The Education of Matthew Pietrafetta – Chicago Tribune

For generations of high school students, prepping for the SAT/ACT involved little more than getting a reasonable night's sleep, consuming something resembling breakfast and, if there was time, unearthing a functional No. 2 pencil. Today-thanks to record numbers of high school seniors applying to colleges-the game has changed. Cutthroat competition, once limited to students gunning for spots at top-tier schools, is a fact of life for anyone applying to college-or hoping to land one of those increasingly crucial financial aid packages. All of which means more weight than ever is placed on the alchemy that has come to be known as The Score. This is the marker of how well one performs on college entrance exams: the SAT and the ACT. Thanks in large part to a systemic, unquestioning fixation on categorization and ratings, The Score is very important during the application process-after which time it fades into the background and eventually (it's true, I promise) is completely forgotten. But for a year or so, when admissions-related anxieties are at their peak, The Score has the power to drive people to do crazy things-including, but not limited to, forking over obscene amounts of money to test preparation outfits, such as perennial powerhouses Kaplan Inc. and the Princeton Review. Exactly what students (and their parents) get for their money is a point of ongoing debate: Although no one has definitively proven that the courses are responsible for markedly higher scores, most test-takers do see at least some improvement, and many nervous parents apparently consider the fees (up to $2,000 for group classes and hundreds of dollars per hour for individual tutoring) money well spent. Take this as you will: The man whose Chicago-based company charges $100 to $240 per hour for private test-prep tutoring never used professional help preparing for his own entrance exams. The first person in his family to attend college, he did "OK, but not great" on his own SAT exam, and attended a good, but not great, school (Trinity College in Connecticut), where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. It wasn't until he attended graduate school, at Columbia University in New York, that he began to think seriously about test preparation methods-what worked for him, and what might work for other people. When Matthew Pietrafetta decided to apply to Columbia's English literature program, he knew he needed a strong verbal score on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations). Rather than take a test prep course, Pietrafetta "took three *months and read an entire collegiate Webster's dictionary," he remembers. "I copied over into my personal lexicon every test-relevant word I did not know and its definition." This novel idea-the merger of test preparation and legitimate intellectual enrichment-would become the cornerstone of Pietrafetta's burgeoning career as an academic tutor, and, a few years later, of Academic Approach. Pietrafetta's intellectual ambitions ("Test-taking can be a legitimate academic undertaking," he insists) are captured in his company's slogan, "Teaching Beyond the Test." Yes, your scores will probably go up after taking an Academic Approach course. But [...]