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It's a warm spring night, but Enko N. Kiprilov '00 is sitting in a Harvard classroom watching an instructor solve physics problems on the chalkboard.
The instructor works for Kaplan, the nation's largest test prep company. Kiprilov, who plans to take the MCAT in August, is volunteering his time to try to decide which kind of course he wants to take to get ready.
"The MCAT is going to test your ability to take the MCAT," the Kaplan instructor says. "The key to doing well on the MCAT is practicing." He writes "practicing" in large letters.
Later, Kiprilov says he's decided on a program. "The one I'm planning to take is the most intense," he says.
Kiprilov doesn't doubt that in his four years as a biochemistry concentrator, he's learned a lot about science. Still, it never hurts to be prepared.
"Everybody else is doing it," he says. "Even if you're smart and you know the stuff, it pays to take the course," he says.
Pre-med students know how important the MCAT is to their futures--probably the most important number they will earn at Harvard. For students who plan to go to law school, the LSAT is an equally critical hurdle.
Increasingly, students at Harvard are turning to commercial courses to prepare. Companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review as well as lesser-known competitors offer classes, libraries of old exams and personalized criticism to help defray anxiety--and boost scores.
Kaplan's promotional materials promise, "Kaplan gets you a higher score." TestWell, a Boston-based LSAT company, trumpets its students' 9.5-point average score increase.
For many, the higher numbers justify the investment. Students praise their prep courses for structuring study time and providing them with discipline and focus.
But for others, that value is outweighed by the courses' added pressure and stress--not to mention a hefty price tag that exceeds $1,000 in many cases.
"It is a huge burden--a lot of commitment," Kiprilov acknowledges. "[But] some of the tricks and some of the strategies...are invaluable, even for smart people. It's a tricky test."
Although they lack hard numbers, House resident tutors estimate that between a third and half of students who take the LSAT take commercial courses to prepare; for the MCAT, as many as 80 percent take courses, according to Winthrop pre-med tutor Allison L. McDonough.
The disparity is explained by the difference in the exams. The LSAT tests reading comprehension, writing and reasoning sections, familiar skills to anyone with a solid SAT score. The MCAT, by contrast, judges test-takers on their ability in the physical and biological sciences.
"As for the actual 'substance' of the LSAT, there isn't any," writes Pforzheimer House pre-law adviser Gene Koo in an e-mail message. "It's not like the MCAT--a lot of it involves reasoning and logic, and that's something that's hard to teach."
And the MCAT's length can be daunting. It is twice as long as the LSAT, lasting almost six hours--so long, students say, that practice is a must in order to build up endurance.
"The test is not so much a test of knowledge but a test of stamina," Kiprilov says. "They really numb you up with all those exercises and all those full-length exams that you have no choice but to let go of the stress."
For both tests, students say prep courses help them hunker down and study in the face of other distractions.
"On your own it's very difficult to say, 'I'm going to block out this entire section, and I'm going to time myself,'" says pre-med Lucy Marquez '01. "I find that if I do it myself, I do two sections and I get tired and say, 'I'm going home.'"
And studying does require major time commitments. Kristin L. Keon '01, who is enrolled in a Kaplan MCAT course, estimates that she has spent more than 15 hours a week preparing for the last two months.
Keon admits that the course environment generates stress but says that can be positive.
"There's a mindset we get into here," she says. "Being with people who are more stressed about it definitely makes you work harder."
But others say the stress led them to worry more than they needed.
"A lot of my friends were taking the test, so it was all anybody could talk about for a couple of weeks," says C.J. Mahoney '00, who took an LSAT course with TestWell over the summer.
Many tutors agree that preparatory courses aren't right for everyone.
"I've heard people say that sitting with a bunch of tense test-takers makes them very tense," says Dena O. Rakoff, director of pre-law advising for the Office of Career Services. "I've heard people say they've lost the intuitive approach they came to the test prep program with...and now they can't get back to their own. The experiences are not always panaceas."
"Some review courses are more about test-taking strategies than a review of material," adds Eugenia Chan, a pre-med adviser in Cabot House. "I don't have a problem with that, except that the price tag is outrageous."
Those "outrageous" prices are a sticking point for many critics of the prep courses. According to the website of Princeton Review, a leading test prep company, an LSAT review class costs $995, an MCAT $1,195.
