Eugene Cheung learned to play a new game this summer: the SATs.
Cheung, who will be a junior at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, is among dozens of students readying for the menacing test this fall by attending preparatory classes with Ivy Insiders, an expanding Massachusetts-based tutoring program that teaches teens to view the SATs as fun rather than work.
So far, the strategy has succeeded. Last year, Ivy Insiders students boasted an average increase of more than 260 points on their SAT scores, according to company officials.
"The entire class is based on game theories that help you beat the SAT," said Cheung, who went into the workshop hoping to beef up his critical reading skills. "Before reading a passage, I'll now go through the questions first and outline key ideas. I also learned there are 17 grammar concepts that are always on the test."
Since 2003, Ivy Insiders has grown to 250 branches nationwide - spreading into markets against well-known programs like Kaplan, The Princeton Review and Huntington Learning Center. The service uses tutors from Ivy League universities who set up an Ivy Insiders branch in their hometown during the summer months between semesters.
One local tutor is Alice Hu of Stony Brook, a first-time branch manager. Hu, like all Ivy Insiders tutors, had an SAT score ranking in the 99th percentile - and she's college-aged.
"Being young, we were recently in the same shoes as our students," said Hu, 21, a Columbia University senior who scored 2230 on her SAT. "Since the instructors are still close to the test, it's fresh in our minds."
Last month, Hu tutored three teens over a two-week span at Stony Brook University and is hosting another prep class - which starts and ends with a practice test to gauge student progress - that began last week. Other branches are at Garden City and Hampton Bays high schools and Presbyterian Community Church in Massapequa, among other locations.
But despite the local growth, Ivy Insiders are still seen as relatively new kids on the test-prep block. Officials at Nassau and western Suffolk counselors' associations were not familiar enough with the program to comment, while the College Board rebuked SAT prep classes in general.
"There are no shortcuts, tricks or ways to cram for the test," said College Board spokeswoman Sheila Jamison. "The SAT is closely aligned to the high school curriculum and students who do well in their coursework tend to be the same students who do well on the test. Quick prep courses can't replace four years of solid work in the classroom."
With or without recommendations, Ivy Insiders founder Nick Green is eager to reach as many college-bound students as possible.
"Many kids are convinced they won't do well before they even take a standardized test, but it doesn't have to be a burden," he said. "It's a game. And we help define the rules."