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The SAT race is on . . .

Posted December 12, 2008 07:30 AM

By Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff
While Diane Alten’s son, a high school senior, is in the throes of applying to college, the Newton mother is already worrying about her ninth-grade daughter.

Her son took SAT-preparation classes, but Alten wants to get even more help for her daughter before she enters the suburban arms race of college admissions.

‘‘I think it’s good to start with a coach early who can encourage her to join clubs and that sort of thing,’’ said Alten. ‘‘I absolutely think I better call now.’’

Despite the flagging economy, the test prep and college counseling industry seems to be going strong.

Besides teaching students how to take standardized tests, seen as a key ingredient to getting into a top college, many companies offer packages covering the entire admissions process — from deciding where to apply to picking essay topics and preparing for interviews, even deciding which school to attend.

Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions is seeing growth of nearly 200 percent this year in its admissions consulting services in Greater Boston, after hiring a full-time director to respond to the rising demand, a company official said.

‘‘This kind of investment is the last thing to go,’’ said Anthony Manley, Kaplan’s general manager for precollege programs. ‘‘In this environment, boosting test scores has become even more important, since higher scores can mean the difference in the amount of merit-based scholarships and financial aid awarded to the student.’’

But as applicants try to gain an edge, the pressure just gets higher. Students who attend competitive high schools are vying with their classmates to take advantage of the increasing array of admissions services. As students purchase more and more help, classmates must buy the same services just to keep the playing field level.

‘‘There’s certainly the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect of it all,’’ said Joann Kenney, director of guidance for the Dover-Sherborn school district. And the business world is responding to the demand: ‘‘You can see that in the number of cottage industries that have cropped up,’’ she said.

Chyten Educational Services started off providing test-preparation courses but has expanded into college counseling, said Neil Chyten, the company’s founder and chief executive. This is the first year, he said, that application assistance has been offered at all of Chyten’s franchise centers, which are scattered across eight states.

The company’s history says a lot about where the demand is for test prep and other college help. The first center was in Newton, followed by Wellesley, Lexington, and Concord, some of the most affluent towns in the state — with some of the best schools.

Business is increasing despite the poor economy, Chyten said, and he thinks it’s because with money tight, parents are more concerned than ever about making sure their child finds the right college fit on the first try. One year of college counseling, with unlimited hours but not including test-preparation courses, costs $4,900 at Chyten.

‘‘In comparison to what they’re about to spend on college, it’s minuscule,’’ said Chyten, who tries to distinguish his company by requiring instructors to have master’s or doctoral degrees.
But there are signs that parents are starting to think harder before plunking down their cash or credit card on an expensive test-prep program or college counseling.

Michael London is president and chief executive of College Coach, a company founded in Newton that uses former college admissions officers to guide students through the application process. Comprehensive assistance, including unlimited access to a counselor via phone, e-mail, and in-person meetings, costs $3,699 for a high school senior and $4,199 for a junior.

He said his business has had more new customers this year, but they signed up a little later than usual. ‘‘To equate it to a retailer, they bought all their toys right before Christmas,’’ said London.

Alten, whose son is a senior at Newton South High School, said she thinks the preparation courses give wealthier students an unfair advantage on the SATs. But in her community, there’s little choice for students applying to colleges in the Northeast. ‘‘They only want a certain number of students from Newton,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s tough because there are so many kids applying to those schools.’’

Gil J. Villanueva, dean of admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, said he’s keenly aware of the ‘‘Type A’’ behavior that goes into the admissions competition. ‘‘If the neighbor is working with a private counselor and we’re not and we attend the same high school, then we have to go ahead and participate in the arms race,’’ he said.

Brandeis doesn’t only want students from affluent suburbs, he said; in its effort to have a diverse student body, the college actively recruits low-income students and children of immigrants.
When looking at SAT scores, Villanueva said, Brandeis takes into consideration that low-income students probably don’t have access to high-priced prep services.

‘‘Students in resource-poor areas tend not to score as well as those in resource-rich areas,’’ said Villanueva. ‘‘We have to be sensitive to that.’’

But it’s not just suburban teens who feel the pressures to perform on standardized tests.

Muhan Zhang is a junior at Boston Latin, which as the country’s oldest public school requires a highly competitive exam to gain admittance. He signed up for an SAT course at the Newton office of Princeton Review, thinking it was best to start studying early for the test, typically taken in the fall of senior year. At his school, Zhang said, many kids can ace the SAT without really studying. ‘‘I do take this course because it helps me keep on par.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@ globe.com.

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