Studying for Big Tests Like a Rockstar - Matt Riley, CEO of Blueprint Test Preparation
Can having a rockstar teacher make all the difference? Matt Riley thinks so. He built his company, Blueprint Test Preparation, on hiring and creating rockstar LSAT and MCAT instructors across the country. In contrast to the opinion that standardized tests are just meaningless hurdles, Riley believes that these tests serve an important function and that going through the process of preparing for and taking them “actually gets you ready for success.” Join Riley as he speaks with host Shiv Gaglani in this episode of Raise the Line to discover Blueprint's unique approach to test prep, including its recent acquisition of Cram Fighter, a service that helps students manage the resources they are using to study. Plus, learn about the Fauci and RBG effects that COVID has had on medical and law school admissions, and hear Riley's valuable advice for students preparing for exams and looking toward their future careers.
SHIV GAGLANI: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani. Our guest today started a company in 2005 on a simple premise. Students will learn more and perform better on standardized exams if they're having fun. Matt Riley and his partners have now grown that company, Blueprint Test Preparation, into one of the largest LSAT and MCAT prep providers in the country, helping more than 100,000 students each year. I'm really looking forward to learning more about Blueprint's approach to learning, how they were impacted by the pandemic, and what changes Matt sees coming in online education. So Matt, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today.
MATT RILEY: Thank you, Shiv. Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
GAGLANI: Let's get into the origin story of Blueprint, which you started not long after graduating from UCLA. What sparked the idea of creating a test prep company and what problem exactly were you trying to solve?
RILEY: Let me jump in the time machine really quickly and go back. The year is the early 2000s. As you noted, I was pretty young when we put Blueprint together but the origin story really was based on two instructors who wanted to build a company around great instructors, to put it pretty simply. My co-founder and I were teaching LSAT classes next to each other, mostly at the UCLA Law School in very big lecture halls. I'm dating myself a little bit here, but at that time, in-person was all the rage when you were studying for one of these big scary exams. You essentially either took an in-person class, or you went to something called a bookstore—that some people might not be familiar with anymore—and bought some books to study for them.
My co-founder and I had built a pretty good reputation for being great instructors for pre-law students, and the way that we did that was we just Infused personality and humor combined with a really deep understanding of the test and the curriculum. It was really in that combination that students would enjoy the class. We drove great results. Then, the word-of-mouth referrals really picked up. So, we became fast friends and put our heads together. And one day, we said, “You know, most of the larger test prep companies out there, they really think of instructors as being replaceable.” Sometimes it's a very seasonal job. You go teach some classes on your way to grad school, and we thought that you could actually really build a brand around rockstar instructors, the type of people who want to perfect their craft and can really make a different type of classroom experience for people. So that was the driving force behind the company, is to just really create something where we were teaching and also running the company and helping to train and put mechanisms in place to create other rockstar instructors across the country. That's what we did.
The other problem that we were trying to solve, which is still something that I think about a lot today, is standardized testing. You might not be surprised to hear this. Most students are not excited when they have that process in the future. Nobody wakes up being like, “Man, I can't wait for my next standardized test,” and we never thought it had to be that way. We think that learning anything can be fun in the same way that learning something for your next career move or learning something, you know, I have young children, and I see kind of that joy. They light up when they start to learn something. Standardized testing, I think, can be exactly the same thing. You're taking on a different educational challenge. The LSAT is a very fun test to teach because it is a skills-based test. And so, when you're teaching people different skills like critical thinking, breaking down arguments, and things of that sort, you can be really creative in the ways that you teach those principles to students. That's what we've always tried to do.
