Robin Singh has had a brutal week: His students have just received their scores from the recent Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and Singh has been providing emotional first aid, restoring bruised egos and fractured dreams of legal preeminence. But on this Saturday night, at the W Hotel in L.A., he's lounging--bottle-service style--with his TestMasters employees. In his torn jeans and loose suede shirt, surrounded by a dozen twentysomethings in floral button-downs and supersized belt buckles, the 38-year-old Singh doesn't come off as a standardized-test coach who has made millions teaching four-variable logic problems. He looks like a headliner at the Viper Room--and seems pretty happy with his own performance.
Singh takes a slug of Johnnie Walker Blue Label and, in a conspiratorial aside says, "Kaplan's up to something." Kaplan is the industry monster, a national test-prep juggernaut known to every high-school senior (SAT), would-be grad student (GRE), and aspiring lawyer (LSAT) in the country. Kaplan also happens to be a Singh rival--and his former employer. So when Singh says Kaplan is up to something, it probably means Singh's up to something, too.
Test prep has become a bloody trade--a $950 million business--and no slice of it is more competitive than the $240 million graduate-test market, where companies intimidate, threaten, and sue one another with adolescent glee. But Singh must be doing something right. TestMasters, which began as a one-man tutoring shop in his Los Angeles apartment in 1991, has exploded into a $10 million machine with roughly a third of the $30 million national LSAT-prep industry; on his adopted turf of California (he's from Tallahassee, Florida), his company boasts an astonishing 60% share. "Kaplan may be the first to put out a new product," says Singh, never one to soft-sell his own gifts. "But it's not going to be the best."
Kaplan, part of the Washington Post Co., is the biggest for-profit education business in the country, with more than a quarter of its $1.1 billion in revenue coming from test prep (the company doesn't break out revenues for specific courses). But it's still wary of its slacker nemesis. "TestMasters is an example of what we've always seen: someone who starts out as one of our teachers and then figures they can do it on their own," says Ben Baron, vice president of graduate programs at Kaplan. "For most, that proves to be a lot harder than they think it will be. But Robin seems to have done a pretty good job of building a business." In this tight-lipped world, Baron's comments qualify as gushing.
Now Singh is looking to do to Kaplan nationally what he did in California. Already he has 20% of the LSAT market in DC and a 13% slice in New York; he also expanded his curriculum to include the SAT, GRE, and other standardized tests. And don't let the L.A. vibe fool you: Singh's a territorial beast who will come after anyone within poaching range of his intellectual property. He has been locked in battle for more than six years with a Houston company called Test Masters over ownership of the domain name (and was nearly thrown in jail after a confrontation on the courthouse steps). And he once dispatched a mole to infiltrate a competitor, a former partner who, he suspected, was using TestMasters materials.
Singh enjoys being deposed because he gets to let his logic skills run off leash.
Singh says he actually enjoys being deposed because he gets to let his logic skills run off leash. Still, taking down behemoths such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review is likely to prove trickier than your average syllogism. "Everyone knows that Robin is an excellent teacher who we need to keep our eye on," says Steve Quattrociocchi, executive vice president and general manager of test prep for the Princeton Review, which offered to buy TestMasters in 1998. "But companies like his usually get hung up when they try to expand beyond the guru."
More than 100,000 people each year take the LSAT, a six-part daylong affair designed to suck every last bit of their mental juice. The result is likely to be the single most important number of one's career--the difference between a partnership at Akin Gump and one at Dewey Cheatem and Howe. "Those few extra questions you get right or wrong could end up determining everything about your life," Singh says.
Before Singh became a guru--a label he rejects even as he plasters his name on virtually every piece of TestMasters material--he was just another rudderless student at Duke. But after getting a perfect score on the LSAT (the first of 12--more than anyone in history), he enrolled in the University of Southern California's law program in 1989. Three months later, he dropped out. "I was just tired of doing things that other people told me to do," says Singh. "I just thought it was all bogus." To pay the bills, he became an LSAT instructor for Kaplan.
The LSAT tests people's capacity for logical thinking and is the single best indicator of how they will perform in law school; unlike most graduate programs, law schools give the exam up to an 80% weighting when considering an application. "But Kaplan had a completely substandard course at the time," says Singh. So he shelved their simulated questions, began teaching from the actual LSAT questions, and quickly became one of the most requested instructors in L.A.
Singh says that when Kaplan noticed his new approach and asked him to share it--for free--he decided to bail. "I started to think: 'Wait a minute, I can do my own thing,' " he recalls while chain-smoking in the Bel Air home he leases from a man named, yes, Kaplan. In 1991, after a couple of months of private tutoring, Singh started TestMasters.
