Erica Meltzer is the doyenne of verbal test prep, and I've been using her books with our students for several years. I'd highly recommend checking out her blog, which has insightful articles not only about test prep, but also about higher education.
We're on her list of recommended tutoring companies, so recently, she asked me to answer some questions about what we do. Below is the transcript.
Tell us about your company.
SAT, ACT, and GRE prep is all we do. We offer small classes at our San Diego locations and one-on-one tutoring either in person or online. Our average tutor has been doing this for 8 years.
I only hire people who are kind, conscientious, and for lack of a better word, fun. It’s hard to find good test-prep tutors who view this job as a long-term career, so there are only six of us right now.
How did you get started in tutoring, and what is your favorite part about it?
I answered a job ad on Craigslist back in 2008 (when I had just moved to San Diego from Boston), and started working for a now defunct, large SAT prep company. From there, I moved to a smaller, independent tutoring company, and eventually started my own business.
Favorite part? I think 99% percent of tutors would say, “seeing students improve” or some variation of that, so I’ll say something different: I like getting to know my students. They’re intelligent, funny, and motivated - the kinds of people I like to be around. The conversations we have are enjoyable much of the time whether they’re about the SAT or not.
What do your students find most challenging, and how do you help them overcome it?
If someone is struggling to understand what he’s reading, it can be extremely challenging to answer questions about it. Plus, if you’re 16, you probably don’t have a lot of exposure to “adult” or academic writing, so you’re at a disadvantage compared to someone older than you.
Teaching students common passage structures and focusing on the purpose of passages, paragraphs, and sentences can help students navigate difficult subject matter.
What’s the biggest improvement you’ve ever seen a student make?
I recently worked with a guy applying to competitive business schools who was an officer in the Marines. He took our GRE math and verbal courses, and we met for a couple of private tutoring sessions afterwards. His first real GRE test was a 164 verbal, 154 quantitative (scores are out of 170). We talked more about his study plan, and he told me he’d be taking the test again in about a month.
A couple of months went by, and I hadn’t heard from him, so I emailed him to see how things were going. His 2nd real GRE was a 165 verbal, 159 quantitative, but his third GRE was a 164 verbal, 167 quantitative! I was flabbergasted - that is an amazing math improvement (from 54th to 91st percentile). We just don’t see that big of a jump in math in such a short timeframe.
Note that the bulk of his improvement came after he stopped meeting with us. I designed a unique study plan for him, but most of that increase was due to his work ethic.
What changes, if any, have you seen in the test-prep process since you began tutoring?
Now that students realize they can take either the SAT or the ACT, and can take either throughout the year, the timing of the process is more flexible, and there’s less pressure. Most business schools and now even some law schools accept the GRE, so that test has captured a lot of market share from the GMAT and even the LSAT.
Also, as I’m sure you know, the popularity of online test prep resources has exploded. I’ve co-authored test-prep books, but my video courses seem to be far more popular.
What’s your most important piece of advice for students? For parents?
Students: Keep a test-prep journal. For mistakes, after trying to redo the question from a blank page, write down why you got it wrong, what it was testing, and what lesson you learned. This will take a while, but thoughtful analysis will help you more than just about anything else.
Parents: Whatever test-prep method you choose, do your homework on the person who’ll be communicating with your student. If it’s a book, who wrote it, and what’s their background? If it’s a teacher or tutor, how much experience do they have? Look them up on Google and LinkedIn. You’ll get an idea of how serious they are about test prep.
Tutoring is not a common long-term career, so 95% of tutors working now will be doing something else in a couple of years - like graduate school, or a “normal” job. There’s a lot of breadth in this industry, but not a lot of depth. Find someone who can demonstrate depth and commitment - and meet them in person to see if you like them!