GAGLANI: Well, that really resonates with us. At Osmosis, we have a lot of memes and cute animations and sound effects that pop up in the videos we produce. I can definitely relate, as a student lifelong learner myself, to what you were saying about the impact that rockstar teachers can have. Two in particular: one is, obviously, Byju, who built his empire in India, which is expanding globally, based on the fact that he was a rockstar teacher in India. He was filling out stadiums as people were prepping for these high-stakes exams in India. The second is my computer science professor in college. His name is David Malan. He started CS50 which is now Harvard X50. Awesome professor. He made it tons of fun and took a class that had declining enrollments for many years and totally made it the most popular class at Harvard. Obviously, there are macro reasons why people want to go into computer science, but he was similar to you who used humor and analogy and whatnot to make it fun. So tell us about the growth curve of Blueprint Test Prep, especially when you started going from LSAT and getting into MCAT.
RILEY: First I want to echo what you said. I think every student has instructors and professors in their life that they can point to as just the rockstars who actually helped them learn more. Yes, the evolution has been really interesting. So, I would say the two big changes in the company is first, we obviously pivoted from a predominantly in-person business to now, a fully online business. That was a transformation that happened over a number of years. And the interesting challenge that that put in front of us was, how do you take that same feel, that same vibe of a lively classroom experience, and recreate that in the online learning environment? That's something that we've really focused on for the last decade or so. Then we acquired a company who had built a really good reputation for having good MCAT content back in 2018. So, that was my introduction to the world of—other than, I myself was a pre-med for one quarter at UCLA, but then I put that to the side for a number of years but was reintroduced to the world of pre-meds and the MCAT through that acquisition back in 2018. So, now, in the same vein, we've tried to take a lot of those same principles that made Blueprint successful originally, and said, “How do we adjust this and make a really great learning experience for MCAT students?”
GAGLANI: Got it. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, you've sort of seen how law school admissions and med school admissions have changed over the past decade, or maybe MCAT really more recently. As you probably are aware, during the pandemic, the number of med school applications went up by about 20%, year over year. Some are calling it the Fauci Effect. I'd love your take on how admissions have changed over the years you've been involved, because even in law school, there was a time when people were saying a lot of the initial stuff people who join law firms would do would be automated away. So law school admissions was really declining; I don't know how that impacted LSAT. But what are you seeing, what have you seen, and what are some of your takeaways over the next coming years focused on law school and med school admissions? Are there other tests that you guys think you'll be getting into based on how the market is changing?
RILEY: Yes, definitely. So, it's been a very interesting year and I won't even go back. For the last decade, there's been a lot of trends but really everything, as so much of the world has been accelerated in the last 12 to 18 months. As you noted, there was a pretty big increase in the number of med school applicants. We actually saw similar increases for law school applicants. Business schools reported the same thing. So, part of that, there are a few explanations and a few drivers for it. One of them is grad school applications tend to be counter-cyclical with the greater economy. So, that's the part that's not surprising, right? Which is when there's economic uncertainty out there, people say, "Hey, I'm not so sure about entering the job market right now. So, what I want to do is invest in myself, you know go back to school," which I think is a healthy impact, or at least one of the healthy consequences, of when there are not as great economic times.
But last year, as you noted, was very interesting because the increases were more than you would even normally expect. You highlighted the Fauci Effect. On the law school side, we refer to the RBG effect, which happened last year as well. Apparently, everyone wants to be Dr. Fauci although I will say, I think he had a very difficult job last year. So, kudos to him for getting through what I'm sure was a tough stretch. But what I think happened is, you had a lot of students—and this is reflected also in the changing demographics that we see in our student population. It used to be that the normal student profile of a pre-law and a pre-med student who would come to Blueprint was junior or senior in undergrad or someone who just graduated, and was on this pretty set or fixed career path. They were going to go to undergrad. They had their major. Then, they're going to take the LSAT or the MCAT, go on to law school or med school, and pursue the career of their dreams.
