Whenever I read about SAT tutors charging in the hundreds of dollars, I’m curious. I know they exist, but I also know that I’m pretty damn good, and I’m not charging three figures per hour (close, though!). So I always read them closely to see if, in fact, these test prep tutors are super fab in a way that I’m not.
At the heart of all test prep stories lies the reporter’s implicit rebuke: See what rich people are doing for their kids? See the disadvantage that the regular folks operate under? You can’t afford those rates! You’re stuck with Kaplan or cheaper, cut-rate tutors! And that’s if you’re white. Blacks and Hispanics can’t even get that much. Privilege. It sucks.
And so the emphasis on the cost of the tutors, rather than any clear-eyed assessment of what, exactly, these tutors are doing that justifies an hourly rate usually reserved for low-end lawyers, never mind the fact that these stories are always about the SAT, when in fact the ACT is taken by as many kids as the SAT. The stories serve up propaganda more than they provide an accurate picture of test prep.
I’ve written before about the persistence of test prep delusions. Reality, summarized: blacks and Hispanics use test prep more than whites, Asians use it more than anyone. Rich parents are better off buying their kids’ way into college than obsessing about the last few points. Test prep doesn’t artificially inflate ability.
So what, in fact, is the difference between Lisa Rattray, test prep coach charging $300/hour; me, charging just short of 3 figures; and a class at Kaplan/Princeton/other SAT test prep schools?
Nothing much. Test prep coaches can work for a company or on their own. The only difference is their own preferences for customer acquisition. Tutors and instructors with a low risk tolerance just sign on with a company. Independent operators, comfortable with generating their own business, then pick their markets based on their own tolerance. My customers sit comfortably in the high income bracket, say $500K to $5 million yearly income, although I’ve worked with a couple Fortune 500 families. Lisa Rattray and Joshua Brown, the featured tutors, clearly work with families a couple notches up the income ladder from mine.
None of this has anything to do with quality of instruction. Test prep is a sales and marketing game. The research is clear: most kids improve at least a little, quite a few kids improve a lot, a very few kids stay put or, heaven forfend, get worse.
Obviously, instructor quality influences results a bit, but only rarely change a kid from one category (mild improvement) to another (major improvement). Remember, all test prep instructors have high test scores, and they’re all excellent at understanding how the test works. So they make career decisions based on their tolerance for sales and marketing, not the quality of their services. I know of some amazingly god-awful tutors who charge more than I do, having learned of them from their furious ex-clients who assumed a relationship between price and quality. These tutors have websites, business cards, offered their own prepared test materials, saw students in their rented space, and often accepted credit card deposits. I have none of these accoutrements, show up at my clients’ houses, usually but not always on time, and take checks. Every so often I get a client who whips out a wad of bills and pays me $500 in cash, which I find a tad unnerving.
I’m just as good now as I was at Kaplan (in fact, I privately tutored my own students while at Kaplan, tutoring theirs), but I only got paid $24/hour for Kaplan work, which charged about $125/hour for my services. Kaplan will (at least, when I worked there) boost a teacher’s hourly rate to $50/hour if they get 80% or more “perfect” customer ratings. Instructors who convinced their students that to respond to the online survey and give them excellent ratings got more money. This is independent of actual improvement. A customer who doesn’t improve at all but felt reassured and valued by her instructor could give straight 5s (or 1s, whatever the highest rating is). A customer who sees a 300 point improvement might not fill in the survey at all. Their research showed that customers who give their instructors perfect ratings gave awesome word of mouth and that was worth rewarding. Nothing else was. Asian cram schools pay instructors based on the students who sign up, with a premium for those who sign up specifically for that instructor. See? Sales and marketing.
Test prep companies, long castigated as the luxury option of the wealthy, have been the first choice of the middle class for a decade or more. For the reasons I’ve outlined, any parent can find excellent instructors in all the test prep companies: Kaplan, Princeton Review, Asian cram schools. They won’t brag about it, though, because these companies are about the brand. Kaplan doesn’t want word getting out that Joe Dokes is a great Kaplan instructor; it wants everyone to be happy with Kaplan. No one is “Princeton Review’s star tutor” for very long, because Princeton doesn’t like it and at that point, the most risk-averse instructor probably has enough word of mouth fame to go independent.
