Years after SATs, some students dive into test prep

Standardized tests have seen considerable media attention recently — from the sweeping changes implemented last year that turned the SAT I into a 2,400-point exam to the recent crisis that resulted in more than 27,000 incorrectly graded tests.

Meanwhile, the test prep industry continues to boom. Each year, thousands of high school and college students enroll in courses aimed at improving their scores and learn test-taking strategies. With the MCAT only two weeks away and the LSAT close on its heels, many Yalies have taken on more than a four- or five-course load in recent months. But for all that pricey prep courses purport to offer, students registered mixed feelings when asked about their benefits.

The LSAT and MCAT are vastly different tests — the MCAT tests information from chemistry, biology, physics, and organic chemistry, and the preparation course reviews this material, while the LSAT is not as knowledge-based.

“It’s all about strategy, and doing not particularly difficult tasks quickly,” said Neil Katsuyama ’07, who is currently taking an LSAT preparation course with Kaplan. “There’s no way to study for the thinking and logic games on the exam. The big issue is that you only get 35 minutes per section.”

Katsuyama is a former Staff Reporter for the News.

The Kaplan MCAT class is popular among Yale students because of its convenient location next to Ann Taylor on Chapel Street. According to a Kaplan representative, the majority of the people who come to their New Haven office are Yalies.

Kaplan provides a wide range of preparation options for each test. For example, there are classes that meet twice a week and last for four months, and others that meet once a week for seven months. People who do not need the weekly classes can choose to take the course online, and others opt for one-on-one tutoring. LSAT prices range from $1,099 for online courses to $1,249 for a group class to $4,499 for 35 hours of private tutoring. MCAT prices are even higher, ranging from $1,399 for the online course to $1,549 for a group class to $4,849 for 35 hours of private tutoring.

Some Yalies said the key reason they enrolled was the regimented review enforced by the continuity of the courses.

“It provides structure more than anything else,” said Andrew Banooni ’07, who is taking a Kaplan MCAT prep course. “The value of the course isn’t necessarily in the teaching … but it’s a place I have to be every Thursday night. I wasn’t looking for a magic cure, just a structure.”

Others said it is the teaching and experience of the instructors that make the course worthwhile. Katie Melamed ’07, who is currently taking a Kaplan MCAT course, said that when she was taking makeup classes at home over spring break, the teachers were not as helpful as the teachers in New Haven because they were not all medical school students.

“We get information about med school from our instructors — we learn about the process, and it really makes a difference as they’ve taken the MCAT already and have been through the process,” she said.

But others said they were not particularly impressed by the quality of their Kaplan courses. Eric Feinstein ’07, who is currently taking an LSAT course, said the class has yet to offer him any “amazing pearls of wisdom.” But he said he is still glad he is taking the course because he is considering going to law school, and he knows the test requires a lot of studying and preparation.

“The course is somewhat helpful,” Feinstein said. “It familiarizes you with the test and gives some insight into how to answer the questions.”

To some students, the idea of commercialized test preparation in general seems nonsensical.

“The problem with test prep classes is that they don’t play to each individual’s strengths and weaknesses,” Diana Dosik ’06 said. “Yalies tend to be very busy people, so it’s often not worth it for them to sit through a five-hour class, half of which will be helpful and half of which will be a waste of their time.”

While many students said they agreed that SAT prep courses are not necessary to succeed on the test, some changed their tune when it came to graduate school entrance exams.

Melamed did not take an SAT prep course in high school, although she had a private tutor for a few sessions. But she said she thinks the MCAT is significantly different from the SAT in that it requires becoming familiar with the kinds of questions asked and how they are posed.

Ashley Campbell ’07, who is currently taking a Kaplan MCAT course, said she did not take an SAT prep course because she was “morally against them.” Like Melamed, she pointed to the difference in nature between the two exams as the reason she is now enrolled in review classes.

“It’s such a bear of a test, and Kaplan’s put together a really comprehensive step-by-step approach that helps to make it less intimidating and more manageable,” Campbell said.

Like Campbell and Melamed, Kesi Chen ’07 is taking an MCAT prep course but chose not to take an SAT prep course. Her reasoning lies in a perceived difference in the relative importance of the two tests.

“The MCAT is an eight-hour test that matters as much as GPA when applying to med school,” Chen said. “I really wanted my studying to be structured and to get as many tips as I could from people who were very experienced.”

Chen is a former production and design staffer for the News.

Some Yalies who took SAT prep courses in high school said their decision was a function of the environment they grew up in. In some regions more than others, SAT courses are the norm.

“Where I’m from, most people had some form of SAT prep class,” said Lauren Frohlich ’09, who is from outside of Chicago. “My school even offered an after-school course that many of my friends took.”

Both the College Board and standardized test preparation companies have been criticized for the achievement gap resulting from lower-income families’ inability to afford the expensive preparation. Merrily Bodell, the Connecticut regional vice president of Princeton Review, another popular test prep company, acknowledged this disparity, but she said Princeton Review has done much to decrease it. For example, the company instituted Higher Height, a program run on Yale’s campus that offers free classes to students who cannot afford SAT preparation.

“Last time it was run, 100 students from New Haven high schools had access to our full SAT course,” she said. “We do this and other similar things to help bridge the divide.”

Test prep is not entirely monopolized by large companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review. Ivy Bound, for example, is a strictly SAT-oriented prep service with its headquarters in Connecticut. Since its opening, Ivy Bound has expanded to offer programs in 19 states. The company offers a guaranteed 100-point increase or it will refund the course cost, which ranges from $285 for large group courses to $5,000 for private tutoring. Mark Greenstein, lead instructor at Ivy Bound as well as the Democratic challenger to Sen. Hillary Clinton in the upcoming New York Senate race, said this has only happened four times in the last two years.

Test prep is not a solely U.S. phenomenon. The Princeton Review maintains approximately 75 offices worldwide — one in each state as well as in Canada, China, India, Hong Kong, and other countries. Kaplan has 161 permanent centers located throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, England and France, and more than 4,000 classrooms worldwide.

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