Terryln Smock worried that her daughter might not do well enough on the SAT exam for U.S. college admission. So she bought some peace of...

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Terryln Smock worried that her daughter might not do well enough on the SAT exam for U.S. college admission. So she bought some peace of mind.

A lawyer, Smock flew a tutor for the Princeton Review from New York to her house at Hull Bay on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For $200 an hour, Fritz Stewart worked with Rebecca Smock two hours a day for three weeks in the home’s library. She scored “near 1400” out of a possible 1600, says her mother, and entered Stanford University last year.

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“It cost a pretty penny, but it was worth it, just for her comfort level,” her mother says.

Many colleges require the SAT so that they have a standardized way to measure applicants’ abilities, and college-admissions anxiety is driving more parents and students into the arms of SAT coaches.

University officials and high-school counselors frown on the practice, saying it is overpriced and unnecessary. Yet demand is pushing up prices as globetrotting tutors command as much as $685 an hour.

It’s a growing business. The U.S. test-preparation market will increase 5 percent this year to about $400 million, according to Eduventures, a Boston market-research firm.

The Princeton Review, a publicly traded, New York-based test-preparation company, reported that first-quarter revenue for test preparation rose 22 percent to $22.9 million from a year earlier.

It cited a 45 percent enrollment increase for SAT courses as students prepared for the new version of the exam containing an essay test in addition to the math and verbal segments.

“We have kids coming in and crying, some not taking the test because they’re panicked, kids having asthma attacks,” says Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, a New York test-preparation and admissions service.

“We tell a lot of nervous parents who call us to go to the gym and call us when you get back because they’re just very stressed out.”

Inspirica’s only “master” tutor, Donald Viscardi, costs $525 an hour. Advantage Testing in New York charges $685 for its best tutors. And a top tutor with the Princeton Review can cost as much as $300 an hour.

Admissions officers don’t contain their disapproval.

“I have a dim view of private SAT prep courses, particularly ones that charge exorbitant fees and prey on student anxiety,” says Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Frank Sachs, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, whose members include 9,000 U.S. high-school counselors, says SAT tutoring prices are reaching alarming levels.

“It’s a sad commentary on where things are going and an awful lot of money to pay for something you can do on your own,” says Sachs, director of college counseling at the Blake School in Minneapolis. “A college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

Robert Schaeffer, public-education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., likens the situation to an arms race favoring the rich.

“Parents think, ‘Our child will be left in the dust unless they get even better weapons,’ ” he says.

A 2004 survey by the College Board, the New York-based company that produces the SAT exam, found that students in households with incomes from $10,000 to $20,000 scored an average 872 out of 1600, while those from families earning more than $100,000 had an average score of 1,115.

Inspirica’s Jacobson says part of the tutor’s job is to reduce students’ stress by telling them what questions to expect on the SAT. Reducing stress usually leads to a better score, she says.

The most ambitious parents who hire Inspirica request tutor Viscardi. For $525 an hour, he’ll spend as much as 40 hours with students, assessing weaknesses, tutoring on SAT strategies and drilling them with practice questions.

“My service is a luxury,” says Viscardi. “It’s very expensive, but it’s definitely worth it in terms of getting the very best performance.

“You can prep on your own,” he says, “but when a trouble spot comes along, you’ll know how to deal with it.”

The Princeton Review guarantees a student’s score will increase at least 200 points after tutoring in private or classroom settings, says Amy Schuyler, head of private tutoring.

The company offers a 24-hour tutoring package. It charges $4,800 for a “master” tutor with five to 10 years of experience and $7,200 for a “premier” tutor with more than 10 years, Schuyler said. For 24 hours, the “premier” tutor comes to $300 an hour.

Comparable group tutoring in a classroom setting costs $800 to $1,000 at Princeton Review, she says.

Elsa Hetherington of Manhattan says she hired two Inspirica tutors to boost her daughter’s chances of gaining admission to Harvard, Yale, Columbia University and the University of Chicago. After scoring 1,150 on a practice test, Sarah Hetherington took 55 hours of tutoring and seven mock exams, then scored 1,440 on the real SAT.

“They gave her a great deal of self-confidence when she walked into the SAT,” says Elsa Hetherington, whose daughter attends the University of Chicago.

Stewart, the Princeton Review tutor who went to the Virgin Islands, is a 1987 applied-mathematics graduate of Stanford and holds graduate degrees in computer science and music. He says he began tutoring in 1996 after quitting a “boring” job as a computer-systems analyst.

“I can help the student understand that the SAT is much less a test of content and more of a mind game,” Stewart says. “Then you watch their scores go up, and I love that.”