NEW YORK — Imagine you are a recent Ivy League college graduate, unsure of your chosen career path and looking to make some easy cash. Sure, there’s investment banking or consulting, but the hours are grueling. How about a job where you work only 25 hours a week, have entrée to some of the poshest Fifth Avenue apartments in the city and charge $270 an hour?
No, it isn’t high-class prostitution. It’s the life of a private SAT tutor in Manhattan and the subject of Eliot Schrefer’s debut novel, “Glamorous Disasters,” out this month from Simon & Schuster. Schrefer, 27, and a French and comp lit major at Harvard, moved to New York a year after graduation in 2001 and, following in the footsteps of some of his humanities-oriented friends, began tutoring private school kids in the ABCs of the SAT. About a year into it, he realized he had the makings of a novel.
“I went to a party and someone was like, ‘Oh, tell us a story from your job.’ And then I looked around and there were 15 people listening,” says Schrefer, seated in his sunlit Gramercy apartment.
“Glamorous Disasters” follows the Virginia-native Noah, a Princeton grad, as he navigates the morally treacherous territory of private tutoring. Shuttling between the Upper East and West Sides and his hell-hole Harlem apartment, Noah contends with drug abuse among his students, monetary offers if he’ll take the SAT in their stead and a particularly ferocious wealthy mother who cheats for her son.
Schrefer is quick to state his own tutoring experience was much less dramatic than Noah’s. “It’s all part of that sphere. But the things that happen to Noah, I can fairly say for sure have happened, not necessarily to me,” he says.
Still, the inherent nature of Schrefer’s job grew more unsavory as time passed. The son of a stay-at-home mom and health insurance industry father, Schrefer attended high school in Clearwater, Fla., and was a financial aid student in college. His employers, Advantage Testing (whom Schrefer refers to in the interview only as “the firm”), had tutors whose rates ranged from $200 an hour to upward of $1,000.
“I was charging rates that within three hours it was the monthly cost of most of the apartments we were renting when I was growing up,” explains Schrefer. “What SAT tutoring does is it invisibly alters the admissions pool so a school could try to be as egalitarian as they can, but if a student is SAT tutored and their score goes up 200 points in a year and the college admissions committee has no idea that the student got tutored, all of a sudden it’s shifting the pool back toward old money.”
Indeed, Schrefer’s own experience with the college admissions process was a far cry from the obsessive behavior of his former students.
“I remember my guidance counselor, when I told her I wanted to apply to Harvard, she paused and said, ‘That’s in New York, right?'” he laughs. “The funny thing is, I didn’t really know. It was a few weeks before I was like, ‘No, I think it’s in Massachusetts.'”