CDL training school’s websites are, for reasons unknown, usually pretty rough. An Amazon page for a cell phone charger will usually have a more fact-filled analysis than most CDL schools’ websites. And some CDL schools don’t even have a website. This doesn’t mean that the schools themselves are bad. But it does mean that if you’re trying to figure which is the best school for you, you will probably not get all your questions answered by a schools website. So, that’s right, it’s up to you.
Most prospective CDL students don’t ask enough questions. Don’t let the CDL school’s staff act like you’re a freak for asking a few questions. It’s their job to answer a few questions. Would you pay $3000 – $6000 (the cost of most CDL programs) for a pickup truck without checking the odometer, looking under the hood, or taking it for a test drive. Probabably not. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you sign a contract promising to pay several thousand dollars without asking any questions.
In this chapter of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, we’ll figure which questions to ask. Call or visit 3 or 4 CDL programs and ask these questions and you’ll quickly be able to tell which school to choose.
In your favor, schools have an invested interest in getting you to pass the driving test and get your CDL. Students rarely ask many questions before signing up, but they also rarely go away quietly if they don’t pass their CDL test. The only way for a school to finish with one student, put their money in the bank and move on to the next student is to make sure the student gets their CDL.
The school wants you to get your CDL. But are they invested in you becoming a competent truck driver? They are not necessarily the same thing. Some schools will just teach you just enough to pass the driving test as it’s administered in their locale. Others teach you how to be a competent truck driver and, in so doing, get you ready to pass the CDL test. It might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but believe me, when you’re in truck driving school, you’ll know the difference.
So, do your homework. Ask around and talk to anybody you know who went to the CDL school. Check out how long the school has been around and what their reputation is in the community. If it is at all possible, go visit the school. You might get the same answers from the staff that you would on the phone, but visiting the school gives you a chance to observe things in better detail. How many students are in truck practicing their maneuvers? How many students are standing around, waiting? If you see students hanging out waiting for their turn to practice, ask them the same questions you asked the administrators. Students may not have many questions going into CDL classes, but they usually have plenty of opinions after spending a week or two in school.
Questions to Ask when You’re Looking Into CDL Schools?
What is the Cost of Tuition?
If you’re like most people, the cost of CDL training school is going to be a major factor in your decision making. So you’re definitely going to want to ask each school you speak with how much their tuition is. Most CDL schools are between $3000 and $6000. As is true with a lot of things, some cities and states are going cost more than others. If two schools in your area have a major price discrepancy, see if you can figure out why. Is the more expensive school longer or more thorough? Do they have more staff, better facilities or better trucks? Are they Professional Truck Driver Institute – certified? PTDI-certification is an excellent but somewhat hard-to-find credential. If all else is the same, choose the cheaper school.
How Long Does CDL Driving School Last?
To get an idea for how CDL classes are structured and for your own planning purposes, you’ll definitely want to ask how many weeks a school lasts. CDL training schools typically last for 3–6 weeks. I’ve never heard of a school that was shorter than three weeks. Typically, you’ll get your Commercial Learners Permit (CLP) after the first week. By law, you are not even allowed to take the CDL driving test until 14 days after you get your CLP, which is probably one reason why three weeks is a minimum for driving schools.
If they tell you that school lasts for 4 weeks, ask the school what percentage of students finish on time. At the truck driving school that I went to, they quoted me 5 weeks. I imagined that everybody went to test on the last day of the 5 weeks, got their CDL and then drove off into the sunset.
In reality, almost no one was there for exactly 5 weeks. Students from Texas frequently graduated in less than 4 weeks after passing the relatively easy Texas driving test. New Mexico students, who had difficulty scheduling a testing date, were often there for over 2 months. Some struggling students, from both states, stayed in CDL driver training for months. If you’re trying to plan out a tight budget until you get your first trucking job paycheck, having a realistic idea about how long trucking school will last is key. You don’t want drop out when you’re 75% of the way through school because you immediately need a job to avoid getting evicted.
Do Your CDL Classes Go Over Endorsements?
