secrets of the sat
photo of Lisa Muehle
Lisa Muehle: She is a professional tutor and the founder of the Laguna Beach, California-based Cambridge Academic Services which offers the Cambridge SAT Colloquium, an after-school SAT prep class that starts as early as the seventh grade.
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How did you get the idea to start the Cambridge Colloquium?

About seven years ago, some parents of some sixth grade students had hired me to provide enrichment tutoring for these very bright, precocious kids who ended up taking Algebra I in the seventh grade. And I rapidly became the pied piper of the sixth graders in Laguna Beach, our local town. And just out of the blue one day it occurred to me, you know, these kids are so bright, if I spent some time with them now I could start teaching them some SAT concepts and skills, and I bet that by the time they're in tenth or eleventh grade they might be able to be national merit scholars, get really high SAT scores, and be admitted to any college they wanted to go to.

Is what you do unique?

I don't know of any programs that enroll students starting as early as the seventh grade that then continue to enroll them through the eigth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades for a five-year SAT program, per se. I believe we're the only one I know about. We get calls all the time from places like San Francisco and Connecticut. We got a call from London asking where our branch was.

When people call, what's the single biggest thing they want to know?

I have to inform them and give them some basic background on the SAT.

A lot of parents today are handicapped by this thought. When I took the SAT, and probably you as well, it is a whole different--it's like this is not your dad's SAT anymore. O.K., it's a different world. You don't show up to the SAT anymore without some prep. When I went to the SAT I just woke up that day, got in my car, drove down to the high school and took the test.

No one would do that now. I mean, if you do, you do it at your own risk. Because the SAT, along with your grade point average, are the two most important criteria that college admissions departments look at. By their own admission, that is what they use to pick their entering freshman class. And it's become--the test-prep market is shark infested waters now.

Do parents say they are coming to you so that their son or daughter gets a 1600?

Most parents are realistic that their students can perform in a given score range. Some parents are not realistic and you have to inform them, once you get familiar with the student what that student's score range will probably come out to be, and make some predictions that you hope are valid over the course of a few years.

After you've watched a student for a year or two in the Colloquium as a seventh and eighth grade student, or an eighth and ninth grade student, you can ballpark where that student is going to end up if they continue with the training.

Do you give a guarantee?

No. There is no guarantee. And those companies that offer a guarantee, if you look at it, they're time limited, and you can come back and repeat programs and do things like that. But in the end, everybody knows that you have to apply to college by the fall of your senior year, and all guarantees are over at that point.

Don't you think the Colloquium puts way too much pressure on kids to be starting this early?

No. Actually I think it removes the pressure. If you start in a program in the seventh grade, and you come once a week after school, you're engaging in a comfortable, paced approach, to learn some concepts that will have real value in your school work as well, the critical reading and math, building vocabulary.

Let me tell you what stress is. Stress is it's March of your junior year of high school and you're enrolled in three AP classes, and you're on the track team and the debate squad, and you volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club after school. You're already staying up until 1:00 in the morning every night just to do your homework. And now it occurs to you that you've done nothing to prepare for the SAT. That's stress.

Now you're going to enroll in a crash course, try to find the time for it, and get some moderate score improvement, you hope. And you want to go to a 90-week school, and you're out of time.

So is that why you call the other groups crash courses?

Any program that's a 60 to 90 day prep coaching course is a crash program. That's how I view it. They have valid results. They have reported score increases of maybe between 100 and 150 points. Those courses are geared to provide moderate score improvement for the average student at the last minute. But I'm not certain that a crash program really makes an overall contribution to the life of the student. And I'm not sure that it addresses certain questions that are on the SAT.

They're more, if you go to a crash course, quite often it's more technique and strategy based. We view our course as content based. We're trying to actually teach the students problem types, enhance their critical reading skills, and actually build a vocabulary. I really remain unconvinced that you can build an entire SAT vocabulary in 60 to 90 days.

And why start so early?

As early as the seventh grade, because I believe that early exposure to the test helps you to become familiar with it. And by the time you're in the eleventh grade you've had multiple years--our average score improvement is 133 points a year per student. So if you keep coming for multiple years, there's a much greater likelihood that by the time you're a junior in high school, you'll have a score in the 1500s. And the kids that we have that come year after year, the top kids in the class have scores in the high 1400s and 1500s. And they haven't gone through some enormous stress to achieve that score.

I had a student that stopped coming after the 10th grade, because at the end of the tenth grade he had a 1500. I called his mom and said gee, you know, if he came another year, I think he'd be about 1560, 1580, but it's his decision. He decided at that point that 1500 was adequate for his college admission process and I honor that choice.

Do the majority of your kids stay for the whole five years? Or do they drop out along the way?

