By Kathy Witkowsky
All her life, Tiffany Madsen
wanted to go to summer camp.
But the 17-year-old honor student
and athlete from Everett, Massachusetts,
was always too busy working and
playing sports. When she finally got her
chance this year, she happily packed her
swimsuit and basketball, her cell phone
and CDs. And of course, her number-two
That's right: her number-two pencils.
That's because Tiffany had chosen to
attend Whitman Enrichment Programs, a
ten-day residential camp devoted to intensive
SAT preparation. Forget cabins,
canoes and campfire songs. This camp was
all about keeping score-and then raising
Tiffany's mother, Debra Pace, said
she'd never had to push her daughter. But
Tiffany's grandmother had picked up the
tab for the camp, and "expects a big return
for her money," Pace said, as she dropped
off Tiffany at Curry College, outside Boston.
It was one of two college campuses
(the other was California State University,
Long Beach) where Whitman held four
sessions of SAT camp
this past summer. Before
she left, Pace had
these words for Tiffany:
"Get the best
score you can."
That also was the
message delivered at
an introductory orientation
session by camp
director Bill Dorfman,
an affable New Yorker
and former private
We want to make
sure that everyone here-I hate to put it
so crassly-gets what they paid for,"
Dorfman told the campers, who came
from nine states and half a dozen foreign
countries. Most of the 22 campers-eight
boys, 14 girls-attend private schools,
many of which are boarding schools. "We
have all of these different backgrounds,"
Dorfman noted, "but we're all here for the
same reason: to get the best SAT score we
SAT preparatory courses have been
around for decades. But the only thing
summer had in common with the SATs
was the letter "S." No more. Now summer
camps, as well as academically oriented
summer schools, have begun to incorporate
SAT preparation into their curriculum.
"Kids are so busy that they can't fit in
SAT prep except in the summer," said
Chad Schaedler, executive director of pre-college
programs for Kaplan, Inc., the test-prep
company that teamed up with
Dorfman to offer the summer camp. "And
a lot of these kids go away to camp in the
summer and so they want to prepare in
that type of environment." Kaplan also has
partnered with a tennis camp, and plans to
enter into more such arrangements in the
future, Schaedler said.
The Whitman camp was unique in that
it was solely designed around SAT
preparation, a kind of SAT prep course on
steroids: three hours or more of instruction
each day, plus two or more hours of
supervised study. The idea, said Dorfman,
was to allow kids to focus exclusively on
the SAT for a short period of time, while
still leaving most of the summer open for
travel or other academic or camping opportunities.
Many of the campers already
had been abroad or attended other specialty
camps before coming to this session
at the end of July.
Tiffany, self-assured blond, and one of
the few campers in her session who attends
public school, understandably was
more excited about the idea of meeting
new friends and experiencing dorm life
than about enduring five or more hours of
SAT instruction and supervised study each
day, plus tours of half a dozen nearby
colleges. Still, said Tiffany, who had earned
a combined score of 940 out of a possible
1600 when she took the test during the
school year, "the idea of highering my
scores was pretty appealing, too."
Indeed, few letters strike as much fear
into the hearts of ambitious teenagers and
their parents as S-A-T. (Alternatively, college
applicants can elect to take the curriculum-
based ACTs, which also are accepted
by nearly all U.S. colleges. Both tests
are administered to more than a million
students each year. But the SAT has a reputation
as the test preferred by elite colleges,
and is favored by college applicants
on the east and west coasts.)
|Campers spent at least five hours a day studying for the SAT and taking practice tests. The test
prep company that ran the program refused to say how well the students did.||
"The SATs count so much!" bemoaned
17-year-old camper Sheena Trivedi of
Pittsburgh, a senior at Institut le Rosey in
Switzerland, a private boarding school.
"It's like a test decides your whole future."
Not exactly. But Sheena's anxiety helps
explain why test-prep company revenues
top $300 million annually, and are growing
at an eight to ten percent annual rate, according
to Eduventures, an independent
market research company based in Boston.
Kaplan, Inc.'s test-prep programs-
including SAT, ACT and graduate-level
coaching-alone earned $165 million in
2000, said Eduventures analyst Jim
Academics and testing companies can,
and do, debate about the relevance and
fairness of the SAT, and the effectiveness
of test-prep courses. The College Board,
which owns the SAT, says studies show
coaching only raises scores an average of
eight points on the verbal section and 18
points on the math section-with results
slightly higher for Kaplan and its rival, The
Princeton Review-and suggests that students'
time and money may be better
spent on other academic and extracurricular
activities. Kaplan reports that, on
average, its students increase their scores
by 120 points, and that 28 percent go up
170 points or more.
But you don't have to have earned a
perfect 1600 on your SATs to figure out
that until and unless colleges stop using
the SAT as part of their application process
-and 83 percent of four-year colleges
do-the Sheenas of the world will do
whatever they can to get a leg up.
