The SAT, for better or for worse

September 14, 2010 — by Deborah Soung


When I was small I always wanted a million of everything. I wanted a million pieces of candy, a million new hair clips, a million stuffed animals. Now I only want 2,400 points on the SAT. The SAT testing dates have become the modern days of judgement: Get a bad score and never make it into that dream university, get a perfect score and earn the affections of college administrations everywhere. Therefore, without a good SAT score, there is no future. Well, that was my first and very incorrect impression of the dreaded test.

At first, the more I learned about the SAT from my weekend classes, the more I disdained the College Board employees. Usually, the most hated employees are the ones who come up with the questions, which are purposely structured to confuse test takers so the bell curve stays a bell curve: with very few students earning scores near 2,400, and most students getting scores below 2,000—scores deemed unacceptable by virtually every parent I have ever met.

But the employees I disliked the most were the essay graders and the people who decided SAT essays should be graded the way they are. Their standards of good writing contradict those taught by most schools.

It is a fact backed by M.I.T.-garnered data: under most circumstances, the longer the essay, the higher the score. Apparently, all the students who follow the “quality before quantity” rule are wrong; the big shots at the College Board know best. This pushes students to believe that good writing is quick, rapid-fire, how-much-can-I-jam-onto-a-paper-under-a-time-limit writing. Further distorting students’ ideas on how essays should be written, the College Board instructs essay graders to disregard inaccurate facts. If only history teachers were taught to grade that way.

Yet beyond the wall of SAT loathing, I must admit that the College Board is probably not run by some kitten-killing cannibals trying to prevent me from getting into college. Though students and their parents alike commonly experience extreme distress while contemplating the foreboding essay, a student can still score full points on the writing section with an essay score of nine out of 12, assuming the multiple choice score is perfect, and college admissions officers acknowledge that one 25-minute essay written under pressure is probably not the best example of a student’s writing.

Luckily, for those who fail to achieve a perfect or nearly perfect score on the SAT, there are other factors admissions officers take heed of, such as extracurricular activities. In fact, nearly all colleges consider school grades and background more important than SAT scores.

Therefore, memorizing the three-inch-thick College Board-issued blue book or the slightly thinner red book by Barron’s, although helpful, may not be the best way to spend all of my weekends of sophomore or junior year. It seems like the best advice is to study for the SAT, but do not fear it as if it were the harbinger of all doom, because a test taken in a mere 3 hours and 45 minutes cannot predetermine anyone’s future.