Talking with An artist who creates ace test-takers

Name: Bara Sapir
Age: 44
City: Oakland
Position: Author of “Full Potential GMAT,” founder of a holistic test prep course, Judaica artist


J.: As the author of “Full Potential GMAT” and the founder of Test Prep New York and Test Prep San Francisco, you’ve actually taken a lot of the standardized tests that most of us dread. From your experiences, what’s the toughest one?

Bara Sapir: The MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] verbal is the most difficult. But what most people find difficult and challenging, I actually think of as fun, test-wise. I like to rise up to the challenge of taking [a test] … and building a better mousetrap [strategy] for students.

Bara Sapir

J.: You’re also an artist. You have a degree in art history from the University of Michigan and you studied in Jerusalem for two years. What sparked your interest in spending time in Israel?

BS: When I was 23, I met some really interesting folks in Ann Arbor, Mich., who were “Carlebachers” [followers of Reb Schlomo Carlebach]. They were into Buddhism and kind of Rainbowy [mass peace and harmony gatherings]. They would have these amazing Shabbats and festivities that were incredible, had a lot of music and a lot of art. This wasn’t exactly what I grew up with in my Reform Jewish upbringing [in Edison, N.J.]. I was really turned on seeing a whole new world, so I went to Israel in ’95. I didn’t know what this Judaism was, so I wanted to check it out.

J.: What are some of your favorite memories from your two years in Jerusalem?

BS: There’s a fervent desire for study in Israel — a pursual of intellectual knowledge that you couldn’t get enough of it, and it was really delicious. My favorite thing was that you were in sync with the seasons in Israel and there was this feeling that when the [Jewish] holidays rolled around, it was everywhere: from what you were eating to everyone who was celebrating in their own way. I loved the learning and the community.

J.: While in Ann Arbor, you were teaching exam prep classes at Princeton Review. How did you merge your different professional backgrounds — art and test prep — into an entrepreneurial venture?

BS: Someone I traveled with in the Sinai passed away and his best friend, who I met at his memorial service in Aspen, gave me the idea that I could open a company. So in 2005 I opened up a business and a new chapter began. I stopped tutoring and started doing research and development and merging the test prep with the holistic approach and developed a pedagogy for it.

J.: How do the two work together?

BS: What I found is that just because you know the material doesn’t mean you are going to do great on an exam. When students go in freaked out and anxious, they will have a subpar performance. What we do is make sure that when students go in [for the test], they feel great and are confident using holistic modalities. Our results are off the charts, and we’ve seen our students improve 30 percent and higher on their test scores.

J.: You now live in two places: the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. Any preference?

BS: I love both places. I am enchanted with the Bay Area for its beauty, community, surprises, quirks, personal growth opportunities, weather, and celebratory default. I appreciate New York for its clarity, buzz, rooted history, proliferation of creative expression and passion and my ability to be anonymous among throngs of people. Luckily, I seem to have found tribes on both coasts.

You went to Burning Man in 2013. What resonated with you about that?

BS: Similar to Israel, I felt like it was one big tribe and this was my tribe. There were people in all different walks of life — successful moguls to people who were gypsies just rolling around. A curtain had come down on certain social mores of interaction, so you could have meaningful conversation and connections while never seeing the person again. It was just what it was in that moment, and every moment felt fertile with the possibility of “being” in a profound way.

J.: Are you going back this year?

BS: Yes, I already have my ticket!

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