"I think this camp is a good thing," said
Reid Sacco, 17, of Lynnfield, Massachusetts,
a junior and star swimmer at Lynnfield
High School who hopes to attend an
Ivy League university. Reid had already
taken one test-prep course during the
school year, and had scored reasonably
well on his junior year preliminary SATs.
But, he said, "You can never do enough."
That was camper Dan Tevet's attitude.
The junior state chess champion of Pennsylvania
(and fourth overall in the state),
Dan was planning on applying to Cornell
University, his sister's alma mater, among
other competitive colleges. "I'm probably
in already," said Dan, who takes only Advanced
Placement courses at Wyoming
Seminary, where he maintains a 4.22 GPA.
"I just wanted to be safe."
Who can blame him? With college applications
at record numbers, kids today
are under more pressure than ever, said
camp director Dorfman. "No one is happy
about it," he said. "It's just
the society in which we
The SAT summer camp,
Dorfman said, helps relieve
some of that pressure by
allowing students to focus
exclusively on SAT preparation
without having to
balance it with academics or
extracurricular activities. It
also increases confidence-
which is often half the battle
when it comes to test-taking.
The expense may be
considerable, Dorfman said,
but many parents see it as a
good and relatively small
investment compared to the
tens of thousands of dollars
they're likely to spend on
Fern Guior, for instance,
had already spent $4,000 on
private SAT tutoring for her
daughter, Danielle, a junior
at Columbia Preparatory
School in New York City,
before coughing up another $2,500 for
"It's ridiculous!" Guior said of the cost.
On the other hand, she conceded, "It only
helps Danielle." Unlike Tiffany's mother,
Guior does not harbor Ivy League ambitions
for her daughter. "I would like her to
go to a very solid school-somewhere
where she's going to get a good education
and feel comfortable with the kids around
her," Guior said. Danielle had spent the
first part of the summer traveling through
Europe, and the SAT camp was a way to
fill up the rest of the summer with something
meaningful, Guior said.
||"We want to make sure that everyone here"I hate to put it so crassly"gets what
they paid for," said Bill Dorfman, director of the "SAT camp," which cost $2,500
for ten days.
"It's a lot of money," said Rakesh
Sharma, a computer engineer from Saudi
Arabia, before waving goodbye to his
daughter, Mira. "But we want to do something
that will be good for her future."
That sentiment is one that a lot of parents
apparently share. According to a 1998
report by Donald Powers of Educational
Testing Service and published by the College
Board, an estimated 12 percent of
students who in 1995-'96 took the SAT 1
attended coaching programs outside their
schools. Forty to 50 percent of those kids
attended programs offered by either
Kaplan or The Princeton Review.
Kaplan won't release enrollment numbers.
But Kaplan's Chad Schaedler said his
company's pre-college enrollment, which
includes SAT and ACT prep, has increased
more than 85 percent during the past
decade. He believes that increase is a
direct result of the record-high number of
"Competition's fierce. That's what it
comes down to. It's very difficult to get into
school now," said Schaedler. "Families
are looking for any advantages they can
That may not be fair for low-income
kids who can't afford expensive prep classes,
Schaedler acknowledged. But he does
not consider that to be his problem or his
fault. "I didn't create the tests. The tests are
used for admissions which I have nothing
to do with," he said.
And the disparity goes far beyond who
gets to learn a few test-taking strategies,
Schaedler said. "If Kaplan were to go
away, a child from Scarsdale is, for the
most part, still going to get a better education
than a kid from a New York City
Through charitable foundations, Kaplan
does offer some classes for economically
disadvantaged students and also
contracts with public school districts in
Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Oakland,
Los Angeles and Atlanta, among others,
that want to offer test-prep classes to their
students, Schaedler said.
Such government-sponsored contracts
are the best way to try to level out the
SAT playing field, said Rebecca Zwick, a
professor of education at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. She would like
to see more programs like California's
College Preparation Partnership Program,
which provides SAT and ACT coaching to
low-income public-school students. The 20-
hour courses cost a maximum of five
dollars, and have dramatically increased
some students' test scores. "I really think
that's the direction to move in, because I
don't think test preparation is going to go
away," Zwick said.
If the Whitman camp is any indication,
test prep is only getting more intense. In
the course of ten days, the campers sat
through more than 24 hours of instruction,
three practice tests and endless hours of
study. They became familiar with such
Kaplan strategies as "back-solving" math
problems by plugging in a mid-range
number provided as one of the multiple
choice answers, and "picking numbers" to
stand in for variables. They learned to
watch for key connecting words in sentences,
like "even though," "however" and
|Although most of their time was spent preparing for the SAT, campers did visit
several Boston area colleges and universities.||
In addition, they toured seven nearby
college campuses, both public and private,
to get a sense of the types and variety of
schools that exist. Recreation was limited
to one night at Boston's historic Faneuil
Hall, two nights at the movies, and occasional
games of basketball, in which the
girls generally trounced the boys.