The company was different from the outset. Singh offered what even rival Quattrociocchi calls "deep, deep content." His classes were long (four hours, twice a week), academically rigorous, and taught only by those who'd scored in the 99th percentile (a standard that may be tough to maintain as the company grows). Singh deconstructed the test like a logic sleuth, not through mnemonic gimmicks but with hard-core logic: conditional statements (sufficient/ necessary constructions), contrapositives, and numerical distributions. LSAT questions were divided and subdivided into types and diagrammed like quantum theorems. Singh, in other words, had cracked the code.
"Learning the [LSAT] system from Robin is like learning the assembly line from Henry Ford," says James Judah, a second-year student at Columbia University and former TestMasters instructor. Take the following question from one of the "logical reasoning" sections of the LSAT, which account for 50% of the test:
Only an expert in some branch of psychology could understand why Patrick is behaving irrationally. But no expert is certain of being able to solve someone else's problem. Patrick wants to devise a solution to his own behavioral problem.
Which of the following conclusions can be validly drawn from the passage?
In Singh's world, the passage gets broken down into its constituent propositions:
1) IF you Understand, THEN you're an Expert:
U → E (sufficient condition) → (necessary condition)
2) IF you're an Expert, THEN you're not Certain:
E → C/ (sufficient condition) → (necessary condition)
3) Through the transitive property, you get: IF you Understand, THEN you're an Expert and you're not Certain:
U → E/ → C/
4) The contrapositive of which is: IF you're Certain, THEN you're not an Expert and you don't Understand:
C → E/ → U/
And this is before you even get to the five possible answers, which often require diagramming themselves. The valid conclusion in this case turns out to be: "If Charles is certain of being able to solve Patrick's behavioral problem, then Charles does not understand why Patrick is behaving this way." Or, in Singh speak:
"Nobody used the term 'sufficient/necessary' in LSAT before I did," Singh says. He was also a pioneer by beating both Kaplan and Princeton in licensing every past test question and providing all students with a copy, which is now standard industry practice.
For Singh, it wasn't enough that students did well on the test; they had to "dominate" it. And for $1,250, he promised to transform mere mortals into engines of pure logic. "You can have a girl who dreams of being Miss America, but if she doesn't have that look, there's only so much Maybelline you can apply," he says. "But anyone can learn that because all apples are fruits doesn't mean that all fruits are apples."
Kaplan realized Singh was a force--and the battle for L.A. was on. During the "flyer wars" of the early 1990s, both companies plastered UCLA with posters. Kaplan, Singh claims, sent out sorties to tear down his ads. The sparring escalated into full-page attack ads: TestMasters bought one in U.S. News & World Report; Kaplan bought ad space in Newsweek, its corporate cousin. Singh reveled in the publicity. His enrollment numbers swelled. By the mid-1990s, he had a stranglehold on the L.A. market.
"I'm so upset," wails Simon, a UCLA senior at TestMasters' Santa Monica offices. "What went wrong?" Simon is just one of the students facing Singh, results in hand. They look like children staring at the remains of the family dog. Simon mutters, a broken man at 21. He got a 161, the 84th percentile.
With more than 8,000 students a year like Simon, Singh has tapped into a deep pool of people who have defined their lives by a three-digit number--and will spend anything to raise it. (And there's always the option of one-on-one instruction with the master himself--for $1,000 an hour.)
Singh listens intently from behind an enormous desk. "Of course you're going to take it again!" he tells Simon, with relentless optimism. "You have nothing to lose! You can only score higher!" (This isn't true, of course--Simon could easily score lower.)
Sessions like this prove why Singh is the Tony Robbins of test prep. But he's also a damn good businessman. "When people see that you take the time, they can refer you to 50 other people over the next three years," he says, estimating that 80% of his business is word of mouth (the bulk of his roughly million-dollar marketing budget goes to Yahoo and Google). And he knows that it takes time to get people talking in a new market: In 2000, for example, he held a five-person class in Phoenix that cost $15,000 and collected only $6,000; last year TestMasters took in more than $100,000 there.
Singh's next offensive targets the East Coast, and TestMasters' revenues in New York have already spiked from $10,358 in 2000 to $880,690 in 2004. Beyond that, he's developing logic and critical-reasoning tools for rich, obsessive kids (the kind born to rich, obsessive parents). He's not even selling them as test prep, but simply as extra leverage to set Junior on the right path. And he's working on a new supersecret project that he's sure will really "bury the competition."
"Logic is the most underemphasized aspect of our society," Singh says. Then, with a hint of exhaustion, he concedes: "I only wish I could clone myself!"
Jonathan Sabin is a teacher and freelance writer based in New York.