Interview: Jean Burk, College Prep Genius

Jean Burke College Preparation

At CareerGlider, we love to celebrate success, and Jean Burk has helped her students achieve more than their share. An author, public speaker, and founder of College Prep Genius, she has helped countless students reach their potential by improving their standardized test scores. Her past students include National Merit Scholars and Ivy League graduates, and her advice is valued around the world. We caught up with her recently to talk about choosing a college, career advice, and the dreaded SATs.

CareerGlider: Before you founded College Prep Genius, you were homeschooling two kids and looking for a way to pay for their college. You were able to teach them the SAT and help both of them achieve full scholarships. There’s a big difference between teaching your kids and turning that into a successful full-time business. Can you speak a little about how you were able to do that?

Jean Burk: About thirteen years ago, when my son Josh was in ninth grade, we literally had no money for college, and we did want him to go but we really didn’t know how to do that. And my friend mentioned to me one day that there was free college based on test scores, and at the time I didn’t realize that colleges went up on their rankings nationally based on their test scores, so the higher you score the more money you get because, basically, you made them look good. So with my son Josh, we started trying to go through these tests, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, it was very helter-skelter, but he became a National Merit Scholar and we ended up throwing away seven trash bags full of college offers, so we got full ride and free tuition and room and board and grad school money, everything paid for.

So after my daughter received free college and all her scholarship offers, my friends would call me on the phone wanting to know what I did, and I put it all together and wrote a book, College Prep Genius, and then I wanted to put together a really practical class. I started teaching it out of my home with about three kids, and from there my living room was totally filled with children, and then schools started calling me, and then people from other cities would call me and want me to come to their city and teach my class, and then other states would call me, and now I go to other countries to teach my program. So it’s crazy but we’ve had kids raise their SATs 600, 700 points, we’ve got lots of National Merit Scholars and kids who’ve gone to Ivy Leagues for free, all based on just learning how to take a test.

People just heard about me, and I just was sharing what I knew—I didn’t know it was going to turn into a business—it’s been great, it’s been life-changing.

CG: What to you are the most important factors in choosing a college? And if you don’t have a full scholarship, how much should cost come into that?

JB: If you don’t have a full ride [cost] is a big consideration, because you don’t want to get strapped with debt. By the beginning of freshman year, 25% of students have dropped out of college, and by the end of sophomore year 50% have dropped out, and the number one reason students drop out is finances, and the number two reason students drop out is the workload. So only about one third of all students who enroll in college actually graduate. And because finances are one of the main reasons why students drop out, unfortunately cost has to become a great consideration.

But, if finances are a problem and you don’t have a full ride, certainly there are a lot of other options, be it junior college, or there’s a lot of ways you can get scholarships while you are in college. I’ll meet people who are already enrolled in college, who did poorly on their SATs and didn’t get a very good scholarship package, but I showed them ways you can still get scholarship money. So I think that if you’re in that situation where you’re already in college or you bombed your SATs, knowledge is power. If you know all the other ways to get help, that’s a really big thing for families, to know that there are other options.

CG: Do you have any advice for people who are considering going back to college later in life, whether that’s junior college or a four-year institution?

JB: I have lots of students who’ve been out of school a few years, or even adults who’ve come to my class, that have wanted to go back to college, and there definitely are scholarships available for people, even when you’ve been out of school—there’s a lot of little-known scholarships that people can get. Even for adults—they can participate in CLEP courses from the College Board, where they can actually get some college credit under their belts, while they’re at home, while they’re still working, while they have kids. So there’s also other ways to get college credit besides actually enrolling in an actual college if they don’t have time.

I think it’s a great thing—so many times life gets in the way, you start off going to college, and then you get married and have kids, and you raise them and you realize, well now I want to go back and get my degree. Sometimes it doesn’t take a full four years to get a degree, a lot of these colleges will give you life credit, plus nowadays you can do online courses, so you don’t necessarily have to leave your family and go off and enroll in a dorm or anything, to be able to get that degree.

CG: Moving onto the workplace, one of the things you speak about is the importance to employers of soft skills. Do you think that soft skills have grown in importance to employers, and what soft skills do you think are most important?

JB: ‘Soft skills’ really basically means who you are as a person. I think one of the things that happens is that when an employer hires someone they often don’t take into consideration that person as a whole you really need to be self-disciplined and self-governed. My motto is when somebody works for me is that I want them to be low-maintenance and to make me look good. I think if you’re constantly having to babysit someone, I think if you don’t already bring that to the table, you can’t really put in what God has left out.

So I think people really need to already come [with those qualities]—and not just show up to get a paycheck or get paid by the hour, because they really are a reflection of your company. And so coming in with character and integrity and being able to be a team player, I think it’s so important. You have to come in already with that attitude, and it’s the only way they’re going to grow as a person, and even grow in their job—if you want to excel or be promoted, those things are very important. I think we need to go back to raising kids that are self-governed and that have a desire to excel in everything they do, no matter where they work or where they go to school, just in everyday life.

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