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Bulldog Tutors gives test prep the Ivy touch

BY Christopher Hoffman

2/6/2018
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Mike Newcomer, founder of Bulldog Tutors.
Move over Stanley Kaplan test prep, there's a bulldog in town.

Since 2011, New Haven-based Bulldog Tutors has prepared students throughout the region for the SAT, ACT and virtually every other standardized test. What started out as a one-person operation now employs more than 20 tutors and four staff people at offices in New Haven and Guilford.

Later this year, the company will expand to a third location in Fairfield County, founder and owner Michael Newcomer said.

Newcomer, 34, attributes Bulldog's success to advantages it has over competitors. Foremost is the company's requirement that tutors scored in the top 1 percent on the test they teach, he said. Even with this prerequisite, Bulldog has a surfeit of potential workers thanks to its location in Yale's hometown. That enables the company to hire those who not only know the subject cold but who also excel at teaching, Newcomer said.

"We can be more discerning," Newcomer said.

Bulldog also puts the student's needs first, Newcomer said. Unlike many large test prep firms, Bulldog does not seek to maximize lessons, instead tailoring tutoring to the needs and goals of individual students. More is not necessarily better, he said, adding that even the best tutoring reaches a point of diminishing returns.

"It's more about how to progress to their goal," Newcomer said. "What's a realistic plan to get there that puts as little strain as possible (on the student)?"

At any given moment, Bulldog is tutoring about 50 to 150 students, depending on the time of year, Newcomer said. The firm also provides SAT prep at Hamden and Oxford high schools and offers classes in the LSATS, MCATS and other tests for admission to postgraduate programs.

Dan Cocchiola, coordinator for counseling and career pathways at Hamden High School, said the district hired Bulldog nearly a year ago and is happy with the results. While not every student has improved, those who attended all the classes and did all the work showed an increase of 100 to 300 points, he said.

Cocchiola praised Bulldog's commitment to students of lesser means. Under the firm's agreement with the Hamden public schools, parents pay the full $300 cost for the sessions, with the company waiving fees for a set ratio of students whose families cannot afford to pay, Cocchiola said. When the number of poorer students exceeded the limit, Bulldog accepted them anyway, taking a hit to its bottom line, he said.

"I'm not sure how many people trying to start out a new company are going to make that decision," Cocchiola said.

At first glance, Newcomer seems an unlikely candidate to start a tutoring company. In 2011, he earned his doctorate in biophysics from Yale, but then realized he wasn't interested in a career in academia or industries that typically employ professionals with his background. Inspired in part by his older brother, a chess expert who has made his living teaching the game for more than 20 years, he decided to strike out on his own.

Newcomer started out with two ventures, a recruiting firm and Bulldog Tutors. After selling the recruiting firm, he recognized that he felt more passionate about test prep. Plus, he had experience. An ace standardized test taker – he had achieved the first percentile in each one he took – Newcomer had already tutored while in school to make extra cash.

"I think both are lucrative, but so are a lot of things" he said of his choice. "It's more like, what do you care about more?"

Newcomer set out to turn his passion into a business, and, for the first year, was the company's sole employee. Over time, primarily through word of mouth, the business began to take off, and he expanded.

Even though his career has gone in a totally different direction, Newcomer has no regrets about his long years studying for his PhD, calling it an asset for his business. "I wouldn't trade that education and that way of thinking and approaching the world for anything," he said.

As his business has grown, Newcomer added tutoring in individual subjects and for post-undergraduate education tests. In doing so, he took the MCATS and LSATs, scoring in the first percentile in both. In the last year, he branched out into a new field, creating a new division called Bulldog Coaches that helps students seeking college athletic scholarships.

Looking to the future, Newcomer said he wants to explore a video service that would bring Yale-educated tutors to kids in poorer, more isolated places like eastern Kentucky, where he grew up. It's part of his commitment to the community – which has included work with the New Haven public schools.

Newcomer lives in New York City with his girlfriend and commutes into New Haven.

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com