If you’re going to be a Class A driver, it is a good idea to get your Hazmat, Tankers and Doubles/Triples endorsements. All three of these endorsements require you to pass a short written test, but no skills test (although you do have to get a background check to get your Hazmat endorsement). Ask trucking schools if their classroom CDL classes cover endorsements.
If they’ve got their act together and they’re not trying to cut corners, they’ll probably help you prepare for the endorsement tests. If not, add that to your “cons” list for that school and don’t worry too much about it. If need be, you can and should study on your own to pass the endorsement tests. These endorsements are great credentials to have on your resume and can even open up whole new job opportunities.
How are Your Classes Scheduled?
Many schools, especially those in a 3–6 week format will have a daily schedule similar to the traditional Monday-Friday 9–5 workweek. You’ll want to ask how many hours a week you’ll be in CDL driving school. Also ask if they offer any part-time, flexible or weekend schedules. Most likely, you’ll find that class is Monday – Friday for about 8 hours.
Community colleges are a major exception. They often last much longer and are much more likely to have part-time schedules. If you’re trying to keep your job while going to trucking school, check out community colleges. Many times you will end up with many more hours of training spread over many more weeks. This can be a good thing. After all, the ultimate goal is to be a competent truck driver.
What is the Student-Instructor Ratio in Your CDL Program?
This one is huge. As every parent of an elementary school student knows, more teachers and less students = more learning. If you have questions or need help with something, how likely you are to get the assistance you need is very much dependent on the CDL program’s student-instructor ratio.
Depending on what type of learner you are, classroom student-instructor ratio may or may not be a big deal in the classroom. Some people are good at quietly following along and figuring things out for themselves. In this case, it doesn’t matter too much if they are in a class of five or fifty. But some of us need more individualized attention – we my need to ask a lot of questions or have something reworded to avoid getting lost. If this is you, how many students you’re sharing a classroom with is a big deal.
Even more important is the student-instructor ratio when it come time to get behind the wheel and get some driving time. Schools vary quite a bit on this account. And of course, you have to remember that most CDL driving schools are for-profit businesses (community colleges are an exception). They’re biggest expenses are instructors and trucks. Students might learn more if each had their own truck and own instructor, but it saves the trucking school a lot of money if they have 10 students share one truck and one instructor. So, if you want to get your moneys worth, you definitely want to ask about student-instructor ratio. If they can’t give you a straight answer, be wary.
How Much Driving Time Does Your CDL Classes Include?
Driving time is very much related to student-instructor and one of the biggest factors you should consider when choosing where to get your CDL classes. If you’re comparing 2 schools and each one lasts 4 weeks and costs $5000, but one gets you 4 hours behind the wheel a day and the other only 2 hours, it’s obvious which school you should choose.
Let’s be clear. Getting experience behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer is the point of CDL driving school. It wouldn’t be that hard to study the CDL manual, take practice tests and get your Commercial Learners Permit without any help. Time behind the wheel of a tractor trailer with somebody who knows what they’re doing helping you get to the point where you know what you’re doing – this is the point of Truck Driving School. A good instructor will carefully observe your stengths and weaknesses and help you develop sound, safe driving habits. Ask schools how soon you’ll be getting practice driving?
If a school tells you that you’ll be spending X number of hours in a truck, ask if you’ll be sharing that truck with other students. Some (rare) schools put you in your own truck with your own instructor. This is ideal. More commonly, CDL schools may have you share a truck with 2, 3 or even 4 other students. So you could spend 4 hours driving around town, but by the time you inspect the truck, take restroom/snack breaks and split the time by 4 students, you only end up driving for 40 minutes. Ask similiar questions about time spent on the backing range. How much time will you be practicing vs. waiting? You don’t learn by osmosis – you learn by driving.
What Kind of Trucks Does Your School Use?
The exact brand or model of truck isn’t that big of a deal, with a couple of exeptions. First, you want to train in a truck with a manual transmission, preferably a 10-speed transmission which is the current industry standard. Automatics were becoming more common in big rigs (until they proved to be less reliable) and they are definitely easier to learn. But not knowing how to drive a manual is going to prevent you from getting the vast majority of jobs. I would flat out avoid any Class A CDL program that doesn’t use manual transmissions.
