It came as a great relief to my parents in 1985 to learn that my older sister was suffering from a mild form of dyslexia. At last there was a reasonable explanation for the extracurricular help in math that she needed in order to keep up with her Dalton peers. In those days, private tutors were considered somewhat shameful acquisitions to Upper East Side households. To admit to a tutor then was, from a child's point of view, social suicide. From a parent's, it was that and more: acknowledgment of intellectual inadequacy, faulty parenting, and general mediocrity.
One evening, I receive a call from a private-school junior wanting to hire me to elevate her SAT verbal score from a 760 to an 800. When I sigh and explain that a 760 already exceeds that of the average incoming freshman at Harvard or Stanford, a panicked youthful voice informs me that nothing less than an 800 will do, and that if I feel I can't guarantee an 800 by fall, then surely I know someone who can? It is a call I have received with increasing frequency in the three years since I began tutoring. Apart from their nearly uniform affluence, the teenage populations of such renowned private schools as Trinity, Horace Mann, Brearley, Dalton, Collegiate, Spence, and Chapin bear little resemblance to their eighties counterparts. More than ever, these students -- perpetually fearful, painfully conscious of the weight of their grades and SAT performance upon their futures -- are relying on the help of tutors to inflate their scores. It's become a reverse status symbol: Many tutors and independent college counselors now estimate that nearly 100 percent of Manhattan private-school juniors and seniors are paying for some kind of extracurricular SAT preparation.
"The frenzy over college admissions today is staggering," says Robert Koppert, director of college counseling for the Dalton School. "There's a real anxiety different from anything we saw even just a few years ago. The uncertainty has almost paralyzed the parent community, so that they feel they are not doing their jobs as parents if, on top of a $20,000 tuition, they don't offer their child every opportunity to keep up with his or her peers." Parents who seek to give their child an edge by paying for expensive private tuition are not, Koppert says, "trying to be especially manipulative of the system. They are simply trying to make an inherently difficult process -- that of getting into college -- somewhat easier and more humane."
The attitude of most private schools toward extracurricular tuition is one of extreme skepticism if not outright disdain. But students who follow their schools' advice and don't take SAT prep end up feeling burned. "They told us what we were doing in class was rigorous enough and that we didn't have anything to worry about," says Laura,* a senior at an exclusive all-girls' school. "My PSATs weren't great, but I figured I'd have improved in time for the SATs. And I took them last spring and just broke 1,200, and meanwhile everyone else was getting, like, 1,400s and 1,500s. And they'd all been tutored. So I had to spend my summer playing catchup, and even now I feel totally disadvantaged and much more nervous and like I have a lot more at stake in November than the other girls."
Which is not to suggest that the other girls are slacking off. Emily, Rachel, and Jessica -- a lovely trio from another exclusive same-sex school -- are impaired only by the kind of drive that leads them to leave plaintive messages on my machine pleading for more work.
Rachel: "Could you fax me some word lists? I think I'm going to have some time over the weekend."
Emily: "Jessica's aiming for an 800 on the writing and I only got a 720, so could I do an extra essay? Should I do it from Kaplan or Barron's or both?"
Jessica: "I took a complete literature test and I got four wrong, so I'm going to take two more tests tonight and study the dictionary of literary terms. Do you have time for a phone session tomorrow before school?"
These are bright, literate, good-hearted girls who not only have the brains but as often as not a letter from Daddy's good friend who established an eponymous foundation at the school of their choice. Not to mention one or more parents and siblings who will provide them with legacy status. And to top it all off, these are exactly the girls most likely to hire an outside college consultant. These are the girls, in the words of Lisa Heilbrunn Rattray, a former master tutor for the Princeton Review and one of the city's busiest tutors, "for whom a 1,400 isn't an accomplishment but a stigma, a permanent reminder of the fact that they made 200 points' worth of mistakes that a select few of their peers did not."
Ashley was not my typical student. She did not live on Park Avenue. She attended a private school but not one of the private schools. She lived in a building but not one of the buildings. Ashley's mother's first name ended with an i, and there was a tanning bed in the living room. Ashley was from California. What Ashley had in common with my other students was her money. Ashley had a lot of money. She had a car and driver, a surgically altered nose, a country estate, the home phone number of Donald Trump, and a personally inscribed life-size photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio on the ceiling over her canopy bed. She even had her own two-bedroom apartment that adjoined her stepparents'.
Ashley was referred to me by an independent college counselor who, as is often the case in such situations, had been hired by the family without the school's knowledge. I was to work on Ashley's college essay with her, territory that is defiantly gray for all good tutors. The line between guidance and writing-for-hire can be difficult to maintain -- especially with parents who are eager to pay a stranger to compose an essay that will (they assume, indifferent to the message they are sending their child) reflect better upon the student than anything the student might have devised. While I have never been offered money to actually take a kid's test, on more than one occasion I have experienced parents' anger when they discovered that my intention was to work with, not for, their child.