've certainly seen the impact of our work on various exams. The USMLE mean and median scores have increased significantly from the time the company started in 2003 to today—so much so that the testing board had to increase the score it takes to pass.

Rick: What's the cost to a student? 

Chandra: The cost really depends on what package a student or institution chooses. For SAT and ACT prep, individual student packages start at $29 for 30-day access to college-readiness preparation to more than $700 for two-year access to medical-licensure offerings. Students can get these products at discounted rates through bulk purchases or through participating institutions that purchase at a discount for all students. We offer bulk pricing on our suite of college-readiness solutions to everyone from individual tutors to school districts. 

Rick: Many skeptics have expressed concerns that test prep disproportionately helps students with the ability to pay. What's your stance? 

Chandra: As someone who borrowed thousands of dollars to spend on USMLE preparation materials that weren't very useful, I'm dedicated to offering the best possible content to the students we serve. All of our products are reasonably priced and provide outstanding value. Everything we do is focused on helping all students reach their target scores, get their dream education, and find a career where they can find joy and earn a comfortable living.

Rick: So I assume that Kaplan, Princeton Review, Khan Academy, and the like are your competitors. What distinguishes UWorld from other test-prep products? 

Chandra: While there are many free resources that help students prepare for high-stakes exams, we believe UWorld's products are elite in quality but affordable and accessible enough for anyone to benefit. Our online learning tools have the ability to start wherever the student is in their skill set by way of a pretest. Then, the questions grow with the student—no matter where they start. We believe active practice is the key to helping students achieve their target score on any standardized test. Our question banks don't just tell students the things they need to know, they require problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. We offer thousands of focused practice questions, along with mini-lessons and unique illustrations to help students retain and master content. Using our tools, students and faculty can build an infinite number of practice tests. 

Rick: OK, and do Kaplan, Princeton Review, and the like not offer those same things?

Chandra:  What differentiates us is the time we take to produce quality questions and explanations so our products can be beneficial for everyone. This requires hiring the best people, creating a team-oriented culture, and developing content that is exceptional. Fortunately, we have time, patience, and resources to do this better than others. 

Rick: How big is UWorld? 

Chandra: We have roughly 300 full-time and 50 part-time employees. 

Rick: How does this compare with some of your competitors? You mentioned that UWorld has been used by more than 2 million students and professionals. Is that roughly the same as Princeton Review or Kaplan?

Chandra: Because of all the turmoil caused by COVID-19 and my focus on what we're doing, I don't have specific information about those companies. I can say that one of the things that differentiates us from them is the superior level of excellence we bring to each learning space. Our learning tools educate medical students, aspiring nurses, financial professionals, and high school students working to get into their dream college. 

And we continue to expand. We bring the same level of high-quality learning to millions of test-takers in all areas of education. On the surface, many test-prep providers offer what would appear to simply be practice questions or tests. And those tests are paired with many other offerings, including books, lectures, videos, online tutoring, score guarantees, etc. But what some users don't realize until they do their homework is that there is a wide range in the quality of what is offered and that there is no shortcut to true quality. For example, within medical, we do not outsource our content development to medical students. Our authors are physicians—many of whom still practice to ensure they retain their highest skill set—and all were top scorers on their medical exams. They undergo extensive training after hiring to learn how to develop questions and rationales that test and teach concepts in a precise way. 

This is the same for every product we develop. From the question and answer explanations that are refined into polished gems, to mimicking the digital exam interface and refining questions on a daily basis so that customers always have the most up-to-date material and best user experience, we put enormous amounts of energy into pursuing perfect quality. So while many others offer test prep, I don't think there is anybody who does it quite like us. If you required a life-saving operation to live, you'd want the best surgeon to perform that operation. Similarly, there is a reason why people choose UWorld for their make-or-break exams.

Rick: OK, last question. What's most surprised you since the launch of UWorld and what do you think you've learned from it?

Chandra: When you're obsessed with quality, it's really hard to scale a business. When we first launched, I hesitated to delegate because I thought that no one else could do the work as well as I could. That mentality just slowed down our growth process. I've constantly been surprised at how much people can achieve if they're passionate about what they're doing. What I've learned is that, if you create a good culture and hire the right people, they can not only do excellent work but also help you scale.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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