College Test Prep Gets a Laugh

Catalyst Prep uses “edutainment” to help kids get ready for standardized tests

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In most classes, any discussion of Kim Kardashian’s tweets or the Bella, Edward and Jacob love triangle would be grounds for a reprimand. Yet, for the thousands of high school students attending Catalyst Prep SAT and ACT bootcamps, such references to pop culture – along with a good bit of humor – are antidotes for the monotony of preparing for standardized tests.

“My premise was, ‘What if Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien got together and wrote an SAT prep course?’” says Catalyst Prep founder Jared Friedland, who got the ideas while writing for a Hollywood animation studio by day and teaching college prep courses in the evening.

“There was always this warm-up period where kids were talking about movies or television, and then there’d be this abrupt transition to Pythagoras Theorem,” he says. “It occurred to me that these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

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In 2005, Friedland began writing his own curriculum. By late the following year he had gotten his act into four California schools, including Westlake High School near Los Angeles, which now uses Catalyst Prep exclusively. “Students have increased their SAT scores as a direct result of the program,” says the school’s principal, Ron Lipari.

The parent participation organization at the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J. puts on a few Catalyst Prep bootcamps each year. The initial selling point was the timing – the two-day seminar is held the weekend before the test – and the relatively low cost, says former PPO president Kathleen Keating. But “the funny and irreverent style” was a pleasant surprise for unsuspecting students, she says. “It was a hit.”

This year the Santa Monica, Calif. company will bring its $165 SAT and ACT bootcamps to about 250 schools in a dozen states. Revenue for September – typically its busiest month – is projected to be about $1 million, double what it was last year. “Our goal is to reach $10 million in annual revenue by 2014,” says Friedland, who donates 20% of bootcamp sales back to school programs and offers free classes to low-income students. Though these SAT and ACT bootcamps account for 60% of sales, the company also offers private and semi-private instruction, as well as prep classes for high-stakes testing, advanced placement, and private school entrance exams.

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Catalyst Prep now has 27 full-time staffers working on curriculum and business development, as well as about 350 part-time instructors, who “in addition to having academic chops, have to be able to crack people up and command an audience,” says Friedland. To qualify for the job, prospective instructors  take the SAT – and are expected to score at least 2,250 out of 2,400 – and then audition by teaching something from Catalyst Prep’s curriculum.

The goal – improve students’ standardized test scores – is no different than traditional prep courses offered by the likes of Kaplan or The Princeton Review. But Catalyst Prep takes a more light-hearted approach, with an emphasis on easing students’ angst.  Its bootcamps tend to be bigger than most prep classes, but the company will bring in multiple instructors who play off each other. “It becomes an audience of students,” says Friedland.

The bootcamp guidebook, meanwhile, uses television shows, pop songs and celebrity tweets to help students understand grammar. Jessica Simpson’s hit song “Between You And I,” for example, should be “Between you and Me.” And when Paris Hilton says she had no idea she lived in a mansion until “I went to visit a friend and was like ‘Oh,'” it’s a classic case of faulty comparisons. Turning to math, the book uses Justin Bieber’s head to graph a parabola and Jonah Hill’s weight fluctuations to talk about percentages.

To keep the material current, Friedland and his team rewrite the curriculum annually and tweak it by region. Poking fun at former President George W. Bush’s grammar gets laughs in the Northeast, says Friedland, but it doesn’t always sit well in, say, Texas.

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What about the dreaded essay?  “Even though every question is different, they tend to have predictable themes,” says Friedland, who recommends that students prepare a few ideas before the test. “We tell them it’s like a game of Mad Libs.”