The Last Page

The Last Page

It’s an axiom that writing doesn’t pay the rent, so after graduating from college with a degree in English, I took a part-time job with a company called The Princeton Review, preparing high school students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The Princeton Review and Kaplan are the two largest such companies in the country, and I earn more than $20 per hour—good money, even in New York City.

This new job caused me no small amount of consternation. How could I go against my egalitarian principles and perpetuate the influence of money in ensuring high test scores and therefore a better chance at a good education? Should I take a principled stand and not work there? My landlord made the choice for me, and I have gained many things from my experience: a healthy respect for teenagers, concern for America’s school system, and an awareness of the vast inadequacies involved in attempting to quantify “aptitude.”

Most of the kids are intelligent and polite, although some of them are shockingly lacking in basic skills. I hope that I both helped them get into better colleges and showed them that a superficial measurement like the SAT isn’t what is really important in life.

The skills I teach aren’t rocket science. Rather, they are the processes involved in problem solving and logic broken down step-by-step and made concrete. Concepts like process of elimination, working backward, and isolating relevant clues are useful in all walks of life. When I lose my keys, need to fix a drip, or have to install a computer program, I unconsciously use many of these same strategies. Street smarts can get you a lot of places book smarts
can’t, even on the SAT.

On the verbal section, one of our most popular and fun techniques involves answering questions about narrative passages without actually reading the passages. Get enough exposure to the way the test works, and you can pick out the most reasonable answer at least half the time without having the slightest idea what the article is about. Taking a few sample tests usually raises scores considerably, even without teacher involvement. It’s a shame when kids go into the test with no preparation, totally stressed out, perform below their expectations, and consign themselves to eternal second-class status—which is what placing such importance on one number encourages.

It still rankles me that upper-middle-class kids have one more advantage over others in the fierce competition for limited slots at top schools, in addition to better teachers, facilities, and community support. Our course costs almost  a thousand dollars, well worth the price if it helps a middling student get more financial aid or into a better college. A name-brand school brings many advantages. For once impoverished minority students aren’t the main losers—though they certainly face other challenges—as colleges desperate for “well-balanced...