I’ve often advised my students to consider a class. The structure helps. Some of my kids don’t do any work unless I’m there, so what I end up doing is sitting there playing Spider on my android on my client’s dime while the kid works problems, rather than reviewing a bunch of work to move forward. I’m pretty sure Lisa and Joshua would celebrate this, going to the parent and pointing out how much they are helping. I have better things to do and other clients to see. So I tell the parents to fork out an extra thousand for a class, make sure the kid goes, and then we review the completed work. The student gets more hours, more focus and, usually, higher scores, regardless of the quality of the second instructor.
I’m not saying Lisa and Joshua are wrong, mercenary, or irresponsible. They just play to a different clientele, and a huge chunk of their ability to do so rests on their desire to sell an image. That’s fine. That’s just not me. Besides, Josh forks out $15K of his profit for a rental each summer. Lisa gets constant text messages from anxious parents. Also not me.
So you’re a white, middle class or higher parent with a teenager, worried about SAT scores. What do you do? Here are some guidelines. Recognize that GPA or parental income smacks down test scores without breaking a sweat. If Johnny doesn’t have a GPA of 3.8 or higher, elite universities are out of the question unless his parents are alumni or rich/connected enough to make it worth the school’s while.
If Sally qualifies on GPA, has a top-tier transcript (5 or more AP classes) and wants to go to a top 10 school, test scores should be 700 or higher per section. If they’re at that point, don’t waste your time or money or stress. At that point, the deciding factors aren’t scores but other intangibles, including the possibility that the admissions directors toss a pile of applications in the air and see which ones travel the farthest.
If Jesse is looking for a top 20 or 30 school, the GPA/transcript requirements are the same, but looking at the CDS of these schools, realistically a 650 or higher per section will do the trick. It might be worth boosting the test scores to low 700s, but if Jesse is a terrible tester, then don’t break the bank. One of the schools will probably come through.
If Sammy has a lower GPA (3.3 to 3.8) but excellent test scores (high 600s or higher per section) , then look to the schools in the middle–say, from 40 to 60. It’s actually worth spending money to maximize Sammy’s scores, because these mid-tier schools often get a lot of high effort hard workers with mediocre test scores. Not only will Sammy look good, but he might get some money. (By the way, if you’ve got a Sammy whose grades are much lower than his abilities, you should still push him into the hardest classes, even if he and the counsellors cavil. If your Sammy is like most of them, he’s going to get Bs and Cs regardless, so he may as well get them in AP classes and get some college credit from the AP tests. And the transcript will signal better, as well.)
The biggest bang for the test prep buck lies not in making kids competitive for admissions, but to help them test out of remediation at local universities. So if Austin has a 3.0 GPA, works hard but tests poorly, then find out the SAT cut score at his university. If he’s not above that point, then spend the money to get him there, and emphasize the importance of this effort to his college goals.
If your kid is already testing at 650 or higher, either send her to an Asian cram school (they will be the only white kid there, for the most part, but the instruction will be excellent) or invest in a tutor. The average white kid class at Kaplan or Princeton might have an instructor who can finetune for their issues, but probably won’t.
Otherwise, start with a class and supplement with a tutor if you can afford it. Ask around for good instructors, or ask the test prep company how long the instructor has been teaching. Turnover in test prep instructors is something like 75%; the 25% who stay long term do so because they’re good. As for the tutor, I hope I’ve convinced everyone that price isn’t an issue in determining quality. I would ask around for someone like me, because our ability to get a high rate without the sales and marketing suggests we must be, in fact, pretty good. And there’s always someone like me around. Otherwise, I’d go with the private tutoring options at a test prep company, with interviews.
As I said, these rules are for middle class or higher white kids. Only 6% of blacks and Hispanics get above 600 on any section of the SAT–in fact, the emphasis on GPA came about in large part to bypass the unpleasant reality of the score gap. There are only around 300 black students that get higher than 700 on two sections of the SAT. That’s barely enough blacks for one top ten school. Rules are very different. The main reason for blacks and Hispanics to take test prep is to get their scores above the remediation number. Middle class or higher Asians face much higher standards because universities know their (or their parents’) dedication to getting good grades and good test scores is more than a tad unnatural and probably overstates their value to the campus. Athletes and artists of note play by different rules. Poor whites and poor Asians have it really, really tough.
What this means, of course, is that the kids in the Hamptons are probably already scoring 700 or higher per section and are, consequently, wasting their time. But what the hell, they’re doing the economy some good. Or maybe some of them are Asian.
Note: I wrote this focusing on the SAT but it all applies to the ACT as well, and the ACT is a much better test. I wrote about the ACT here.