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.

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.

For the typical family who uses such services, the costs hardly blow the summer budget. For Brendan Mernin, a Princeton Review tutor for nine years, that became clear last summer when he tutored a high school junior - on her parents' yacht. It was anchored in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

"I had to go through a locked gate onto a dock, and past maybe 15 other yachts," he recalls. "It was probably about 150-feet long and it wasn't close to the biggest yacht in the harbor. Some had helicopter pads. The crew wore those little uniforms from the 'Love Boat,' with the shorts and little caps and epaulets. I have to say it was just a bit over the top."

And the student?

"She was a very nice kid, very busy as a lot of them are," he says. "Many of these kids are stressed. There are a lot of demands on their time. So they and their parents have figured out that summer is the best time to focus on preparing for the test."

Mr. Mernin ran the young woman through drills, had her take practice tests, assigned homework reading material, and worked on test-taking techniques. At the same time, however, he tried hard to make prep work fun, not drudgery. That meant a lot of interaction and discussion, or "interactivity."

That student was a hard worker who was relatively easy to teach, Mernin says. More challenging was a well-off young man who "needed to grow up a little."

He was also flunking out. So Mernin "prodded him a bit." After that summer, the young man earned a B average and got into Syracuse University, Mernin says, a hint of pride in his voice.

"Most of these kids are aiming for Harvard or Yale," he says. "For this kid, in some ways, I felt it was the best work I've done."

Katzman says the key to summer tutoring is "to make sure it's not like school." He adds that "it is a lot easier to have a good time teaching the SAT when you're sitting out by a pool."

Daniel Skinner agrees. A Score Prep tutor for three years, he lives in New York City. But this summer he's tutoring kids in the Hamptons and he's thrilled, mainly because of the more-relaxed environment he expects.

"There's a different feeling to tutoring in the summer," he says. "I'll be able to help the kids focus on the substance, and not think about the test so much. I want to make it a good experience and not ruin their summers."

But Tara Bahna-James offers a caveat concerning the virtues of summer. A Stanford Coaching tutor for four years and a Yale University graduate, she spent last August on Martha's Vineyard tutoring a couple of kids.

"Sometimes, if the kid has been working really hard in school and there's only a couple of weeks to spend with their friends, it can be hard for them to focus," she says.

Then there's James Matthews, a Wesleyan University graduate who has been tutoring for nine years for Princeton Review. He found out recently he'll be tutoring for a few weeks this summer on an island in the Bahamas.

An island environment will be perfect for teaching, he exults.

"Most of the time I'm in Manhattan," he says. "I don't even know when I'm going [to the Bahamas]. When it's time, duty will call and I'll just suffer through it."

Tutoring isn't a bad living - the best full-time tutors can make $50,000 to $100,000 (their take is about 30 to 50 percent of the amount charged by the tutoring company). Tutoring, however, is not typically a summer activity for college students - though some do teach test-prep classes.

Plush moonlighting

Only the best and most experienced who teach classes for several years ever graduate to become tutors. And many of those are nurturing a second career.

Mernin is an aspiring author. Another Princeton Review tutor in the Hamptons, Jonathan Arak, is a theater director.

"I get satisfaction out of helping the kids," Mernin says. "But I'm also writing a novel, and my wife is a playwright. Test tutoring is a great way to support my family, have a life, and still have time to work on this novel."

Sheehan, a Harvard graduate and 14-year test-tutor veteran, dashed to Monte Carlo last fall after his stint in Paris. (He had a private chef preparing him chocolate mousse on that trip, too).

His time in Paris, walking along the Champs Elyses to work, was "amazing," he says. "You felt like you were living in an old MGM musical. I tutored each student for two hours, then lunch, then the other student. The rest of the day I saw the sites."

But now that he's back and scheduled to spend the summer commuting between the Hamptons and New York, he's more circumspect.

"It's so easy to get used to that kind of life," he sighs. "These [trips abroad] are just the lucky breaks. I'm still hoping, though, that someone out there needs a last-minute tutor this summer."


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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