Rakoff says she advises students to start with "very good materials that are inexpensive"--replicas of old exams, which cost $8 apiece.
But many students say the cost ultimately didn't faze them.
"It was definitely a big factor," Keon says. "But when you think how expensive medical school is, it's kind of a pre-cost."
Kiprilov points out that most students spend thousands of dollars just on application fees, and thousand more flying to interviews across the country.
That willingness to spend contributes to "obscene" profit margins at most companies, says Ari R. Freiser, the founder of TestWell.
Freiser says a few large companies are able to pocket huge profits because they are industry leaders.
"With a thousand dollar price tag, commercial test prep is a way of saying to people who already have an advantage in society, 'this is a way to buy even more of an advantage,' and to those who can't, 'take a hike,'" he says.
But representatives of Kaplan and Princeton Review, the two largest test prep companies, point to their scholarship programs, which provide discounts for students who cannot afford full price.
Treacy A. Kiley, director of graduate programs for Princeton Review, says she approves financial aid requests for as many as 15 to 20 percent of those enrolled.
The average gift is about $450, she says. While a few rare packages rise as high as $800 off, no one gets a full scholarship.
"It's based on the students' individual situations," says director of marketing Greg A. Johnson. "[But] we would always charge every student something to take our course because it makes for a better student.
Kiley says that in addition to helping level the playing field, financial aid is good business sense--even when the firm loses money on individual students' discounts--because it generates positive word-of-mouth.
But while Kaplan and Princeton Review often tout their financial aid programs to critics, they never advertise them to the public, according to historian Nicholas B. Lemann '76.
"They do it partly out of the goodness of their heart and partly because it's very bad for their image if they come across as the way rich kids beat the system," he says.
He says firms like Kaplan and Princeton Review have come along way from their humble origins. Particularly in the last decade, he says, the test prep business has boomed.
"What economists call the return to education has been increasing very dramatically," Lemann says. "Back in my era, the smart kid in California would go to Stanford or Berkeley. Now the smart kid...is much more likely to apply to Harvard. You have a bigger pool of people chasing a fixed number of slots in the top professional schools."
In addition, Johnson says, the prosperous economy has meant both that more students are interested in higher education and can afford test prep courses.
"There are more students taking courses than five years ago, two years ago," he says. "The stakes are a little higher, the competition is fiercer."
In such a rarefied admissions environment, every possible edge counts, test prep companies argue.
"The difference between getting a 163 and a 168 is the difference between going to B.C. and going to Harvard, and that is worth paying for," Freiser says.
The result is often an "arms race" mentality: as more and more applicants take commercial prep courses, the pressure on others to enroll in such courses mounts.
"Taking a commercial course may no longer be an edge, it may be a bare minimum to keep up," Freiser says.
Johnson says his company tries to drive home that message to students.
"One of the lines we use is, if you're not using the Princeton Review, you're competing against students who are," he says. "You are competing against the kid sitting next to you. You are competing against your classmates."
In individual classes, students say they experience bonds with classmates who are going through the same draining experience.
"There's more camaraderie because you're all in the same class together," Keon says. "People tend to help one another out."
But other students say they are intimidated when they consider their Harvard classmates as a whole.
"Harvard people tend to be really intense, comparing scores or blurting out the amount of time you've been studying," Marquez says.
Amber J. Musser '02, who has been studying for the MCAT without taking a course, says the level of competition makes her feel pressure to enroll in a study program.
"Especially when you see everyone around you studying, you think, 'I'm not studying hard enough,'" she says. "Just seeing so many people studying makes you doubt your preparation. This is your competition."
But ironically, Lemann says no study has ever proved conclusively that test prep courses actually improve applicants' scores.
"The test purveyors say there has never been a good double-blind test," he says. "Meanwhile, as far as market tests go, a lot of people are taking these courses."
For his part, Kiprilov is confident that the course will help him improve his score. But he says some of his friends are more skeptical.
"I know people that just take the books from previous years...and do it themselves," he says. "They don't need to go to class--they just read the books themselves and save $1,200."
--Benjamin D. Grizzle and Jonathan F. Taylor contributed to the reporting of this article.
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