I would say they do not come for the entire five years. Many students start in the seventh grade and then come for two or three years. We have had students complete the entire 5 year course. Some students become busy after a while with other after school demands, and I have long and lengthy chats with their parents about the importance of continuing and other priorities take precedence.

You are saying that you don't see kids coming to you or parents coming to you saying this is just too much of a burden?

They never stop the program because our program is too much stress. They stop the program because they might have sports conflicts or other after school conflicts, and they think the student is just simply too overextended from other commitments.

At that point I usually invariably say I hope that we don't get to the middle of the junior year and decide that we really regret this decision. And I've had those conversations where parents really get to that point and the SAT is so important and they've dropped the ball on the SAT. You can't drop the ball on the SAT. You can't depend on sports and other compensating factors. That test is key to the college admissions. I don't make these rules. I didn't decide that the SAT is the criteria that should be used. I just know what the rules are.

Why do you think it has become so important in the college admissions process?

I think there are a variety of factors. I think grade inflation--I think that the SAT has become as important as it has for a variety of reasons. One I believe is grade inflation. Certain schools experience more of that than others.

There's an impartiality to the SAT. You sit down in one sitting on one day and all students take the same exam. So it provides a comparison in an increasingly diverse senior class pool of applicants. And I think colleges rely on that as an indicator. Whether it's a reliable indicator of future academic success or not, I can't really comment. Other people are better qualified to do that.

Tell me about that stress level when kids take the test.

I think that there are certain girls that are very anxious with respect to the SAT. And I've seen them, I can tutor them one on one, and they can do very well with me during a tutorial lesson. Then they'll go and take the SAT, and in numerous cases I've had them come back and get very low scores with comparison to what I've seen them do in the tutoring session. And I've determined that they have really an acute case of test anxiety, and possibly panic attacks during the exam, and they tell me as much.

And that's frustrating to me, because I'm not a psychologist and I don't quite know what the mechanism is that takes over there. They're very driven students, usually, they're trying very, very hard to get a high SAT score to go with their grades to get into specific colleges. And sometimes that's hard to see, because they have trained and trained and trained, and they become almost phobic about the test.

And you've seen this with boys too?

No,I've never had a case of a boy becoming a stress case, over the SAT the way I've seen with certain girls.

What about the pressure from the parents, the baby boomers?

There are a lot of parents today that have teenagers and they really seem to have a lot of fulfillment in their lives through their children. And I think it's a classic across the board to baby boomers and their children, not just in terms of the SAT, I see it--there are volleyball parents, and there are soccer parents, and there are SAT parents. And some of them are volleyball, soccer, and SAT parents.

And they have very high expectations. And I don't know how unique this is to the baby boomers. I know that it didn't seem to happen when I was in high school. I was accepted to Stanford, but I'm not sure I could get into Stanford today because it's become so competitive, and I would have to have a mother that was managing my life every step of the way, which my parents allowed me more freedom than that.

It takes an incredible amount of time and effort and energy to position a student to apply and be admitted to the most competitive universities. There are a lot of moms and dads today that assign themselves that task, especially among the boomers.

Do you believe in the early bird?

That the early bird gets the worm? Absolutely. I wanted them to put that on my headstone when I die. The early bird gets the worm, start early. And that's planning, it pays off, especially with the SAT.

Is there a certain amount of unfairness to the process whereby certain groups can basically buy themselves a better score?

It is an industry, it's a big industry. If you want to take an SAT prep course, you're going to spend anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for a specific course per se. Although my understanding is that in New York now you can pay $500 an hour to certain tutors. So it's become a very well compensated profession for some.

We try to keep our classes affordable for the masses. Our classes are $25 for a 90-minute lesson. So when I approach people--I've really never had anybody say to me, this is just not affordable. Because I'll tell you something, our SAT classes are cheaper than club volleyball and a lot of other extracurricular activities. It's the kind of world where if you're going to have kids, you're going to pay for their activities today, it isn't cheap. And so do I think that, it's unfair to charge these prices for these courses? Not at all. It's a matter of priorities. If your priority is your student going to college, you're going to spend the dollars to prepare them for the one test that's going to largely determine their future.

And I think people have the right to make that decision about how to spend that money. I also do strongly believe that for those that are economically disadvantaged, scholarships for such programs should be available. We've offered scholarships in the past, and I have been aware that certain other programs have offered scholarships. And I really do believe that that's appropriate.

How do you feel now with the fact that people just call you based solely on reputation? How does that make you feel?

Well, I'm happy, but I think the idea has merit. Whether it was my idea or somebody else's, I believe in the idea. I believe in this idea strongly. My message to mankind is, start early on the SAT. It will have bee worth it. It's worth the time. It's worth the money. It determines your child's college future. So I'm proud of the idea. But if it was somebody else's idea, not mine, I would view it as valid and applaud the idea still.

What is your gravestone going to say?

My gravestone is going to say, the early bird gets the worm and advanced planning is important on the SAT.

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