Saturday, April 08, 2006

Can Three Students Become Millionaires Teaching SAT?

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Avichal Garg, Karan Goel and Joseph Jewell Story

Getting into a top college seems tougher than ever these days, and even the best high school students stress out about the SATs. Joseph Jewell, however, approached the test with a different mindset, treating it as a game. "It was fun to try to beat the SATs. I looked at it as a challenge to accumulate as many points as I could," he says. His strategy worked. He scored a perfect 1600, enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in 2001, and that same year co-wrote a book, Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT.

Confident that other students could profit from his approach, Jewell--who became a 2005 Rhodes Scholar and is now earning a master's degree in engineering and science at Oxford University--launched an online SAT-preparation service in January called PrepMe. He teamed up with partners Avichal Garg, who recently graduated from Stanford with a BS in computer science, and Karan Goel, an MBA student at the University of Chicago, both of whom he met on the Princeton Review message board.

Unlike Kaplan and the Princeton Review, the giant SAT prep companies that teach a single test-taking methodology, PrepMe offers several ways to tackle the questions. First it gives the student a diagnostic exam to identify her weaknesses, and then it uses relevant, repetitive drills to conquer them. To gain an edge over Kaplan and the Princeton Review, PrepMe provides 20 to 60 hours more preparation material for about the same price. It also offers live essay coaching via e-mail, instant messaging, and phone. "With the exception of expensive private tutors, what's out there has always been a mass-market approach," says Goel, the company's CEO. "We're changing the way test preparation is taught."

Timing seems to favor PrepMe. The number of students taking the SAT has increased by 17% since five years ago, according to the College Board, which administers the exam. Last year students took 1.4 million SAT tests. Another factor: the College Board this year added a new personal essay section to the SAT and included more advanced algebra questions. Many students are frantic to know what they're all about. At the same time, the $6 billion online education market is growing by 25% to 30% annually, and there is room for new players, says Eric Bassett, director of research at Boston-based Eduventures, a research firm. "To establish a small revenue stream in this market is very possible."

PrepMe face tough rivals in the $700 million-plus test-prep market. Kaplan and Princeton Review each control about 25% of the sector. "For a startup to move beyond a few million in annual revenues is going to be quite challenging," says Bassett. And the behemoths in the industry are paying attention to the online market. The Princeton Review recently launched its own handheld gadget, which helps students prepare for the SAT with a 5,000-word vocabulary list.

PrepMe's co-founders say they are confident that both the company's curriculum, based on the test-taking approaches of top scorers, and the use of tutors close in age to their target customers will help them stand out. They spent three years developing their teaching methods, interviewing dozens of recent, high-scoring SAT test takers and having each write two or three practice questions. The firm also plans to compete on price, charging $500 for its course. Rival companies typically charge $1,000 a course, and tutors command fees of $70 an hour and up.

PrepMe's efforts have already begun to pay off. With a 12-person staff, including tutors, the company has so far attracted plenty of clients. In the next few years, PrepMe's founders hope to roll out curricula for additional standardized tests, such as the PSAT. The company is also hard at work on a new technology that will allow its students to prepare for the SAT on the run via cellphones and text messaging.

Co-founder Goel notes that PrepMe's young team has a powerful advantage over its more established competitors: "We don't sleep."