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A Short History of Get Smarter Prep

With a strong reputation among our local schools and having helped thousands of families in the greater Kansas City area achieve the scores they needed for the schools they wanted, one might think Get Smarter has been around for ages.  This month we put another academic year behind us and next month we celebrate our ninth year in Kansas City (not quite ages, yet), and we hope to be around many more years.  As we reflect on nine years of score improvements, educating families about college, and answering numerous questions about this process, we thought we would share a short history of how we got here in the first place.

The story starts in 2004.  Stephen Heiner, the founder of Get Smarter Prep, was in Southern California.  He taught test prep part-time but loved it so much he wanted to do it full-time.  He tossed around ideas, recruited from among the best he knew, and then took a weekend retreat with several other colleagues and talked about aspects they liked from the big-box companies and things they didn’t like, and came up with a small-group focused firm.  The goal was to teach fewer students per class, because more personal attention meant higher score increases, period.

It was successful for two years, building up a strong practice within Orange County, California.  Stephen wanted to leave the area to move to a part of the country with a little less stress, a lot less traffic, and a more reasonable housing market, among other reasons.  He had family near Kansas City and had always liked KC when he had previously visited.  He did research on the area, looking at demographics and the schools, and decided to leave the sunny climes of California to move to Kansas City. In July 2006, Get Smarter Prep (GSP) opened its doors in Overland Park, just a few doors down from where our current offices are today.  (As an aside, for those of you who have ever spent time in Southern California you can appreciate what a sacrifice it was, even for half a year, to take on Kansas City weather.)

There were a couple things that the founder didn’t know going in: 1) how much the market had to be educated about these tests and how coachable the tests really are (people thought you either did well or you didn’t, but there wasn’t a real consensus city-wide that there were reliable methods to beat the test and improve scores); 2) how long it would take to get the first paying client (it happened in December 2006).

From January 2007 until the present day, GSP has grown our practice. We’ve even been privileged enough to have a teacher who was part of the first training class still be with us: Gina Claypool.  We’ve learned that the best way to get new clients now is the way we got clients in the first place: word of mouth.  Nothing creates belief in a company like someone you know directly benefiting from a company’s services and then telling people they know about it.  This isn’t to say we don’t do other things.  We advertise in selected print pieces.  We manage our social media and search engine presence.  We sponsor school teams and/or calendars.  We also sponsor or have booths at college fairs and other similar events.  We give talks at schools to calm parents down about college or about the PSAT or about any of these standardized tests that only scare because people don’t know the truth.

As we move into our 9th year the spirit of the founder is still strong at GSP. We still focus on small group classes and private tutoring.  We still stay on the phone with parents until we’ve answered every question they have.  We still have the highest standards for the teachers we recruit and we make sure that they have quarterly continuing education to maintain our standards.  And we still remain dedicated to our raison d’etre: “The score you need for the school you want.”  We hope to be able to serve you sometime soon.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Get Smarter Prep Teacher Training

No one who has ever made test prep a big part of his/her life “went to college” for it.  There is no “test prep” major.  Test prep is the art and science of understanding a test inside and out and being able to successfully communicate those ins and outs to students of every level.

The first place we reach out to recruit the best tutors for our company is among our existing tutors.  We’ve found that our teachers (unsurprisingly) know other great people like themselves and refer them to us.  Of course a referral bonus doesn’t hurt!

We also reach out via social media – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and also via Craigslist, from which we found our first hire in Kansas City, Gina Claypool.

We then have an initial interview.  Part of it is perfectly conventional; part of it is more unique. First, we sit down with each candidate and discuss GSP and answer questions. Next, we have an audition in which the candidates are required to teach us something in which they consider themselves to be experts.  I still remember my first interview at a firm over a decade ago now.  One of my colleagues presented “how to talk like a valley girl” complete with etymology and phonetic guides.  Over the years we’ve been taught how to be a true Wisconsin Cheesehead, how to put up a fence, how to dress for success, and many other varied topics! We do this because we love to have fun but also because we want to see how the candidates teach something in an interesting and engaging way.

After this initial screening, applicants are tested in both the ACT and the SAT. Each of our tutors works on both tests with students at all score levels, so we have high score expectations! We make some allowance for skill lost through lack of practice (we doubt you have used the formula for volume of a right cylinder at work recently), but we do expect a minimum score to start training and a higher score to successfully complete training.

After these and other screening requirements, our teachers complete over 25 hours of training for the ACT, followed by over 15 hours of training for the SAT.  We strongly believe that our teachers must be excellent in every subject and extremely competent in both tests.  No matter what our tutors professions are in “real” life (and we have and have had lawyers, engineers, biophysicists, MBAs, professional teachers, and many more) we only want the best and most talented in teaching these exams in front of our students.  Previous success in other areas is no guarantee for success in test prep, and throughout the training process we use various methods to make sure that we are hiring the best test prep tutors.

During training the candidates are taught all of our methods and are asked to “teach back” in small segments what they have been taught by our tutors.  We normally see some attrition during this stage of training, either through self-selection or through culling based on trainers’ judgments.  We have all of our tutors help with training not just to spread out the work, but also to allow the trainees to see different styles, methods, and indeed, jokes.

After final Teachbacks, in which the candidates are asked to teach back long segments, they are tested again on the SAT and ACT.  Despite near perfect scores in the initial screening, scores often increase on the final test, further driving home the belief in these trainees that our methods work.

Finally, the management team, in consultation with the trainers, makes offers to candidates to start as a Classroom Instructor. These teachers start out teaching classroom courses. As soon as that instructor is requested by name for private tutoring, he/she gets promoted to Standard Tutor.  Standard Tutors continue to teach courses but also teach private tutoring. Promotions to Master Tutor and Premier Tutor come with consistently high score increases and consistent requests from parents.  Our Premier Tutors have made test prep an important part of their lives and quite rightfully are the very best in the city at what they do.

Now you know more about the GSP Teacher Training process and what makes our teachers the best at what they do! If you are interested in applying to work for us, please visit our Jobs page.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.