Buying, insuring and maintaining trucks are an enormous expense for a truck driving school. To save money, some schools run a fleet of older trucks. To be fair, this can help them keep tuition down. Older truck isn’t necessarily a problem as long as it’s in good shape. However, if you get to the driving test, start demonstrating the pre-trip inspection and you or the tester spots a problem with the truck, the exam is going to be over before it begins. You can’t test in a vehicle that doesn’t pass the pre-trip inspection. This does happen.
Learning to drive a semi truck can be a bit scary and stressful. Learning in a truck with a beatup transmission (CDL students are hard on transmissions) or a tendency to breakdown is even more scary and stressful. This is the last thing you need when you’re learning to drive a big rig. At the truck driving school I went to, the trucks used on the backing range were especially rough – bald tires, bad steering, broken guages, etc.. None of these trucks ever saw a roadway because none of them had a prayer of passing any kind of inspection and everyone knew it. This can be frustrating when you suddenly can’t nail a maneuver that you thought you had down only to realize that the wonky truck you’re driving is to blame. It is best to practice in the same vehicle you’re going to drive on test day. That’s not going to happen if the school has one “good truck” that everyone uses for testing.
Ask CDL training schools how old their trucks are. They are probably not going to tell you that their trucks are more scrapyard-worthy than roadworthy. If you get a chance to visit the school, talk to students and ask them what kind of shape the trucks are in. You’ll probably get a lot of stories and a lot of information.
What Are Your School’s Graduation Rates?
This is a pretty straightforward question and schools should know the answer. If some of the school’s students get their tuition paid for by government programs (which is most truck driving schools), they have to report this number. The CDL school should give you a graduation rate percentage and it should be way up in the 90s. If they tell you that they don’t know or somehow dodge the question, be wary. If the percentage is not way up in the 90s, ask yourself if you want to be one of the students who paid thousands of dollars and went home empty handed.
Getting Your First Trucking Job – DoYou Offer Assistance with Job Placement?
A good school will not only help you get your CDL, they’ll also help you land your first trucking job. How much help you get varies a great deal from school to school, so it’s good to ask how they approach job placement. Some schools will help you fill out applications and even connect you with potential employers. Given the demand for truck drivers, recruiters may come to your school and give you their best pitch. You may even get some free pizza or ball point pens.
The job market for truckers is definitely good, but it’s still nice to know that your truck driving school is there to help. Plus, if the school has a lot of job connections it indicates that companies like hiring graduates of the school, which indicates that the school is probably doing a pretty good job. It’s best to find a school with a record of placing drivers at many desirable companies.
But let’s be realistic. It isn’t that hard to get a trucking job, especially if you’re willing to start out over-the-road. There may be as many as 200,000 trucking jobs available. So, unless resumes and interviews really aren’t your thing, you may not really need help finding a job. The more important thing is to get quality training. Still, asking a CDL driving school about about job placement offers one more clue as to whether or not you’re going to get quality training.
What Happens if You don’t Pass Your Written Tests?
As we discussed in part 3 of The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools, you need to pass a few written tests to get your Commercial Learners Permit (CLP). The first week of trucking school is often set aside to help you prepare for these tests. You need to pass the written tests to get your CLP and get behind the wheel of a big rig, but everyone does’t pass all of their written tests on the first try. In fact, the majority of students at the truck driving school that I attended did not pass all of their required tests on their first attempt.
So, if you’re a truck driving school, you need to have a contingency plan for when students don’t pass their written tests. Ask CDL driving schools what will happen if you’ don’t pass your written tests right away. You want to hear that they have an accomodating and student-friendly backup plan. If they don’t have a student friendly backup plan, either look for another truck driving school or make sure to spend some time studying on your own before you even start truck driving school.
What Happens If You Don’t Pass the Driving Test?
OK, so you’ve been in truck driving school for a few weeks. You’ve gotten pretty comfortable on the road and you are pretty consistent on your backing maneuvers. The big day comes. You go to take your CDL driving test … and fail. Maybe you forgot half of the pre-trip inspection, knocked over a couple of cones, or ran over a curb (as you’ll hear in this video). It happens to a lot of people. After all, there is a lot that you have to get right on the CDL driving test. You shouldn’t worry too much about it … as long as your truck driving school has your back.
