The Ultimate MasterClass Review – is it worth the money?
- What is it: MasterClass is a brand new approach to online education. Your teachers are global leaders in their field, your video classes have high production values, and you receive genuinely insightful lessons that you can’t get anywhere else.
- Price: Lifetime access to one class for $90 or access to every class for $180 per year.
- Who’s it for: Those who are interested in an insider look at how art is made and want to be inspired by the greatest minds of our generation.
- The best part: How candid the instructors are. All the courses are full of super intimate anecdotes that are guaranteed to inspire you.
- What you need to know:: Most of these courses aren’t about concrete skills that you can measure. But that’s okay, because you can learn that stuff anywhere. It’s about where you get your ideas, and how you use your personal experiences in your work.
- Verdict: Think of MasterClass as a gym membership or library card; it’s a workout for your mind that’s going to introduce you to new perspectives and expand your horizons.
What would you give to have Serena Williams polish your tennis serve? Or get Gordon Ramsey’s insider tips on the perfect soufflé? Or learn about how Bob Woodward nails the perfect interview?
As a freelance writer and content manager for Global English Editing, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my writing craft. When I saw that that two of my all-time heroes, Neil Gaiman and Malcolm Gladwell, were teaching courses on writing, I knew I just had to check it out.
MasterClass has been making waves recently thanks to their brand new approach to online education, where every single one of their teachers is a global leader in their field.
The classes all looked fascinating, so I decided to give it a try and report back for anyone else thinking of taking the plunge.
In this MasterClass review, you’ll learn how MasterClass works, my experience taking three MasterClasses, the best things about the platform, and the things that aren’t so good about it.
It’s an honest review by an online education fanatic. While I LOVE learning new things, I also love getting a bang for my buck and making sure my time is well spent.
Let’s find out whether MasterClass delivered on these things for me…
What is MasterClass?
MasterClass was set up in 2015 by entrepreneur David Rogier and inventor Aaron Rasmussen. They thought that there was a huge reserve of knowledge in the heads of experts that was untapped, and that sharing it would, “in a small way, make the world a bit more equal.”
I’m all for equality, especially if it gives me access to genius!
Their aim was to produce classes that have:
- Teachers who are the absolute best in the world at what they do
- High production values comparable with Netflix or TED talks
- Genuinely insightful lessons that you can’t get anywhere else.
Four years later they’ve done everything they said and more, and their staggering list of instructors includes Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese and Helen Mirren. Gordon Ramsey loves it so much that he’s just added a second course, and this year David Lynch and Natalie Portman are launching classes.
It’s not just famous teachers either; MasterClass have managed to get some pretty famous students to sign up.
The musician Example is taking the Timberland class and apparently loving it. And check out what happened when Steve Martin tried to teach comedy to Stephen Colbert:
Incredible breath of knowledge
Some of the amazing MasterClass courses you can take include:
- Usher teaches the Art of Performance
- Serena Williams teaches Tennis
- Gordon Ramsey teaches Cooking
- Steve Martin teaches Comedy
- Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
- Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
- Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO, teaches Business
The best MasterClass courses for writers
There are a ton of writers under Film and Politics as well as Writing, so make sure to check out all the different categories.
- James Patterson teaches Writing
- Neil Gaiman teaches the Art of Storytelling
- Judy Blume teaches Writing
- Malcolm Gladwell teaches Writing
- Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers
- Aaron Sorkin teaches Screenwriting
- Shonda Rhimes teaches Writing for Television
How MasterClass works
This is what my page looked like when I signed up for Helen Mirren’s acting class:
Each MasterClass consists of around 20-25 lessons, with videos, workbooks, assignments, and further reading. The lessons all work on a different skill, like worldbuilding for writers or how an actor breaks down a script.
They’re structured so that even if you’re a beginner you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to your own work right away.
I’m such a bad actor that I was the only kid to get kicked out of the Christmas pageant at school, but after trying a couple of the activities I actually felt a lot more comfortable and confident. Helen Mirren would be proud of me.
I was totally blown away by the production values here, and the amount of work that’s obviously gone into every single video. Take a look at the trailer for Serena’s course below and you’ll see what I mean.
The videos are all between 5 and 20 minutes, so it was pretty easy to fit one in at lunch time or on my commute. Whenever I switched between my laptop and phone it automatically saved my progress.
In the writing courses there’s a lot of talking, but I also got to see the instructors reading aloud, drawing, and illustrating their ideas on paper.
The cooking and chess classes had a lot more practical demonstrations so that I could follow along in my own kitchen at the same time.
The coursebooks are available to download as a PDF and are as beautifully made as the rest of the course. They have a summary of everything that’s said in the videos plus extra references, so you don’t have to take notes as you watch. My writing hand was grateful.
Then there were assignments to put what I’d just learned into practice; everything from research at the library to shopping for ingredients to trying to mimic another writer’s voice.
I way underestimated how hard these were going to be; all of them were practical stuff that got me out of the house and actually learning hands-on.
