Summer Brain Gain: Tutoring is Serious Business for Students Looking to Get Ahead

Avocados deserve a bit of credit for the creation of one of Loudoun County’s fastest growing tutoring businesses.

It’s the high cost of those little green fruits that got Loudoun Test Prep co-founder Vinay Bhawnani thinking.

“After we had our first baby, I remember going to the grocery store wanting to buy avocados because they’re supposed to be good for kids’ development,” he said. “But they were like $4 a piece. I couldn’t afford that, which made me really upset.”

So he thought about what he could do to bring in a few more bucks a week. The next day, his hair stylist told him her son was struggling in Algebra II. “I said, well, let me help him,” he said. “So I started tutoring him. It went well so I took on a few more students.”

He met with students in libraries and coffee shops to help them with their math homework, teach them basic study skills or prepare them for the SAT and ACT. Before long, he was tutoring 20 to 30 students a week on top of his full-time job as a technical director at a startup company.

“My schedule was really tough, but I was doing two things that I love,” Bhawnani said.

In 2012, he met Shawn Sell, who later become his partner at Loudoun Test Prep. Sell, a former USA Today reporter, editor and columnist, was also meeting students at libraries for tutoring sessions. “I thought at first she was my competition, but then we met and realized what we were doing really complimented each other,” Bhawnani said.

He and Sell started Loudoun Test Prep a year later, and their client base has doubled each year since, Bhawnani said.

Among Loudoun families, they’ve become known for their small-group teaching approach. Students take a diagnostic test and are grouped based on their scores.

“Imagine you’re sitting in a class and you’re in the 400s in math while others are in the 600s. Your needs are totally different,” Bhawnani said. “When we started the small groups, that really hit a nerve. Things just took off.”

Shawn Sell, co-founder of Loudoun Test Prep, quizzes students about current events. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
Shawn Sell, co-founder of Loudoun Test Prep, quizzes students about current events. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

Loudoun Test Prep is now a full-time gig for Bhawnani and Sell. And in the summer, they hire a team of tutors to help. This summer, they are teaching more than 100 students in several different courses and programs. In addition to their popular SAT/ACT prep course, they offer general academic tutoring either in small groups or one on one, that covers math, social studies, science, literature, languages and writing.

About 30 students are enrolled in Loudoun Test Prep’s Summer Jump Start courses, which start at $799 per class. They cover the first quarter of pre-calculus, calculus, Algebra II, geometry, physics, chemistry or essay writing. “We teach all the tough first quarter material,” Bhawnani said. He and Sell know many of the high school teachers, so they give students tips on what to expect in the way of teaching styles and tests.

Bhawnani’s hope is for students to leave Loudoun Test Prep knowing not only how to just solve a math problem, but equipped to problem solve on their own.

“They’re not going to go into the workforce and be asked how do you find the axis of symmetry in this quadratic equation? That’s going to be irrelevant,” he said. “I want to teach students to think logically through a problem. That’s a skill they can use throughout their lives. If I can impact a little bit of that on my students, I think I’ve succeeded.”

The demand for tutoring is at an all-time high, Sell said, particularly with the recent changes to college-entrance exams and a growing need to stand out among the crowd of students vying for spots at top universities.

“Everyone wants their children to do well and attend a quality college or university so, when there is this kind of intense mass competition, it definitely increases the stakes. That extra tutoring help, once an option, now becomes an essential,” she said. Sell is leaving the company next month and plans to continue tutoring independently.

But the Loudoun Test Prep duo has made an impact, if the referral and return rates of its clients are any indication.

More than half of the students who take part in Loudoun Test Prep’s small group classes return for one-on-one tutoring, and several of Bhawnani’s and Sell’s former students also have returned to work as tutors for the company.

Tammy Morgan, an Ashburn mother of three, says she’s referred 50 people—“maybe more”—to Loudoun Test Prep. Bhawnani tutored her oldest son, Andrew, in math when he was a junior at Stone Bridge High School, and has continued to help him through his business calculus class at Penn State. Bhawnani has also helped her two younger sons, Ben, who will attend Penn State this fall, and Matthew, a rising junior at Stone Bridge, prepare for everything from Spanish exams to the SAT.

“Whenever we’ve needed help with anything, we call Vinay,” Morgan said. “He’s extremely bright, and his teaching style just really worked with my kids.”

Ryan Wilson, a recent Tuscarora High School graduate, enrolled at Loudoun Test Prep last year to prepare for the the SAT. The course increased his score by 100 points, and this summer he’s on the company’s payroll as a tutor.

“The entire experience has really sharpened my skills,” he said.

Learn more about Bhawnani, Sell and Loudoun Test Prep at

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