Now, we're seeing a huge increase among our students in the non-traditional student profile, people who are a few, or even decades, out of school. So what I really think happened last year was both with the pandemic, and the realization, if you will, of society of the role, the true nature of being a healthcare worker and the heroes that these people are and nothing put that in a spotlight like people showing up in the middle of a pandemic to help everyone. Then, actually, on the legal side of our business, you had all of the turmoil last summer around racism and social injustice and everything else. I think that's put a spotlight on the fact that lawyers play this really important part in driving social change. It might not be the glamorous part of it, but when you want to actually change the mechanisms that drive society, lawyers are working behind the scenes to do a lot of that stuff. So I think there was a very healthy attraction among students to say, “These really are desirable careers.” Now you had an interesting mix of people where you had a spotlight on these careers. You also had people at home with more time. People were rethinking their lives, rethinking their career prospects, and they had time to commit to these challenging exams, challenging application processes. So, you put all that together and I think it's really encouraging. We're not only drawing more applicants to the professions, but probably the right types of people, who are getting into it for the right reasons.
GAGLANI: That's fantastic. I think it's really cool and I'd heard obviously about the Fauci Effect, but never the RBG effect. It's really interesting. So you have also not only grown into more high-stakes exams, and the number of students you're reaching, you've also grown your offerings. I know just a couple of months ago, you all announced the acquisition of Cram Fighter, and we know Amit Mathew well; he's a great guy. So congratulations on that. Can you tell us more about the range of offerings that Blueprint has and how you see them all working together, especially in a post-COVID world?
RILEY: Yes, definitely. We're excited about the acquisition, and it's certainly been a little bit of an eye-opening experience for us at Blueprint. There's a lot of general trends with online education, how students are studying for these exams, but one of the trends that we're watching really closely —different people have different terms for it, but it's this DIY trend or the maker trend. Over the last decade or so, there's been a massive proliferation of really high-quality content on the Internet. That's a great thing for students. It can also be a very overwhelming and intimidating thing for students. If you put yourself in a student's shoes, if you have a big test in front of you, or you're thinking of a career pivot or you're thinking about grad school for the first time, if you go do a Google search for how to start, you can imagine the millions of results that will come back. So there's a really interesting role in that world for tools to help students manage their time and the resources and give them advice and be the experts behind recommendations, bundles that work really well together, because the nice thing about it is, students really can get the best-in-class resources from a bunch of different categories, but how do you use them together? How do you know where the content is actually linked to each other? Or how do you weigh the different content if you have limited time? The non-traditional student is really pressed for time these days.
Cram Fighter is actually a tool and it's popular among med students, that does exactly that. There is no content provided by the platform, but it helps you manage the different resources that you might be using to study for one of these tests. We're really thinking of it as a way that we can both expand our life cycle with aspiring physicians: they use some of our services when they're getting ready for the test, but then also, we build that trusting relationship as they head off to med school and we're also thinking of it as bringing the best of the two worlds together. So, on the MCAT side, we have a really popular study planning tool already, and this gets to the different ways students are studying. When you don't have the structure and the accountability of a classroom and an instructor in front of you telling you you have to do your homework and you have to show up Tuesday and Thursday nights for class, just planning out your studies, and knowing how and when and what you're supposed to be doing, is even more important. The part that gets me really excited is that also opens the door to adaptive learning and personalization in a really powerful way. Because when you're not just controlling the content and like, “Am I feeding people this type of question, or that type of question?” but you're actually controlling the entire student experience, from, “What are the different modalities of resources that we can give people?” How much time you're spending on different days, how breaks are structured in your study plan—all of that—and really driving results at the end of the day, experimenting with all the different changes. I really think that's the future of these assessment-based exams is students want the value. They want to know they're spending their time in the right way. It's all about just efficiency and results. When you're kind of the hub, the plan that's moving around all of the components, here's a lot of value in that to students.
GAGLANI: Absolutely. Yes, we've been following Cram Fighter for a while and know, because we work with a lot of medical and other health professional students, that it's added a lot of value to them. So, it's been a big year for online education. We've had a number of amazing guests on the podcast, including the CEOs of Coursera, and Chegg, and 2U, and all these other large education companies, Course Hero. You know, there are some other online tutoring companies, including University Tutor, that went public through a SPAC earlier this year. I'm just curious, how do you see the landscape shifting, and how do you keep Blueprint Test Prep as much of a market leader as you have, as companies have come and gone in the space?