I will say that some of the homework was a bit weird.
One of Werner Herzog’s assignments involved walking exactly 100 miles from home and documenting everything you see. I like walking but that’s a three-day hike. I skipped that one.
The workbooks and the lessons also included links to a lot of useful resources. I was really impressed that these are much more than just reading material.
For example, Christina Aguilera recommends an app that tests your vocal range and shows you how to use it to measure your progress as you go through the course. Gordon Ramsey’s class uses an interactive guide to seasonal vegetables; put in your location and the date and it tells you what to buy.
How much do MasterClasses cost?
MasterClass has two payment options:
Each course is between 3 and 6 hours of video content, so per hour it’s still cheaper than most college courses, and my local college doesn’t have James Patterson and Christina Aguilera on the staff.
If you know exactly which course you want to take and you’re not interested in anything else, the $90 class will work great for you. I was more interested in playing around and learning something new, so I went for the all-access pass.
The all-access pass includes every single course offered on the website, plus any that get added in the future. It also gave me access to playlists, a way to explore across different categories and learn specific skills. This feature is massively useful, and I’m going to be coming back to it later in the review.
MasterClass offer a 30-day refund if you’re not completely happy, so I guess they’re pretty confident that you’ll think it’s worth the money.
My experience taking 3 MasterClasses
I’ve been a huge Neil Gaiman fan for years, and with the TV adaptation of Good Omens coming to Amazon in May, I thought this would be the perfect chance to learn at the feet of the master.
Some of the best parts of Neil’s course:
- Sources of inspiration. Neil discusses how to get inspired, goes through some techniques to find fresh ideas when you think you’re stuck, and why you need to build a ‘compost heap’.
- Developing character. Neil walks you through the process he uses to go from a vague idea to a fully-formed person walking around inside your head. What kind of physical quirks do they have? How do they talk?
- Descriptions. How do you make your setting come alive without your audience getting bored? Neil talks about using all five senses to create a vivid mental image and how memorable details can provoke strong feelings.
- Humor. Since everyone needs a laugh sometimes, Neil shares some of the ways he makes his stories funny and surprising, and how you can twist a cliché to make it work for you.
More than anything, I learned that everything involves storytelling. I’m not going to be writing a bestselling novel any time soon, but does good copywriting and editing also involve storytelling?
So does giving a speech or pitching a project or really anything where you need to hold you audience’s attention. I can’t think of a situation where I won’t use this class.
Not many people can write a New York Times Bestseller every single time they publish, but Malcolm Gladwell is 5 for 5. No wonder Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world in 2005.
The most interesting bits of Malcolm’s course:
- Imperfect Puzzles. Malcolm explains how a great work of non-fiction is an unfinished puzzle that lets the reader put the pieces together themselves, keeping them engaged with the work.
- Research. A good idea is the first step to any great piece of writing, and Malcolm shares how research helps him uncover interesting stories, how the best stuff is in the footnotes, and why you should never be afraid to follow your curiosity.
- Interviewing. In this lesson Malcolm reveals his secrets to revealing the subject’s authentic self in an interview, the importance of slowing down, and why you should embrace the unexpected.
- Structuring language. Everyone thinks they can write, but we could all stand to take a lesson from Malcolm Gladwell on the power of simplicity to get your ideas across. I really enjoyed his discussions of using punctuation for rhythm and pacing.
This class had so many practical, actionable tips that I could practically feel my writing improving as I watched each video. I’m just in awe of this guy.
I love to cook for friends and family, but they always say things like “What are these weird black bits?” and “Did you set off the smoke alarm again?” so I figured I could do with a lesson or two.
The stuff I’ll take away from Gordon’s course:
- Kitchen layout. I’ve been doing it wrong all this time! Now I know store my ingredients properly and rearrange the kitchen to maximize space. I really liked how you don’t need a lot of fancy tools in order to cook well.
- Knife skills. Gordon explains exactly how to handle the knife so you’re not in danger of losing your fingers, and how to keep your knives properly sharp.
- Making pasta dough. The way Gordon breaks down the steps makes it seem easy, even though this was something I never thought I’d be able to do. Also, apparently you should never wash your pasta machine.
- Perfect scrambled eggs. If there was one thing I thought I already knew how to make it’s scrambled eggs, but I was wrong. Gordon breaks down the foolproof technique to making perfect scrambled eggs every time.
I also learned that this guy never met a curse word he didn’t like. I guess Ramsey’s balls-to-the-wall attitude will put some people off, but personally I loved his passion and the way he pushes you to do better.
Everything I made while taking this course got devoured in seconds and I even got a compliment or two. You can’t argue with results!
What impressed me most about my MasterClass
When I sat down and watched the MasterClass courses, it really felt like the instructor was talking directly to me. All the courses are full of super intimate anecdotes.
Christina Aguilera talks about singing the wrong lyrics to the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and how she came back from that mistake.
Neil Gaiman talks about getting stung by yellowjackets to make sure they wouldn’t attack his kids and how it inspired him to write a story about courage.