And even that rigorous schedule was
too lax for 17-year-old Brian Ong of Malaysia,
who is accustomed to a tougher
academic climate at his British boarding
school. "The study hours are too short,"
complained Brian, who said he had to
persuade his parents to let him come to
the camp rather than spend his summer
vacation with them. Brian said that if he
wanted to attend an American university,
he felt it was important to familiarize
himself with the SAT format, to which he
never had been exposed in England.
This was a camp filled with pragmatists
-cheerful pragmatists, for the most
part. No one skipped class. No one broke
curfew. They didn't even mind when morning
classes spilled over into the afternoon.
Aside from one resentful girl whose
parents "forced" her to come (but only
after she spent four weeks in Peru), they
accepted their responsibilities without
"You've got to do what you've got to
do," shrugged 16-year-old Mira Sharma of
Saudi Arabia, a junior at Northfield Mount
Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts,
explaining why she and her roommate,
Sheena, were inside their spartan
dorm room, sorting through a thick stack
of vocabulary flash cards, instead of outside
enjoying the beautiful summer day.
The flash cards had been handed out as
part of Kaplan's study materials, and as instructed,
the girls dutifully separated them
into two piles: one for words with positive
connotations, one for those with
negative. The idea was to make
the definitions easier to remember,
and the girls were hoping
that the strategy would work.
Sheena had already studied
for the SAT during her three-week
spring break, but was
unsatisfied with her score. Her
father, she pointed out, had
earned his MBA at Harvard, "so
1350 wasn't good enough," said
Sheena, who was thinking about
applying to such top-name
schools as Brown, Columbia,
University of Pennsylvania and
scores alone won't get Sheena
into any of these schools. College
admissions offices also consider
an applicant's grades, extracurricular
activities and personal essays,
among other information.
But there is no doubt that SAT
scores can make a difference,
said UC Santa Barbara professor
Zwick. So it makes sense for
students to prepare themselves,
"I think it would be foolish if somebody
didn't prepare at all for it," said
Zwick. On the other hand, she said, "Because
of the anxiety surrounding the test,
there are probably more kids purchasing
more preparation than they actually
need...Some of those kids could probably
do just as well from studying with a book
that costs $15."
But most of the campers said they
wouldn't have the self-discipline to study
on their own, and wouldn't have time to
take a prep course in the fall. "It's good
that we're here now because at home I
won't set aside two hours to study," said
Lauren Shatlock, 17, of Mansfield, Ohio.
What's more, they said, they wouldn't
have had nearly so much fun doing it. "I
expected dorks and nerds to come," said
Mira Sharma. "But the people who are
here are really cool!"
And that may be the craziest thing of
all about the SAT camp: most of the kids
loved it. In the dorm hallways, they flirted
while they tested each other with the flashcards.
On long drives in the camp van, they
challenged each other to see who could
use as many of their vocabulary words in
as few sentences as possible-usually
related to the music playing on the van's
radio. Several posted a "word of the day"
on their dorm door, and Tiffany and her
roommate wallpapered their room with
150 handwritten vocabulary words and
corresponding definitions. During a heat
wave, campers propped themselves on
their elbows and dangled half-in, half-out
of Curry College's small outdoor pool
while they completed their assignments.
Kaplan wouldn't release the scores
campers earned on their practice tests. A
spokesperson said that would be premature,
since campers still had two months in
which to use their home-study materials
before they took the SAT for real in October.
But several campers who were contacted
after the camp ended did indeed
raise their scores from the first practice
test to the third and final one-in one case
by 200 points. And, they said, they began
to get a sense of what types of college-
urban or rural, big or small, high-powered
or not-they might be interested in attending.
Was it worth the money? "Hard to
judge," said Dan Tevet, whose score went
up 60 points over the course of the ten-day
camp. Still, he said, "It was a lot of fun."
||Tiffany Madsen, an honors student and
basketball player, hopes "SAT camp" will help
her get into an Ivy League university.
In fact, campers bonded so closely that,
with typical teenaged dramatics, several
cried when the camp ended, and a number
of the campers have stayed in touch via
phone and e-mail. Some of them are trying
to plan a reunion. "It was an excellent
experience," enthused Tiffany Madsen,
whose score increased by 120 points. "I'd
do it again in a heartbeat."
Back home in Everett, Tiffany's friends
had a hard time believing that she'd enjoyed
SAT camp. But even if she hadn't
told them about her experiences there,
they might have been able to guess that
Tiffany hadn't gone to any ordinary camp
when she started sprinkling words like
"amicable" and "winsome" into her conversation.
"They were like, 'What?'" Tiffany said.
"I would say a word and tell them what it
meant." The pedantry didn't go over so
big, though, so now Tiffany has relegated
her new vocabulary to her school papers.
And, she hopes, to her SATs, which she
takes again this fall.
"I want to live up to what I've learned,"
But if she's still not satisfied with her
scores, Tiffany can always sign up for more
instruction at a Kaplan, Inc. center or
through the company's online SAT courses
-provided, of course, that she can come
up with several hundred dollars to pay for