The Dreaded SAT – Bringing Relief to a Time of Grief

I am in the last semester of my junior year of high school and now have the opportunity to begin the college testing and application process – you may now offer me your congratulations and deepest sympathies.

Yes, I find the good news is indeed the proverbial bad news. Compressed into this fleeting time will be the usual coursework, homework, essays and tests, accompanied by the crush of final exams, AP tests, SATs and numerous college applications. In other words, like so many others students at this stage of their educational career, this is the beginning of the college process at The Cate School. Conventional words of wisdom passed on by seniors consist of, “Good luck, these will officially be the hardest months of your high school career.” I’m not altogether certain such words are intended to support or condemn me to academic limbo. However, if I can keep these things in perspective and push these words aside, the future may not seem as daunting after all.

Prepping and Fretting

There is an intellectual thrill, which is somewhat akin to skydiving for the first time, in realizing that I have both the opportunity and responsibility to make decisions and perform on tests in a bid to gain acceptance into that perfect college that seemingly determines the outcome of my entire adult life. Such a conundrum. Perhaps the only idea that keeps me from losing all possible sanity concerning the matter is the fact that I am not alone. Millions of juniors across America are feeling the same pressure, building up to one test in particular, the infamous SAT. Almost every Ivy League and UC college requires results from the test, using it as the ticket into the ballpark, or perhaps as a crystal ball to foretell how the student will perform in his/her first year of college.

Up until the test, overburdened scholars will anguish over how they are to go about studying for the test, maintain any personal, social and family life, yet manage the rest of their regular school work. Such desperation does, inevitably, result in the investment of hundreds of dollars on SAT/ACT and AP prep materials, tutors, college counselors and college ranking periodicals. My suggestion to high school sophomores is to be sure to have your parents take many photos of you and display them prominently so when they think you’ve disappeared in your junior year, they’ll be reassured that you’re still alive.

On first impression, it seems absolutely absurd that one’s college acceptance depends on the scores of a single test that claims to measure one’s reasoning ability rather than his/her intellect. Ironically, one must ponder whether it does indeed do that, or just make students demonstrate their ability to panic. So, is it fair, and is it the best measure of college success?

“That depends,” says Andrea Rifkin, a UCLA admission staff member and Montecito resident who has been an application and essay reader at the university and has much experience with the SAT. Contrary to popular belief concerning the UC admission system, Rifkin says that although the admissions committee focuses on grade point averages and scores, only due to the volume of applicants, universities are particularly interested in the student as a whole person. They use a criterion for admission known as the “holistic system.” There are 10 primary factors that constitute an ideal applicant.

“The SAT is at the lower end of the list,” says Rifkin. “We are instructed to place a higher emphasis on the grades of a student, and level of difficulty of their current high school courses.”

That was good news to me as I am better at learning even challenging material than testing, which is its own skill, usually accompanied by TIN, or test-induced nausea. (Please don’t look for that term in a medical dictionary; it’s only found in student handbooks.)

Rifkin also explained that, “on the other end of the spectrum, many Ivy League colleges use the SAT as a tool to prevent students from being accepted.” Apparently, the colleges seek to build a class consisting of top-notch scholars and athletes whereas the UC system seeks to be made more readily available to a wider variety of students. Without the use of the SAT test, the Ivy League schools would not be able to be rated in nationwide rankings. The emphasis placed on the SAT is also regionally dependent. A large series of Midwest schools believe that the ACT is a much better test to examine a student’s intellect as it has to do with subjects currently studied in high school rather than testing one’s reason or logic skills as the SAT does.

Who Needs SATs Anyway?

Some schools are disregarding the SAT test entirely. FairTest (fairtest.org), an advocacy organization that seeks to prevent misuse of standardized tests, posts an annual list of colleges and universities that no longer accept the SAT or any standardized test. There are currently 760 schools listed, amongst them Bates and Lewis & Clark. According to FairTest, many schools are rejecting the standardized system because of perceived bias. Males generally score higher on the math section than females, even females who receive higher grades than males in their classes. This is mainly because of how the standardized tests are timed; in a way, it seems to be more focused on speed rather than step-by-step reasoning. Somehow, I felt less alone and in the company of many bright, capable students who may learn differently yet quite competently than a timed reasoning test affords. The SAT also favors students who speak English as their first language, for obvious reasons. Lastly, the test has come to be known among many college admissions officers and counselors as “the rich man’s test.” Those who can afford a tutor and prep class tend to be better prepared for the test compared to someone who doesn’t have the means for extra aid.

So ultimately, the numbers on that SAT score sheet cannot fully indicate the level of one’s intellect or possible capabilities. Which is to say that someone’s future does not solely depend on those scores. My only wish is for high school students around the country to step back, breathe a sigh of relief, and put the so-called “test of my future” into perspective. This can be summed up in a mathematical equation: My worth = my experience + my knowledge x (skills) x (purpose) x (achievement) to infinity. To all those who are beginning the college process, Good night and good luck!

And, keep your photo prominently displayed, so your parents won’t report you missing.