Why we're moving towards shorter SAT-prep courses May 15, 2017 14:51

Summary: Why TestMagic is offering five-week summer SAT prep this year.

When I founded TestMagic in 1998, I never could have imagined how far we would come in the next near-two decades. We began as a small, specialized learning center, teaching adult students during the day (TOEFL and ESL), high school and middle school students in the afternoons, and adult students again in the evenings (GMAT and GRE). While this was a pretty good business model, it also made for very long days.

Over time, enough parents were asking us to teach more classes for their middle school- and high school-age students that we decided to focus solely on this age group, namely SAT, SSAT, HSPT, and of course, English classes. (We even used to offer a free vocabulary-building course on Saturdays!)

Summer has always been a very busy time for us, as that is the time when students have the most flexibility in their schedules. Back in the early 2000s, we used to offer summer-long SAT prep courses (as well as a few other classes) that ran eight weeks, nine weeks, or ten weeks. Over a period of a few years, we decided to stick with eight-week courses so that students would have a week of break at the beginning of summer and at the end of summer. We also surveyed our students and their parents repeatedly to figure out which schedules worked best for them. And after many internal discussions with staff, we decided to focus on our eight-week program.

In recent years, however, college admissions have become sometimes brutally difficult and ever harder to predict. Where in the past a 4.0 student from Lowell would be virtually assured of admission at one of the top UCs, now nothing can be taken for granted. Every year, for example, we see students admitted to something like UC Berkeley, but not UC Davis, or someone accepted by UC San Diego, but not San Jose State University, or someone in at Harvard but not at Michigan (which is a very good university, even if it's not exactly a household name). Obviously there are many factors at play here, which I go into in elsewhere, but the fact remains that admissions is becoming less and less predictable at the nation's top colleges, and more and more, parents and students worry about how to best maximize their chances of acceptance at a brand-name college. (I know some of you will be thinking that a person can get an equally good education at lesser-known universities, and, well, preaching to the choir here. Students are not unaware of this, but our jobs is not to second-guess the informed decisions of our clients; if an Ivy League or Stanford is their goal, we will help them as best we can.)

There have been several especially brutal years when a sudden shift took place. For example, right around the 2007 and 2008 cycles, students who could have in previous years gotten into UCLA or UC Berkeley were getting rejections from those schools and receiving offers from the likes of UC Davis and UC Irvine (which again are great schools!). Analogously, students who had seen UC Davis as their safety school were getting rejected there and being admitted to the lower-ranked UC universities (which I will not name, since I actually believe that all of the established UCs are great colleges). And I won't even get into the infamous (purported, but I have this repeatedly over the past five years or so) comment from Stanford on why not a single Lowell student was admitted one year: "We're not looking for AP machines." It was as if a huge proportion of students had been shifted down a notch from where they'd previously have been admitted.

Point is, students are taking admissions much more seriously now than in previous years since it seems the bar has been raised for them. So instead of spending their summers prepping for the SAT, many of them are (smartly, in our opinion) opting for internships, summer school at City College, travel, volunteer work, or other activities that will help set them apart when admissions season in senior year rolls around. We believe that these are very prudent decisions for many students.

In fact, we are officially recommending for many of our students that they not spend an entire summer focusing on their SAT prep. Of course, we respect their decision if that's what they choose to do, and in some cases a student who needs to raise her score significantly may in fact be best off spending a chunk of the summer trying to raise her score. When talking with students and parents, we present our experience and opinions, work with them to make the best decision for them, and respect the choices they make. After all, we are educators, and in the end our job is to empower the student, not to impose our views on the student.

(On a side note, we have developed an entire five-year writing program to prepare students for the verbal section of the SAT over the long term in such a way that will also benefit their grades in English class. This program is going well, and we are consistently seeing that many of the students who take this course need little or no verbal SAT prep when they are finished.)

In short, for the coming summer (summer of 2017, if you're reading this far in the future) we have decided to shorten our traditional eight-week course to five weeks. The main reason relates to what I stated above – students in many cases should be spending less time during the summer prepping for SAT and more time engaging in other activities that are more meaningful and fulfilling. There are other practical considerations as well. First, we have observed that scores tend to plateau towards the very end of the course. This is actually probably a result of the normal learning curve – in general, people improve at a skill quickly in the beginning, but start to level off as they progress. Second, shortening the course to five weeks allows us to lower the price, which is always something parents welcome! Finally, we can generally fit two five-week courses in a summer (unless SFUSD makes a change, which seems to happen relatively frequently), which we hope will fit students' busy and often complicated summer schedules better.

We really hope that the five-week course will be the sweet spot for our local clients; we think it does have the potential. As always, you're free to talk with us about your situation, and we'll give you our candid advice, if it means not studying with us or pursuing some other option.

Good luck with your studies, and stay tuned for more developments that we're working on for SAT prep and college admissions. We have a lot in the pipeline that we're excited about.