SAT Prep Gone Wild

Only wealthy kids are lucky enough to get primed for their SATs with a formal prep course, right? Not anymore. The online social enterprise I Need...

Only wealthy kids are lucky enough to get primed for their SATs with a formal prep course, right? Not anymore. The online social enterprise I Need A Pencil (INAP) is leveling the playing field for students from all economic backgrounds. Founded by Harvard junior Jason Shah, INAP targets low-income students who wouldn't otherwise have access to college advice, online lessons, mentors, or 24/7 email support– and unlike Kaplan and Princeton Review, it's all free. "Families shouldn't have to spend the equivalent of a college classes' tuition just to get ready to take the SAT," says Shah…Since launching in 2007, over 30,000 high school students from families with an average income of $40-80,000 have prepared for the SAT using INAP's program. Like Princeton Review and Kaplan, INAP users begin by taking an SAT practice test. The site then creates an estimated SAT score as a baseline starting point and provides users with areas of content strength and weakness.INAP users get 60 custom lessons tailored to academic weaknesses, and an unlimited number of custom SAT questions and practice tests. In comparison, Shah says Kaplan's SAT Online program offers 30 lessons for $399 with only four practice tests. The Princeton Review's SAT Live Online costs $699 for 20-30 hours of tutoring with four practice tests. Shah is critical of the prices. "Charging so much puts SAT prep out of most families' reach. What are we saying?" he asks, "That only rich kids deserve to be prepared for the SAT?"The site's beginnings stem from Shah's 2005 visit to his sister's sixth-grade Teach For America classroom in West Philadelphia. "One student asked me three times in a half hour how to spell the word ball," he says. When the kids talked about going to college, Shah, who was only a high school sophomore at the time, couldn't imagine how they'd be able to score high enough on the SAT to be accepted anywhere.Back home in Daytona Beach Florida, while his peers worked on their tans, Shah decided to chip away at education-based social inequality. He launched in-person tutoring initiatives that met with mixed results. A few months later, Shah heard a classmate calling out for a pencil. "I couldn't believe this kid was so unprepared he didn't even have a pencil," he says. When a friend convinced him to move his tutoring efforts online, the memory of that unprepared student inspired the domain name.Shah's parents invested $10,000 after reviewing his 40-page business plan. Shah spent the money on a team of curriculum designers and web developers from his parent's hometown in India. "They had no idea I was just a high school student," he says.On Saturdays, Shah drove around low-income areas tucking flyers on car windshields, and hosted sessions about getting into college at area high schools. But INAP really took off the summer of 2008 after his first year at Harvard when he scoured the web, tracked down over 1,000 after-school programs, and sent out a stock email about INAP. "I didn't have a plan for what to do if anybody responded," Shah says. Soon he had fifty programs implementing INAP.These days, INAP works with 120 after-school programs and the network is swiftly expanding through community-based organizations. Leandrew Robinson, the founder of Berkeley Scholars to Cal, an organization focused on mentoring Bay Area African American youth, praises INAP's efforts. "Many of our students are low income," he says. "I Need a Pencil is literally the only way for them to get quality SAT preparation." INAP's also been a finalist in the Dell Social Innovation competition, has received a SparkFeed grant, and won the Harvard I3 Innovation Challenge.The SAT score gap between the lowest and highest income brackets is 232 points, but Shah says INAP's closing it- his users are showing a 202-point increase in scores. With over 1.2 million low-income students nationwide, he's set a goal of reaching half a million low-income students a year. "I'm only reaching a fraction of possible users right now," says Shah. "I want to read about the achievement gap in history books, not newspapers. College can't just be for kids with money."This post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.Photo courtesy of INAP
Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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