They Do Everything But Take the Test for You

Published: November 07, 1999

DON'T beat yourself up,'' Stuart Servetar said as he consoled the teenager in his office. He picked up a plastic squeeze ball with a tongue sticking out of the eye socket and jiggled it in front of the boy. ''You tried really hard.''

''I know,'' the boy said. ''That's the problem.''


''Cause of my pride.''

''Because now that you tried, you care?''

The boy sighed. ''My dad went to Harvard, you know?''

''And were things easy for him?''


''Is that what it is?'' Mr. Servetar asked gently. ''That you want it to be easy without trying, like it was for him?''

Mr. Servetar is not a psychologist. But in many ways, as a private tutor for College Board tests, which most universities require for acceptance, he might as well be. In recent years, as competition for college admissions has stiffened, demand for private SAT tutors has reached an all-time high, especially among students at New York's competitive private schools. A job that once fetched $25 to $50 for an hour of simple test-taking strategies has developed into a multidimensional profession requiring its practitioners to be teacher, pal and therapist. For all concerned, negotiating the road is increasingly tricky.

''The kids are at that age where they are on the borderline of becoming independent,'' Mr. Servetar said. ''With a lot of them, the tutor is their first adult relationship.''

David Riessen, a private SAT tutor at Advantage Testing in Manhattan, said: ''They open up to me in ways they never would with their parents. They talk to me about boyfriends, girlfriends, difficult social situations, fears about college.''

Unsurprisingly, as tutors fulfill increasingly diverse roles, their pay has soared. Median hourly rates are $100 to $300, with some well-regarded tutors commanding over $500 per hour. Seven months of sessions can total $25,000.

What are families receiving for all that cash? Partly, they hope for a high score. Brendan Mernin of Brooklyn, who has tutored privately for 11 years with Princeton Review, a national tutoring service, said clients paying the higher rates expect better results. ''They're not going to pay that kind of money for 30 to 40 points,'' he said. ''They're going to want to go up 200 to 300 points.''

Tutors also see a cultural shift.

''Before it was like church,'' Mr. Mernin said. ''If they didn't do their homework, it was a sin. Now it's more like therapy. If they don't do the work, you have to ask why. There must be an internal conflict.'' For many teenagers, he said, the SAT is particularly fraught because of the life change it symbolizes. ''It's the first thing they really do that indicates that they're leaving their parents and their home,'' he said.

Not to mention the increased emphasis placed on SAT scores by colleges. ''It's no longer the case that if you have distinction in music or science or athletics that you can be weaker on the test,'' said Rob Koppert, a college counselor at the Dalton School.

Meanwhile, as the pressures rise, tutors' tasks include constant reminders not to blow the SAT out of proportion.

''One student was so worried, he didn't smile once,'' Mr. Mernin recalled. 'It's Wednesday night, it's 10 o'clock, and the session is over. He asks, 'So should I do homework now?' 'Hell, no,' I told him. 'When you're 17, you're supposed to want to go out and get a girlfriend.' ''

Mr. Servetar, who works independently. finds that his students tend to open up more in his office, a fifth-floor walk-up on West 106th Street.

''A kid is more likely to say, 'I hate the test' or 'I don't want to go to college' in my office,'' he said. ''It's different from the world they know, the $10 million apartments, the bouncers at Sweet 16 parties. In my office there's room to escape all that.''

Despite the explosion in requests for one-on-one tutors, private tutoring results tend to be on par with results from multiple student courses, Mr. Lutz said. So why do people spend the extra money on private sessions?

Part of the answer involves a kind of snowball effect. Katie Halper, a Dalton graduate who is now a freshman at Wesleyan University, said that in her high school ''everybody felt like they had to compete.'' She sought out private tutoring ''because I knew everyone else was.''

Another answer may lie in an old American expectation.

''Baby boomer parents feel enormous responsibility to provide a better education and opportunities for their kids than they had,'' Mr. Koppert said. The problem is that many of these parents are themselves vastly successful. ''Where do you go when you're already starting at the top?''

Tutors and their clients agree that all the fuss has changed the way people perceive tutors. Whereas 10 years ago, people offering tips on SAT's were sometimes treated more like baby sitters or servants, tutors have seen a correlation between price increase and high regard. 'Last year I doubled my prices,'' Mr. Servetar said. ''I kept waiting for someone to smack me in the head. But I actually felt like I got more respect after that. People feel that they get what they're paying for.''

Still, he said, some people treat tutors better than others. ''Some people, you go to their house and there are no basic civilities,'' he said. ''They don't offer you a glass of water. They want you to be seen and not heard. With one girl -- her family was very wealthy -- I was just like an accessory: 'You've got to have a tutor just like you've got to have a Kate Spade bag.' ''

On the other end of the spectrum are families who provide royal treatment. John Sheehan, a private tutor from Princeton Review, recently spent three weeks in Paris, where he was handed the keys to a luxury apartment overlooking the Seine. ''It was their grandmother's place, and it was empty for the summer, so they figured why not fly me out to tutor there rather than flying the kids to a hotel in New York? Every day I walked to their place on the Champs-Elysees, tutored for four hours, and spent the rest of the time enjoying myself.''

Often, the relationship between tutors and students extends far beyond the day of the SAT. ''I go to kids' plays and graduations,'' Mr. Servetar said. ''I'm on some families' Christmas or Hanukkah list.''

The tutor's role can also extend beyond the student. Sometimes, parents need someone to talk to as well. ''There's more at stake here than just school,'' Mr. Servetar said. ''There's all the panic of the separation on the parents' side too. I've had parents come in here weeping, and I have to remind them to keep it all in perspective.''

In such cases he reassures parents much the same way as he does their children. ''Don't hate your kid because he didn't get 1,500's,'' he tells them. ''In the end they're all going to get into college somewhere, and they're all going to do fine.''