Stress Test


Rebecca Pronsky felt the first doubts about her tutoring job when her students started throwing up. “I was seeing this kid for 10 days straight. He was home from boarding school on what was supposed to be his spring break. His parents wanted him to take the last old SAT before they changed it. His hair was falling out while I was tutoring him, I think from stress. Two times he had to leave the room to throw up. I was like, ‘Are you OK? Do you need to stop?’ His mom says, ‘We really need to get his verbal up to 780 [20 points shy of a perfect score] or he’ll never get into Yale.’ ”

Pity the kid, and know he’s not alone. On New York City’s Upper East Side and in its affluent suburbs, parents facing ever sharper competition for the “right” schools are hiring more supplemental tutors each year, in pursuit of higher grades and the perfect score. Yet a palpable irony lurks behind the practice tests and the No. 2 pencils. A seemingly endless supply of Ivy League graduates, like Rebecca, a 24-year-old alumna of Brown, can’t find any better job than the freelance, part-time, no-benefits gig of tutoring the next crop of hopefuls to take their place.

Supplemental tutoring and test prep are booming in the U.S.: They’re expected to become a $960 million business this year, compared to $702 million just two years ago. A new, more complex SAT introduced this spring has caused a spike in families investing in both private tutors and test prep courses like those run by Princeton Review and Kaplan, the market leaders. In New York City, however, the tutoring business has been exploding for several years.

“New York schools are getting so aggressively competitive,” says Benjamin Soskis, a 28-year-old Yale graduate and Columbia Ph.D. student who tutors part-time. “I’ve seen it change over six years. It’s like an arms race. Most of the families where I tutored, I was not the only tutor. There are usually three or four in different subjects. It must run thousands of dollars, on top of a private-school education.”

The tutors don’t see most of that money; the companies that hire, train, and book them take a big cut. The rate for private SAT, ACT, and subject tutors in New York varies widely, from the $40 an hour Pronsky earns to nearly $400 an hour for individualized boutique tutoring with top-shelf private companies like Inspirica and Advantage tutors. Making those rates can require advanced degrees and classroom experience. At the other end of the food chain, one Kaplan SAT prep teacher, who works with large groups under tightly controlled conditions, reports earnings of just $15 an hour.

Most twentysomethings who tutor see it as a convenient means of making money while pursuing a true passion on the side. “I was having real trouble finding any kind of paying job,” says Seth (not his real name), a 24-year-old Yale grad. “Kaplan has been my steadiest employer—they always need somebody. I can pick up $40 or $50 on the weekends proctoring a practice test.” That leaves plenty of time for his band, which performs at small venues two or three nights a month.

Pronsky, a singer-songwriter, figures she “probably breaks even” on her music, when the cost of marketing, promotion, and touring is factored in. Before she started tutoring, she was on unemployment for six months. “Forty bucks an hour sounded really good when I started,” she says. “But you have to go there and back, do the prep, the weekly progress report, and appease the crazy parents. The mothers have my cell phone number; they call at all hours.” She says she makes between $200 and $400 a week, which is not enough to be a “psychotherapist making house calls.”

For the tutors, helping the teenagers through the first big transition of their lives is often a pleasure; it’s the parents who can be hard to deal with. Itamar Moses, 29, another Yale graduate, earned $80 to $90 an hour with a private company while his playwriting career was getting off the ground. “I really liked all the kids, and then you had the occasional excessive parental anxiety. They’re extremely on edge about their students’ progress, they know it’s such a big deal, and they feel powerless.”

Before they start tearing their hair out—or making their kids’ hair fall out—the parents might ask why it’s so crucial to get their kids into those brand-name schools. A gold-plated degree may be a status marker, but in this day and age, it’s far from ensuring economic security or a great career. Just ask your average SAT tutor.