For any number of academically ambitious students across Northern Virginia, the route to acceptance to the college or university of their choice begins at a small table on the second floor of Arlington’s Central Library.
There, they huddle with Paul Gruber, who has carved out a niche in assisting students in navigating the college-admissions process.
“There’s a cover for every pot,” Gruber says of connecting students and colleges. He’s there to help.
Students working with Gruber over the past year have ended up at Princeton, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech – “across the board, really good schools,” he said.
Sipping on a smoothie (food and beverages are allowed at the library these days) in between appointments on a recent Thursday evening, the Arlington resident takes the chance to detail his journey from a nearly 40-year career in New York’s school system to becoming a tutor whose students travel from across Northern Virginia, as well as Maryland, for his services.
Upon retirement in New York, Gruber ended up in Arlington – not typically thought of as a place to retire to – because he had family in the area, it had a good cultural life and was close enough to his old home to get back when he wanted to.
Starting out tutoring those hoping to improve scores on the SAT and ACT standardized college-entrance exams, Gruber has expanded his repertoire. From math to English to Spanish, he’s become a go-to guy over the past six years.
“My name floats around, I guess,” Gruber said. “I get lots of family members, relatives of relatives of relatives.” Students at high schools as varied at James Madison, Washington-Lee and Gonzaga are represented.
Tutors and coaches are not miracle-workers, Gruber said. Planning for college has to begin early and needs to actively involve both students and their parents.
“You’ve got to be very honest with students about what you can do and what you can’t do,” he said. “Look at where you’re at, look at what you want to do. It’s a family project.”
Having served as both a teacher and guidance counselor – and led seminars for teachers about standardized testing – Gruber suggests the college search begin in earnest in a student’s freshman year of high school.
“You can change your mind seven, eight times, that’s OK . . . [but you] have to start thinking about where you want to end up,” he said.
Parents should begin taking their children on college visits as high-school freshmen, and students should consider taking summer programs at college beginning in their sophomore years.
The good news: Many parents and students in Northern Virginia take the process seriously.
“I’m seeing more kids coming in earlier, prepared earlier,” he said, noting that the youngest student he’s currently tutoring is in fifth grade. (The oldest, by the way, is 50 years old, studying for the GRE exam for graduate school.)
The challenge comes when parents and students put off their efforts. Suddenly, a student’s senior year has arrived, and he/she has no firm grounding on even where to start in finding a college.
“It’s hard to play catch-up,” Gruber acknowledged, and advises against getting frantic in the effort to do so. “You can only be yourself; don’t try to be someone else.”
For those simply overwhelmed by the whole process, Gruber says local residents have a good option: They can take core classes at Northern Virginia Community College, then transfer them to a four-year institution. “NOVA is a very good program – [and] it’s a better buy,” he said.
As for taking standardized exams, Gruber believes it should not be an either/or decision when considering the SAT or its rival, the ACT.
“Absolutely I think [students] should take both,” he said. “Some people are going to do better on one, some are going to do better on the other.”
For generations, students in the local area were wedded to the SAT. Over the past decade, the ACT has made significant inroads, in part because it’s a shorter test (about half the five hours needed for the SAT).
The organizations that run the two tests seem to have different views of change: While the ACT “is always evolving . . . but it doesn’t change its format,” the SAT occasionally does a major revamp. The latest significant revision, which occurred last spring, has meant colleges are left wondering if a 1500 score from previous years really equates to a 1500 score now.
“It’s a great exam, but nobody knows what it means,” Gruber said of the new SAT, although he expects everything will settle down as educators and administrators have more data to work with.
Gruber believes students should take the SAT for the first time in the second semester of their junior year, and the ACT in the latter part of their junior year, to align with what’s being taught in class.
Standardized tests are different from classroom tests, requiring students to approach them in a different way.
The key to standardized-testing success – and a place where coaches can help – is “knowing how the test is constructed, what you have to look for,” Gruber said.
“They want students to basically think outside of the box; how do you get outside the box?” he said. “Everything is step by step.”
“The biggest hurdle is generally math, even for students who are good at math in school,” Gruber said.
But parents and students need to remember that testing is only one part of the college-admissions process. Institutions of higher learning are looking for “the overall package,” Gruber said.