Bob Woodward tells the story of going to Libya to interview Colonel Gaddafi.
As a huge fan of all these people, I thought the personal insights alone were worth the money.
It’s really reassuring to know my heroes sometimes have the same doubts and insecurities that I do, and inspiring to see that they got where they are through incredibly hard work.
Most of these courses aren’t about concrete skills that you can measure. But that’s okay, because you can learn that stuff anywhere. It’s about where you get your ideas, how you use your personal experiences in your work, and those are things that traditional courses don’t teach.
Lots of the instructors emphasize that it’s not about talent, and you shouldn’t be afraid to start with nothing.
Steve Martin says in his introduction: “Know that there’s room for you out there in the world. You don’t have to have a special gift. I had no special gift. Except I loved being on stage and I loved comedy. And that’s all I had.”
It felt like every single one of the instructors got a huge kick out of teaching and was genuinely rooting for me to succeed.
What I wasn’t so keen on in my Masterclass
Before I signed up for MasterClass, I’d heard a rumor that the instructors might answer questions and give you personal feedback. Two lucky people even got to co-write a novel with James Patterson after winning a MasterClass competition.
Did I get anything like that? Not so far.
You can submit questions – either text or uploading a video of yourself – and the instructor will go through and answer some of them. Here’s James Patterson answering a student’s question:
I’m guessing they get hundreds and hundreds of these things and the chances your question will be answered is pretty small. That’s understandable, but my complaint is that when you sign up you don’t know what kind of interaction you can expect.
At the time of writing, James Patterson had answered about twenty questions, and given general feedback on a bunch of assignments. Gordon Ramsey has answered four questions. Neil Gaiman hasn’t answered anything, although to be fair his course is brand new last month.
Don’t sign up expecting any of this, and treat it like a fun bonus. It’s totally a matter of luck if you’ll get a question answered.
The other major problem I had with MasterClass was the community…
The Masterclass community: Is there value in it?
Good classes aren’t just about the teacher; I also want the chance to meet interesting new people and bounce ideas around with them. I’m not going to lie, MasterClass should be doing a LOT more to make the community welcoming and valuable.
The lesson discussions under each video are about as useful as youtube comments. Don’t bother.
The Hub is a bit better. You can use the Hub to:
- Post your writing assignments, photographs, or demo tape and get feedback from the other students
- Get into deep discussions and analysis in the political forums
- Find practice buddies in the chess and poker forums.
I found the comments on the writing courses really thoughtful and helpful. The other students are people who are serious about improving and they made a huge effort to give me useful feedback. It was like taking part in a really good college seminar.
Some of the other courses, not so much.
Take a look at the Gordon Ramsey community below: it’s nothing but tumbleweed in there. Understandable, since you can’t exactly ask the other students to taste your cooking or critique your tennis backhand.
- Pro tip: lots of students like to hang out on the MasterClass Facebook page, and I found it a lot easier to follow discussions there than on the MasterClass website. I also got handy updates about office hours and I watched a few on Facebook Live. I definitely recommend checking out the Facebook page once you’ve finished a course.
The best way to use MasterClass
Remember I mentioned playlists earlier?
In my opinion these are the best thing about MasterClass. All-access passholders can watch a bunch of videos from different courses and totally different genres that have been grouped together around a single theme.
If you’ve taken lots of professional courses then you’ll know at some point you start hearing the same thing over and over again.
This is something totally different. It’s taking a radically new approach to learning by pulling information from completely different fields.
One of my favorites was Draft to Draft, which is all about the principals that creative people follow when developing an idea.
Can I learn something about writing and editing from listening to Judd Apatow talking about just vomiting out the first draft or Deadmau5 on how nothing is ever finished? Hell, yes.
Other playlists include how to collaborate effectively, when to throw away the rules, and taking a healthy approach to risk. These are all ideas that are relevant to my career – to any career – and that I could apply to any part of my life and improve it.
And this is the kind of stuff you would never get on a traditional course, where things tend to be narrow and geared to a specific skill.
I learned the most unexpected things from listening to experts in a completely different field. It’s mind-expanding. It’s inspirational.
If you have the all-access pass then make sure you get full value for your money by browsing the playlists.
My verdict: Is Masterclass worth it?
You’ll love MasterClass if you:
- Want to try something different in a new discipline
- Are interested in an insider look at how art is made
- Want to be inspired by the greatest minds of our generation.
MasterClass is definitely not for you if you:
- Are looking to pick up specific technical skills
- Want what you learn to be instantly marketable
- Are thinking of the price in terms of return on investment.
I’m thinking of my MasterClass subscription more like my gym membership or library card; it’s a workout for my mind that’s going to introduce me to new perspectives and expand my horizons.
Rogier and Rasmussen have mentioned in interviews that they started this project to document the knowledge of great experts to serve as a time capsule after their deaths. That’s pretty heavy stuff, but they’re not wrong.
One day these people will all be gone and this record of their craft – in their own words – will be left for us to learn from.