When Shuang "Shelly" Xu asks her students how many points they want to improve their SAT score, most say 100, maybe 200. She just smiles and says, "Why not 600?"
That is the number of points by which Xu said she improved her college admission test score while she was a student at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
Xu's father, Wentao Xu, said his daughter took her score of 1690 from sophomore year and raised it to 2300 — out of a possible 2400 — by the time she graduated last year
Now, Shuang Xu has brought a study program to Kentucky to encourage students to set their goals high for college admission test scores.
Xu, 19, grew up in China and Japan before moving to Lexington, where her father works for Lexmark. Because of the language barriers and differences in Asian and American education systems, Xu said it was difficult for her to approach the test with confidence.
"English is my third language, so I struggled with my reading in the SAT. But basically, I just didn't give up," she said.
In China, the test equivalent to the SAT or ACT can be taken only once, Xu said. In America, she had more opportunities to improve her score. Xu said she was determined to make the most of the test.
Xu tried test-prep programs but thought they were too general in their study approach. Her mother was studying to take the GRE, an admissions test for graduate school, so she and Xu used some traditional Chinese study methods together, but Xu mostly used her own trial-and-error techniques to master the SAT.
Xu is now a student at Columbia University in New York City, majoring in sustainable development and political science. When she got to Columbia, she discovered Ivy Insiders, a test-prep program for the SAT and ACT that recruited college students as teachers. The program was started in 2003 by a group of Harvard graduates.
Xu quickly realized many of her own study techniques were the same as those used by Ivy Insiders. She said the program used very specific tips to conquer the tricks of standardized tests.
"For example, on the SAT writing sample, they do not check facts," she said. "Students spend so much time trying to remember what they learned in class when really you can make anything up as long as you are specific."
Xu approached the chief executive officer of Ivy Insiders in February with her idea of launching the program in Kentucky, which surprised him.
"When the company first started, they tried a branch in Kentucky and it failed, but the fact that it failed made me want to try it even more," she said.
Beverly Smith, the facilitator for the math, science and technology magnet program at Dunbar, remembers Xu as a self-starter. Smith said she thinks prep programs like Ivy Insiders are beneficial to any student who sets their goals high for college.
"All these programs help improve test scores," she said. "I think Shelly will succeed. She is very dynamic."
In high school, Xu won multiple state contests for science and art. She now works as a staff illustrator for the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school newspaper; is a member of a fashion club at Columbia; and she is an assistant at School of Social Work.
Xu said a well-rounded application is important for college admissions, but test scores count for as much as 35 percent to 45 percent of an application.
Recruiting students for her classes has been a challenge. Her current class is also her first. Xu said one of the biggest obstacles is persuading parents, not just the students, to sign up.
"Parents feel I might not be qualified because I'm young, but I think it's a strength because it means I am more familiar with the SAT their kids are about to take," she said.
One of Xu's students, Mimi Aldabbagh, said many of her high school classmates don't really know what is on the SAT and why it is important.
"A lot of people don't even know their score is a main part of a scholarship for college," Aldabbagh said.
Aldabbagh is going to be a junior at Dunbar in the fall. She said her goal is to get a 1400 or a 1500 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT reading and math portions. She said Ivy Insiders is teaching her how to make the most out of the time limits on each section of the test.
"A lot of the techniques we are learning help you move on faster in the test," she said. "The test is basically a race with time."
Xu is spreading the word about the classes, which she is teaching in Lexington during the summer only, by offering free practice tests and sending mass e-mails. She said many Kentucky students might think schools like Harvard or Columbia are out of reach, but she hopes to change that.
"Students here don't believe they have the potential to increase their scores by that many points, but they can," she said.