College Prep: money makes the difference

Paying to take a Princeton Review SAT course seemed, in the mid 1980s, grossly unfair to those who couldn’t afford it.  But we had our kids take them. It helped one win a scholarship and the others learned test-taking smarts useful later.

Princeton Review had recently been founded by an unabashedly aggressive marketer,  John Katzman.  He had gone to a toney prep school on the Upper East Side and then to Princeton University.  For a U.S. 1 article, he posed for a photo with a company logo busting off his T-shirt pecs like Superman’s.  In those early days he hired cool-looking Princeton undergraduates to berate, cajole, and joke privileged teens into studying hard for the SAT.  A big part of the appeal, I heard, was their profanity. In the genteel ’80s it must have been exciting to have teachers, not much older than their students, using forbidden words.

Princeton Review went public, was bought back, and is now owned by It has 4,000 teachers and tutors, lots of online resources, and has published more than 150 print and digital books.

What is it about this Ivy-League school that encourages educational start-ups? Triggering this trip down memory lane is the announcement from Labyrinth Bookstore.

Plan to attend Labryinth Books’ free 1 hour seminar on Saturday, July 8, at 3 p.m. Kevin Wong—co-founder of Princeton Tutoring and wongPrepMaven.—will share a framework for how to think properly about the college admissions and preparation process. Wong is a mentor at the Princeton University Entrepreneurial Hub (eHub) and is an Executive Board Member of the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton (A4P). Kevin and his brother were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers as strategy consultants and hedge fund operators. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.

After graduating from Princeton in 2005, Kevin Wong and his brother Greg founded Princeton Tutoring. It resembles Princeton Review so closely that their websites list the caveat “Not affiliated with Princeton Review.”

Another seeming difference is that the Wongs are dedicated to “giving back,” supporting local and international educational charities. Many college admission aids are free and online.

Still, the workshop can be pricey, even at a discount. For help in writing the college essay, students can attend a three-day workshop, based at Princeton Theological Seminary, for only $399, reduced from $900.

Today’s teens feel like they need to have their game face on as early as 8th grade. So to encourage the worried, Princeton Tutoring offers a three-hour “get your resume ready in high school” workshop for $199, reduced from $500. They call it “strategic planning.”

I’ve heard from very satisfied parents that these consultations really work.

But I’m left standing at square one. It’s hard for first generation college applicants to find their way through the maze when this is all new to their parents. What about those who don’t have the prep school counselors and the money for private tutors. Isn’t this yet another troubling example of privilege?

Yes, I’m talking about white privilege.  I certainly had it. Concerns over my privilege won’t keep me from supporting my grandchildren whatever way I can, but I think about how, on my mother’s side, my grandmother and all her sisters were college graduates and that was in the 19th century. On my father’s side, his immigrant father forbade him to go to college but his mother prevailed. He pulled himself and his siblings up by his bootstraps.

I’m happy to see that the Wongs do offer free stuff. They have an advice blog and some free seminars, like the one at Labyrinth.  Their consultants can work by the hour, a cost-effective substitute for the workshops.

Some students will succeed no matter what. In interviewing students for the college I attended, I can pick them out. Like my very motivated father, they will make it, no matter what. For the kid with less drive, less genius — for the kid in the middle, it’s worth spending the money or the time to get the inside information. Money can make the difference.






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