Nicholas Green describes his approach to taking college admission tests as the equivalent of lifting the curtain on an impostor who should fool no one.
The 24-year-old Harvard University graduate achieved a series of perfect scores on the SAT while a teenager. Later, in 2003, he founded a test-preparation firm that trades on the mystique of the Ivy League and a skepticism of college entrance exams.
His company, Ivy Insiders, based in Cambridge, Mass., is blanketing the Philadelphia area for the first time this summer, taking on the veterans of College Board test preparation.
"We show that the test is beatable," Green said. "It's not about being a genius, but about understanding the content and how it's being tested. That can be a very empowering thing for students wrapped up in the myth of the SAT."
The myth, he said, is the belief that college admission tests measure the knowledge students have crammed into their brains by the time they sit down with an answer sheet and a No. 2 pencil.
Math geniuses and vocabulary whizzes aren't the only ones who can master the SAT and the ACT, said Green, who achieved a perfect SAT score of 1,600 before an essay component was added. It's the approach that matters, and he describes his as game-oriented and irreverent.
The Ivy Insiders course concentrates on specific concepts to narrow the focus in subjects such as English and math. Students then learn the types of "predictable" questions that test those concepts, Green said. Repeated practice on actual exams rounds out the curriculum.
Course teachers are mostly current students or recent graduates of Ivy League schools and Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern Universities. Instructors averaged 2,250 out of 2,400 points on the SAT or 34 out of 36 on the ACT.
Before this summer, Ivy Insiders (www.ivyinsiders.com) had been offered in a few locations in the region. The expansion to 15 locations in Southeastern Pennsylvania is partly the result of a flush of students at the University of Pennsylvania who turned to the firm for summer employment when internship opportunities declined because of the economy. Classroom sessions also are being offered in Vineland, Princeton, and Hammonton, N.J.
The company is going up against larger and more established firms, such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review. But the value of such courses is the subject of debate, particularly considering the $2.5 billion a year spent by students on test preparation and tutoring, according to Eduventures, an education research and consulting firm.
A study released last month by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that improvement attributable to tutoring courses averaged about 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT.
The increases are lower than gains often promised or implied by test companies, said Derek Briggs, chairman of the research and evaluation methodology program at the University of Colorado. Briggs (SAT: 1,350 before the essay) conducted the study.
Last year, Green said, his company's 1,600 students averaged a 265-point gain. Fees range from $699 for class sessions (34 hours plus four practice tests) to $2,399 for 30 hours of individual tutoring. Discounts and financial aid are available.
Test coaching typically costs about $400 for online courses, $1,100 for in-person classroom workshops, and $100 to 200 per hour for in-person tutoring, the NACAC study said.
At Ivy Insiders, the tutors are not only teachers but also businesspeople. Called branch managers, they must find their own location for classes, market them, and schedule sessions, said Mike Haas (SAT: 2,310), manager for the Philadelphia region.
The tutors are paid a minimum salary, but they receive bonuses based on the branch's success measured by enrollment, score improvement, and evaluations submitted by their students.
Green would not reveal the minimum salary, but he said bonuses averaged about $3,500 for a summer.
Briggs called it "remarkable and scary" that such an industry had sprouted around "kids sitting down to take a test that doesn't even really tell their self-worth."
Harvard University students Sanjay Misra (SAT: 2,300), Lucy Zhang (2,370), and Milo Tong (2,290) have organized a new branch in the North Penn area.
Misra, 19, and Zhang, 20, are recent graduates of North Penn High School in Towamencin Township, and Tong, 19, graduated from Methacton High School in Worcester Township.
They have conducted two free workshops and have a free practice SAT scheduled for Friday at the Lansdale Public Library before classes start next month.
At a workshop last week, Michelle Fu, 13, of Audubon, sat in the audience of 12.
"My mother dragged me here," Fu said, "but I thought it would be beneficial for my education, so I won't put all the blame on her."
Fu's mother, Ying Xiao,said she wanted her daughter to have firsthand contact with "young, ambitious, talented, and capable people."
Fu called their youth a bonus that matched the benefits of experience.
"Most kids accept the advice of their peers easier," Fu said. "Even though they might not have as much experience in teaching, they might have new ideas and new techniques."