RILEY: Yes, it's certainly been an interesting year to see the hyper-growth that a lot of these companies have experienced and, going along with that, the impressive valuations, I will say, that some of the companies are getting. So you kind of have to ask yourself, as a business leader, “What are the trends that will exist in a post-pandemic world, when— I hate to use the phrase 'when life gets back to normal,'—but at least when it shifts back a little bit to where the equilibrium is going to be found?” I will tell you a few of the trends that I think will persist, and it comes from just, when you give students access to different delivery methods, different types of services, if they really are quality services, those are going to stick around and students will change their learning preferences.
I'm a big believer in live instruction. As we noted, that was kind of the original foundation for Blueprint was I just don't think that, no matter how smart the bots get, and how crafty they can get with all of the data that they know about us, I just think there's something really special about the experience of a passionate enthusiastic rockstar instructor teaching you something in a live setting. So, we've really leaned into that, and we've really innovated on the live experience for our students. I think that a lot of companies have taken advantage of that. Then going along with that, I do think online tutoring is something that is here to stay. It's one of those classic times where you think of the old model: bringing your children or yourself down to a tutoring center, trying to find somebody managing availability and commute times, and everything else, and now, it's like, “Oh, I can go on my computer and find an amazing expert in something, even if they're halfway across the world, and get this great access.” That that's a dream, right? For both educators and students. So, I think the success of the companies that you noted is really a testament to that, but also, we're kind of leaning into it and seeing, “What are the new and different expectations that our students will have in this different world?” I would say, leaning into that live learning, a really great differentiated live learning experience, and really accessible tutoring options for students are definitely things that we're looking at closely.
GAGLANI: Awesome! That's really great. You know, a couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the problem with board exams, mostly USMLE, like med school exams, when you're in med school, and how to solve it. I made the point that these high-stakes exams play two roles: one is, they want to make sure that there's a national objective metric across which all students are compared for entry into, in our case, residency. It's controlled supply and demand—or demand, really. Then number two, it's like a forcing function to make sure that before you enter med school, you've got at least a basic level of biomedical knowledge that will make you more likely to succeed.
But there's a lot of criticism around these high-stakes exams, and many of them go through different changes. The USMLE Step I went pass/fail, the MCATs been redesigned at least once in the past decade. I don't know much about the LSAT, but I'm sure there have been some changes. Colleges don't need to accept SAT and ACT anymore. How do you see high-stakes exams as a whole changing, and what are some of the ways you guys are staying proactive around those changes?
RILEY: Yes, it's a great question and you have to forward me that article; I'd love to read it. The same is true for LSAT, and the bar exam, and all areas now.
I want to make a distinction here, because I do think there's been a lot of criticism—some of it fair—for college entrance exams. In that world, the same dynamics that you just noted aren't important in the same ways right there. There really are issues on the college side, with just equity and access and all of those things, but when you're talking about med school, law school, these advanced degrees that function that you just noted is an important one. So we try to reframe the conversation with students a lot, because a lot of times, they'll look at these high-stakes exams and they only focus on the gatekeeper function of it, if you will, and they'll just see it as this big, scary thing that's trying to stop them from getting to the next step in their career journey.
But you just said some very important words there that I agree with, which is, this actually gets you ready for success. Believe it or not—and it's hard when you're taking the test—the LSAT, and the MCAT, are actually reasonably good predictors of success in law school, in med school, and even farther than that. They're reasonably good predictors of whether you will actually be able to pass your licensing exam so that you can now become a physician or become a lawyer. So I always tell students, “Think of it as a challenge, but also think of it that you're learning really important skills that will actually help you be more successful when you get to grad school.” I think that part gets overlooked a lot. There really is an important function of these tests.
