Brendan Mernin

Sundays in September are big days in the SAT tutoring business. Juniors are getting ready for the October PSAT, and seniors are preparing for the October SAT. I’m out the door at 8:30.

My first student is a girl on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A couple of weeks ago I convinced her to do the SAT the right way: neatly and systematically. Lately she’s been hitting 700s on her practice tests, up from the low 600s. Today she hasn’t done all the homework, but what’s done is done right. Because she’s sensitive and a little resistant to an authoritarian approach, I take a different route. We chat about her recent visit to Wesleyan University. I knew she’d love the place. I tell her, every time you want to procrastinate with your words, you should think, Wesleyan. We’ll see if that works. Then I teach her a few nuances: the formula for the number of degrees in an n-sided polygon—(n-2) (180)—and the need for a flexible approach to percent problems. A percent is simply a part/whole. Then your only challenge is to figure out which is the part and which the whole.

My second kid is back in Brooklyn. I’m helping her with the SAT IIs in writing, math IIC, and literature. She’s really smart but fairly troubled. The tests are no problem for her: She’s already up to 700 on all three, so it’s just a matter of going over the finer points to get to 750s. I tell her to keep it simple on the essay section of the writing test. You’ve only got 20 minutes, so you can’t fool around. Just state your thesis right off the bat. She promises to write two or three essays this week to practice. We go over some basic grammar and then hit the Lit. That’s fun: The little passages are well-written. I’m also very gentle with this kid. She’s back in New York, at a public school that doesn’t challenge her, because she was expelled from a New England prep school. The mother hasn’t said what for, but hey, the kid’s room smells like a bong. Turns out the father has cancer. The girl is trying to keep it together, but she’s desperately afraid of losing her dad.

Next kid is only a few blocks away. He’s another nervous one, needing to be handled with care. He’s studying just the math SAT with me after having taken a full tutoring program with a competitor, without much to show for it. He’s a hard worker, but his strategies are a muddle. And then there’s his anxiety. So, we look at his practice test and see that he got a 590 on the math, up only from a 580 last spring. He’s bummed out, but I’m not. I can see he got all the easier problems right, and that’s the first step to a high score. He just needs more practice with the techniques so he can do the easy ones a little faster, without losing accuracy. I spend a lot of time convincing him that he’s better at math than he thinks. The right mental and technical approach and he’ll get a 700. I expect him to jump 50 points on math this week.

I walk through the park to my fourth student. He’s happy. He was a ball of stress in our first few lessons. But now he’s taking it easy, focusing on the techniques, and doing what he can do. He got a 1200 on his practice test this week, up 100 points already. This is my bread and butter: kids at 1100 who want to move above 1400. I get kids who start below that and kids who get a 1450 and want a 1600. But more than anything I get kids who start in the mid-500s and want to break 700 on both math and verbal. This kid will hit 1300 on the PSAT and 1400 on the SAT, no sweat.

I catch the train back into Manhattan for my last student of the day. He’s working on the writing and the math IC. And boy, is he rusty. But he’s a pretty tough kid, the kind who takes instruction easily, so I chew him out a bit, gently. He went from 1200 to 1400 on the SAT last spring, and now he wants 700s on the SAT IIs. No problem: His grammar needs a lot of work, though. Some kids absorb it at the dinner table. Others, we have to work on subject-verb agreement and dangling modifiers. Easy enough. He’ll hit 650s this week and 700s the week after. Time to head home: 10:30 p.m.