Erica Meltzer: Founder & CEO, The Critical Reader

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Erica Meltzer is Founder and CEO of The Critical Reader, one of America's leading test preparation companies. With over 150,000 copies sold, her SAT and ACT Reading and Writing guides consistently rank at the top of their respective categories on Amazon, outperforming comparable guides produced by Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Barron’s. She has been featured in Teen Vogue, The College Solution, and CBS Moneywatch, and her books are currently used by students and tutors worldwide. Erica graduated from Brookline High School and earned her B.A., magna cum laude, from Wellesley College. Before becoming involved in test prep, she worked in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University and in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University, where she helped coordinate graduate admissions. From 2006 until 2015, she tutored privately in Manhattan as well as online, helping students around the world achieve their SAT/ACT goals and gain admission to a number of top colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Duke.

How did you get into the industry?

In 2008, I was tutoring a student for the Writing section of the SAT. I didn’t want her to use up all the questions in the Official Guide, and so I went to the bookstore looking for additional practice material. I looked through the standard offerings and was pretty shocked at how poorly they reflected the actual test. I’d already written practice questions for a bunch of independent companies, but until then, it had never occurred to me that I could write my own materials. But as I looked through the guides on the shelves, I thought, “I can do so much better than this.” So basically, I just started compiling sentences and creating SAT-style errors in them for my student. She was severely dyslexic, but she ended up scoring a 750 on the Writing section (which was much better than even her parents expected!), and so I realized I was on to something. I started developing exercises more systematically and writing up my explanations as well. At first, it was just with the intention of giving them to my students, but everyone did so well and so consistently, that it eventually occurred to me that I could turn my worksheets into an actual book. That’s how The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar was born.

Any emerging industry trends?

I think that an increasing number of students are taking both the SAT and the ACT in order to see which test they perform better on. In the past, the SAT vs. ACT decision was very much geographically determined (SAT on the coasts, ACT in the Midwest), but there’s been a real change there. There’s also a tentative move towards online testing: the ACT has already administered an online version of the exam to a limited group of students, but there are still software and administration kinks to be worked out. It’ll be interesting to watch how that plays out over the next few years.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Much is currently being made of the fact that an increasing number of colleges and universities are making SAT or ACT scores optional for applicants, but I think that, paradoxically, that shift may end up being a boon for the test-prep industry. If lower-scoring students no longer submit scores, then overall averages will shift higher, putting increasing pressure on applicants to score well. And the reality is that many schools will continue to use test scores to determine eligibility for scholarships as well as admission to specialized programs, particularly in STEM fields. The test-optional movement is also counterbalanced by the use of the SAT as a graduation requirement in some states and the increasing popularity of school-day testing. New York City, for example, now administers the SAT to thousands of juniors for free. So even if there is a slight uptick in the number of students choosing not to sit for an admissions test at all, it probably won’t have much of an impact on a macro level. If anything, the number of students taking – and prepping for – the SAT may actually increase.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

It’s hardly a secret that wealthier students enjoy an advantage in the college admissions process, not least in terms of access to test-prep classes and tutors. At the same time, though, standardized tests also give students who don’t come from well-off families, and who attend high schools that college admissions officers might not be familiar with, the opportunity to demonstrate that they can hold their own academically against more advantaged peers. In founding The Critical Reader, my goal was to help level the playing field by making publicly available the same high-quality content, methods, and strategies that proved so effectivefor my private students. Although there is general correlation between income and test scores, it’s not simple cause-and-effect relationship. For a bright, motivated student, money need not be a barrier to performing well on college entrance exams.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

Right now, I’m focusing on obtaining wider bookstore distribution. I’ve had a lot of success in the online marketplace, and a number of tutoring companies are using my books, both in the US and globally, but my goal is for people to be able to walk into a Barnes & Noble anywhere in the country and know that they can find my books sitting on the shelves.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

It’s a cliché that when you write a book, you should have a blog to go along with it, but in my case, my blog – and now my entire website – has really been central to engaging both students and parents, and it’s paid off in incredible ways. One of the very first students to buy my SAT grammar book was a student from Puerto Rico who found me via my blog. English wasn’t even his first language, but he raised his score by 100 points to a 750 in a month and then wrote me a glowing – and extremely detailed – Amazon review. I tutored him when he came to New York to visit colleges, and he was actually the one who persuaded me to write a reading book for the SAT – it was such a massive project that I’d really resisted doing it, but eventually he wore me down, and it ultimately became my most popular book. As a thank you, I ended up dedicating it to him!

I’ve also really come to value the relationships I’ve developed with other tutors and tutoring companies. I’m thrilled that they’ve found so much success using Critical Reader books, and since I’m no longer tutoring, I really value their feedback regarding what they and their students have found most helpful.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (andwhat did you learn?)

I entered the test-prep market at one of the most unstable points in its history: shortly after I published my third SAT prep book, the College Board announced that it would completely overhaul the exam in 2016 – which meant that I basically needed to rewrite almost 700 pages of material from scratch in less than a year. No one was certain how the test-prep industry would change – whether the SAT would regain its dominance over the ACT, or whether the ACT would become the more popular test. It was a huge lesson in not getting too comfortable with the status quo and in reframing industry shifts as opportunities. As a hedge against SAT’s potential loss of dominance, I spent the eighteen months or so after the College Board’s announcement producing a set of verbal guides for the ACT. Immediately after finishing those, I turned back to the SAT books. Because I needed to rework them well in advance of the first administration of the new exam in order to give students enough time to prepare, I didn’t have real tests to study from and had to proceed based on the small amount of official material that had been released. Luckily, almost all of my guesses turned out to be accurate, and the new editions did even better than the old ones, but things were really pretty hair-raising for a while.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

There’s a huge amount of pressure for kids to pile on AP classes and a zillion extracurricular activities in order to be competitive college applicants, and test prep is just one more thing to worry about. There’s no need for the process to be overwhelming, though, and my goal is to help make the test-prep process as painless and efficient as possible. My books are designed to offer a clear roadmap, helping students identify specific areas that need work and then teaching them to conquer those areas on their own. Ideally, someone can use the Official Guide question indexes in my books to figure out what to study, read the relevant chapters, do some targeted practice, and then transfer their new skills to the actual test questions. One student reported that they improved by 40 points in only a few hours!

How do you motivate others?

The biggest compliment a reader can give me is that they felt as though I was sitting next to them, talking, while they were working through the book. If students feel as though someone understands where they’re coming from and knows just how to help them avoid mistakes they didn’t even know they were about to make, they’re much more likely to apply themselves. I also try to convey my genuine interest in the topics I write about, in a way that helps students understand how they apply beyond the test. I’ve even had students tell me that they developed a fascination with grammar because of my books and have even been named editor of their high school or college newspaper.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Figure out what your particular niche is and focus on excelling in it; don’t feel pressure to be a generalist if your strengths really lie in a particular area. Do your best not to overpromise: people will respect you if you’re clear upfront about what you can and can’t accomplish. Also, take the time to really understand your market: before you spend the time investing in creating a product, study the key players and offerings, and determine how exactly you can provide value that goes beyond what’s already available. If you can explain clearly and specifically how you can help people achieve their goals, you’ll already be a big step ahead.