Tutoring and Test-Prep Expert Advises Parents On Helping Their Children Succeed in the Time of COVID-19

Photo: (Photo : Matthew Larriva - Premier SAT/ACT Tutoring)

Tell us a little bit about yourself and Powerful Prep. 

I am the founder of Powerful Prep, a leading concierge tutoring firm, dedicated to transparency, massive point gains, and customized curriculum, and an expert in test-prep, test-taking, and the pre-college process. I have also published three books on test prep.

You can read more about my personal tutoring program at Matthew Larriva - Premier SAT/ACT Tutoring.

How did you get started in the test-prep industry? 

In 2009, I graduated from The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Business Economics and a concentration in Real Estate. Unfortunately, when I graduated, no one was hiring in the Real Estate space. I broadened my search slightly and ended up as a trader in Chicago. 

I covered the European shift. Those markets are open from about midnight  to 7AM, Chicago time. Getting out of work at 7AM means you're awake until about 2PM, and then sleep to 11PM.  I like to stay busy, so I decided I'd get a second job to fill my time. 

I found an ad from Kaplan Test Prep on Craigslist for ACT tutors. I applied and got the job. For the next couple of years, I traded bonds during the graveyard shift and taught ACT test-prep during the day. 

In 2011, my mother got sick, so I moved back to Southern California. I applied to work at a Kaplan satellite office in LA, but I was working during the day in the finance group of a geo-location start-up, so I couldn't make the schedule work. I still loved teaching and had that need to fill my nights and weekends with something productive, so I decided I'd start my own company.

What supplemental steps do you suggest parents take while students learn virtually?

Consider how your student will differentiate themself when applying to colleges. Grades will be less trustworthy in a remote setting, most extracurricular activities are currently halted and test scores are optional; universities will be inundated with personal statements about the struggles of COVID-19. 

We recommend focusing on differentiators that can be done from home. The COVID-19 pandemic is a terrible tragedy, but it may provide students an unique opportunity to show an application committee their academic and extracurricular drive are not limited by availability. 

How much stronger will a candidate be who continues to demonstrate academic prowess and drive despite hardship? It's exactly what schools are looking for.

What advice do you have for groups and parents working to establish learning pods? 

These pods are appealing for a variety of reasons, but few parents have honed enough skills in curriculum development and have deep enough knowledge in a relevant subject to make these worthwhile. Consider building a pod, but then hiring an instructor who can really push students in a focused disciplined way in areas that lend themselves to solo-work. 

Powerful Prep's curriculum and homework is based on the Deliberate Practice method. Can you explain this and how parents should be using this method to assist their children in learning?

One of the creators of deliberate practice said it best: "If you're enjoying practice, you're doing it wrong." 

The reason homework takes so long--and has nearly zero indication of efficacy--is because it's unfocused. Many programs try to have students take tons of practice tests and wring their hands when scores don't increase. We instead take a fine-tooth comb to the process, auditing exactly where a student is weak and targeting our practice to that specific skill set, at that specific difficulty level. This helps achieve quite a bit more, in far less time. 

How can parents ensure their high school students are on the right track for college admissions, inside and outside of the classroom?

I encourage parents to plan early and focus on three things: grades, extracurricular activities, and test scores--in that order. 

Make a list of target schools, and then find their average GPA and test scores of their admitted students. Focus your student toward these results. Supplement with tutoring as needed. Finally, establish consistency and distinction in your student's extracurricular activities. Colleges are looking for well rounded student bodies with a diverse class of students, each with a strong focus in something unique.  

Can you explain how private tutoring is most beneficial for students? 

Private tutoring is most beneficial on the margins--either for students who are behind or for students who have very ambitious goals, such as very large point gains or very elite schools. 

In these settings, a private tutor can add quite a bit by identifying gaps, structuring curriculum, producing targeted homework and monitoring progress. This acts as an accelerator to the education process and produces stellar outcomes with far less strain and time than the go-it-alone approach.

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to students starting to prepare for the ACT/SAT?

Relax. A good test score is a shortcut to your desired outcome, not a gate key. There are a thousand paths to achieving your goal in life. Getting a high score might get you there sooner, but a lower score isn't going to preclude your success. Relax, and do what you can. 

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