Don't forget to pack the tutor
In an age of affluence, top test coaches are wooed by families who don't want SAT study time to conflict with summer fun
John Sheehan is the sort of guy who jets from New York to Paris for a couple of weeks. From the balcony of an exquisite apartment, he gazes across the Seine River to the Louvre. A private chef fusses over his meals.Skip to next paragraph
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But he's not a rich playboy. Instead, when summer kicks in, he increasingly finds himself in a novel role: hotshot test tutor, will travel.
Mr. Sheehan's Paris gig last summer was to help two young French students bone up for a tough entrance exam to an American prep school. Their parents found it cheaper and more convenient to bring him to Paris than spend two weeks in New York themselves.
Concerns about college admissions that rival the Olympics in competitiveness are causing students and parents alike to turn up the heat on prepping for the SAT and similar tests.
But if the work itself is hard to make more palatable, families can at least do something about the atmospherics. And rather than add tutoring onto an already full roster during the school year, they're wrapping drill work around fun summer activities, and whisking an increasingly elite corps of tutors off to duty in places like Nantucket, Monte Carlo, or the Hamptons in New York, where Sheehan will be this summer.
There, amid sunshine and surf, museums, and fine food, they get down to the serious business of helping Janie or Jean-Marc or Jorge boost scores on tests for which a previous generation did little more to prepare than sharpen some No. 2 pencils.
In the process, they put even more pressure on the SAT-prep game and widen the divide between those who have the means to buy better preparation and those who can't afford it.
"People are feeling more pressure than ever to score well," says John Katzman, president of Princeton Review, a New York-based test-preparation company employing Sheehan and others.
Susan Gillin, a Garden City, N.Y., parent, could not agree more. "Everybody I know is enormously concerned about the test," she says. "It's just a huge factor in the college process, and everybody tries to get every edge they can."
Those scores went up
To give her son Ryan that edge, she and her husband shelled out for one-on-one tutoring last summer at their vacation retreat in West Hampton, N.Y. Though expensive, it was well worth it, she says. Ryan boosted his score 100 points, to 1320, after being tutored.
One reason SAT scores matter more to the Gillins and other parents and students is the tidal wave of applications flooding the best schools, Mr. Katzman and others say. Thanks to the ease of applying online, a student who might once have applied to just four or five colleges may now try a dozen or more, says one test-preparation official.
But even as the applicant pool swells, the number admitted remains about the same. So the percentage of "admits" from applicant pools at top schools is dropping fast.
The median SAT score of students admitted - along with the number of applications and the percentage of students admitted - is one of the key criteria in the much-watched US News and World Report college rankings. It's a factor that enhances the reputations of elite schools, while at the same time accelerating the fear of getting locked out.
"When kids have worked so hard, and valedictorians are being turned away, parents don't know what to do," says Lisa Jacobson, president of New York City-based Stanford Coaching Inc.
Maybe not. But a popular way to try to address the challenge is by spending a lot of money and homing in on factors that are still malleable late in a student's high school career, like the SAT.
"It's tough to fix four years of grades when you're a junior [in high school]," Katzman says. "But you can get a big bump in SAT scores by working with a tutor."
Katzman notes that research shows it does not matter if test preparation is one-on-one or a class setting. But that doesn't diminish the cachet of a private tutor. Indeed, many of the top tutors are assigned to work individually with students and win the most alluring assignments.
For those who can afford the one-on-one approach, there are companies like Ms. Jacobson's Stanford Coaching, with 100 tutors at the ready.
She describes her company as "the Ritz-Carlton of test preparation," using tests to match clients with her tutors and flying them all over the world - especially during the summer months. This summer, for instance, she has assigned tutors to travel to Venezuela, Guatemala, Turkey, and Greece, though not all these are vacation destinations - some are where students live.
But it'll cost you
Naturally, this sort of specialization costs plenty.
Pressure, peers, and pride may help explain why Princeton Review, Stanford Coaching, Score Prep, and others can command $100 to $300 per hour. With a couple of hours of work each day, five days a week, summer costs for a few weeks' work with a single student can range from $3,000 to $10,000.