By the time you take your driving test, you’ll definitley know what’s going to happen if you don’t pass. You’ll have seen other students go to test. Some pass, get their CDLs and graduate on their first try. Others don’t. Believe me, you’ll hear plenty of driving test stories. Driving test failures are common. Failure rates vary from state to state and even examiner to examiner. And whether you pass or fail could very much depend on how strict or lenient the examiner is. It’s just like back in school, one teacher’s A can be another’s C.
So, it’s a good idea not to assume that you’ll pass on your first try. Practice hard and give it your all when you’re in the truck. But when you first talk with schools, make sure to ask –what will happen if you don’t pass your driving test on the first try? Will you have to wait until another class hits the road to get more practice? How long will it be until you can test again? Are there any additional fees? Just like the written tests, you need to know what the school’s policy is if you don’t pass the driving test on your first try.
When are Tuition Payments Due?
At $3,000-$6,000, CDL training schools are not cheap. For many, coming up with this money is a big worry. If you do not have the cash to pay the full tuition up front, make sure to ask the school about payment policies. Some schools require you to pay the entire amount up front, but others will allow you to defer tuition until after you get your CDL. That way you can get a job and start earning a paycheck before big bills for tuition come rolling in.
The school I went to gave me a couple of months to pay back the cost of tuition. Fortuntately, I paid off the balance in time because after two months the cost of school went up by about $1,000. Even more accommodating, some schools will allow you to wait six months before you have to start making payments. This is where it is critical that you ask questions. The more time a school gives you to pay them, the more likely it is that you’ll pay additional fees or interest. It’s also a good idea to ask what types of payments they accept – checks, cash, credit cards, etc. And it can’t hurt to ask if they any kinds of scholarships or financial assistance.
Do You Offer Students Any Kind of Satisfaction Guarantee?
Any time you agree to pay thousands of dollars before you receive what you’re paying for, it’s not a bad idea to ask if they have any kind of guarantee. Hopefully, everything will go well and you’ll happily walk away with your CDL a month later. But if things don’t go well and you feel like the trucking school is not holding up it’s end of the bargain, do you have any options? If they have your signature on a contract stating that you’ll pay them such and such amount of money, even if you don’t finish school for whaterver reason.
This kind of thing makes me nervous as I don’t like getting ripped off. If you’re like me, you’ll want to ask about a satisfaction guarantee. Businesses that have a good reputation and take good care of their customers are more likely to offer a satisfaction guarantee.
It’s Time to Enroll
Last but not least, ask about the school’s enrollment procedures. What do you need to do to get signed up? What paperwork do they need? How soon do you start? How do they handle the DOT physical? It’s best to do the physical before you sign a contract because you won’t be able to drive if you don’t pass it.
Alright, you’ve done your homework and looked into the best truck driving schools in your area. Knowing the pros and cons of each school, you can make an informed decision. You can look at your calendar and your wallet and make a plan. What schools are going to do the best job training you and make sure you get your CDL. What schools are going to charge you reasonable tuition and offer convenient schedules and payment options. If you take a couple hours to call or email all the schools in your area and ask all the questions we’ve covered in What to Look For in a CDL Training School, you’ll probably have your options narrowed down to one or two. If you’re still trying to make up your mind, schedule a visit with the school to see things for yourself. When you’re making a difficult turn on a traffic-filled city street with a capable instructor by your side, you’ll be glad that you took the time to find good CDL instruction.
If you’ve read the entire Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools and know that a career in trucking is for you and you’ve done all your homework and know which school is the best fit for you, pull the trigger and sign up. A few months from now, when you’re on the open road making good money, you’ll be glad that you did. If finances are your biggest barrier to signing up for school, check out the next chapter in The Ultimate Guide to Truck Driving Schools – Free and Company Paid CDL Training. You will probably lose some flexibility with this option, but it could be just the thing you need to get your trucking career rolling.