Now, I don't want to say that that means the test couldn't get better. Of course they can. You know, I could rattle off a number of ways that I think the test makers could improve. That was definitely spotlighted last year when they had test-takers coming to testing centers for eight hours, wearing a mask in the middle of the night to take the MCAT. It was a scary year for pre-meds, I have to tell you.
But I think if that's the way you approach it, and you just say, “Here's the function of these exams. They do something important, and it fixes some of the supply-demand issues for these very high-demand careers; let's make sure that we continue to iterate on it, and make sure that we're giving people equal access to prep materials and making sure that they really do fulfill that function and don't put unnecessary barriers in the way for students.” I think that that always is the intention of the testing organizations. It just, like everything else, in practice, that can be a little bit complicated. But there have been some changes to the tests recently, and I think that they've done a pretty good job of adjusting and working well with law schools and med schools to fill their needs for what they want to learn about applicants.
GAGLANI: Totally. That makes a lot of sense. I know we're coming up on time, so I had two other questions for you. The first is, given that our audience is composed of primarily young-career or early-career healthcare professionals, what advice would you give to them—you probably already do this through Blueprint for the pre-meds taking the MCAT—about meeting the challenges of the COVID pandemic and beyond?
RILEY: Yes. I would say it's a couple of pieces of advice that I want to give. One, I will say, more on the beginning of your journey and then the second one, more looking more towards your future career. At the beginning of your journey—I touched on this a little bit in the beginning—is, I really think that students put too much emphasis on what they are studying and not enough emphasis on how they are studying. Working with pre-meds, as I'm sure you may remember, they tend to study a lot—and sometimes too much, believe it or not. Students sometimes form this perception that more is always better, and what we're doing when I'm talking about the study planner and our adaptive algorithms and everything else, is, we're trying to teach students that anytime you're taking on one of these intellectual challenges, you've got to prime yourself in the same way that you would for an athletic challenge or other things. Our students will do poorly on a test and they'll blame the test or they'll blame the content. It's like, “How did you sleep last night? Are you having trouble in your personal life that you're really not taking into account here?” Just think of it more as a holistic process.
Think of it as a challenge. You have these big, somewhat intimidating tests in your way. But if you try to enjoy the process and really think of all the different inputs that impact your performance, I think that it makes the whole experience a lot better. Then, look, the question about COVID has been front-of-mind for me for the last year, 15 months. I think the advice to students is relatively simple, but hard to hard to internalize. The rate of change in society is bewildering these days, and that can be scary sometimes. Psychologically, you can have a really hard time with it, but I think when you're thinking of your future career, and when you're going through the early planning stages and thinking about where you want to end up, don't look to the past. Look at where things are today compared to where we were a couple of years ago, and you really have to make a bet on what the future is going to look like. In the world of healthcare, just think about the different modes of delivery that are happening these days and what that's going to look like in five or ten years. So, I really think that even though that can be scary, as with all change, it's going to open up a lot of different opportunities. So, don't fight it. Lean into it, and think about how your career is going to function in the future world with all of the trends that we're seeing. There will certainly be lots of opportunities for success, but just lean into it, right? A lot of change.
GAGLANI: Absolutely, I couldn't agree more with that. So, my last question, Matt, is there anything else that you wanted to share with our audience that I haven't asked you about yet?
RILEY: No, I think we covered everything. I mean, I want to give—Shiv, again, thanks for having me. I also have always admired what you guys do. I think you obviously provide a great service for students and I've watched the tremendous growth, and all that you guys are doing to get great information in front of students and playing that really pivotal role through the pandemic. So, kudos to you guys for all that you're doing.
GAGLANI: Thank you, Matt. I really appreciate you taking the time to be on here with us, and more importantly, the work you do at Blueprint Test Prep. Obviously we're biased towards the healthcare field, but the countless number of students you've helped raise the line and become part of the healthcare workforce through the work you do. So, with that, I'd like to thank our audience for listening, and remind them to do their part to flatten the curve, get vaccinated if you haven't, and raise the line, since we're all in this together. Thanks again, Matt. Thanks everyone.