How Exam Prep Can Close Equity Gaps

An interview with Chandra Pemmasani, M.D., CEO and founder of UWorld 

By Edvocate Staff

Online learning platform UWorld helps more than 400,000 students a year prepare for high-stakes exams that can determine their academic and professional future. Founder and CEO Chandra Pemmasani, M.D., created the company when the preparation materials for his United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) didn’t satisfy his hunger for active learning. Founded in Pemmasani’s dorm room, UWorld has been growing ever since, and has provided materials to more than two million students and professionals around the world to prepare for exams like the MCAT®, CPA, CFA, NCLEX®, CPJE, SAT®, and ACT®. In a time when equity gaps are widening and some are doubting the usefulness of standardized testing, Dr. Pemmasani discusses how preparing for a high-stakes exam can not only help students get into their dream college, but can be a valuable educational experience on its own.

Edvocate: Let’s talk about financial equity first. What sort of pricing do you offer families or schools facing today’s enormous financial challenges?

Pemmasani: As a student, I borrowed thousands of dollars to buy exam preparation materials that didn’t work very well, and I don’t want anyone to feel that same frustration. Everything we do at UWorld 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. For SAT and ACT prep, our individual student packages start at $29. We also offer bulk pricing on our suite of college readiness solutions to everyone from individual tutors to school districts.

Edvocate: Another equity issue that became abundantly clear this spring is the connectivity gap. How do you help students who might not have access to the technology they need to find and use your materials?

Pemmasani: Our materials are available on every popular device. The last study I read said 84% of teenagers have a smartphone, and those numbers go up as the students get older. We do everything we can to reach students where they are, both in terms of technology and background knowledge. Students are encouraged to start by taking a pretest to determine what they know and what they need to work on. From there, they can proceed at their own pace and on their own time. We help students become their own teachers and close knowledge gaps on their own.

We’re not just helping them get ready for one test. As I learned myself when preparing for the USMLE, active learning helps students develop a growth mindset. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have grown up being told that they aren’t, for example, “good at math.” But when they take the learning into their own hands and build that growth mindset, those self-defeating thoughts get replaced by the conviction that, with hard work, they are always able to get better.  

Whether students are studying for the college entrance or a professional licensure exam, they’re mastering academic concepts as well as learning how to learn, which will impact their success in school and professionally long after they take those tests. And with the interruptions of school this spring, the only educational progress some students made was through UWorld. With most of the large school districts starting the fall in a distance learning model, students will really be leaning on online learning, and we will be there to support them.

Edvocate: Speaking of which, one of the results of the turmoil caused by COVID-19 was that some universities stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores. What are your thoughts on that?

Pemmasani: Since we’re talking about ways to provide opportunity for all students, I will say this: college admissions are extremely competitive. Some students might gain an advantage from the name of the school they went to, the number of AP courses their school offers, or extracurricular activities they took part in. As a result, students who don’t have those opportunities need to do everything they can to stand out from the crowd. An exam score may not be required, but a high score might be that extra proof of learning and dedication that makes the difference between a “yes” or “no” at their dream college. And that’s our mission: not to help students get ready for one test that takes a few hours, but to help them achieve their dreams.

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