In a day and age when it seems there is little we share, there is one tortuous rite of passage nearly two million teenagers in America a year endure.
Despite the misery, it’s not uncommon for many to subject themselves to the exam a second time in the hope of improving their score.
I took the SATs, twice. That would be unremarkable but for one thing: 36 years passed between the two. I originally took the SATs in 1986, when I was 17, as a high school senior getting ready to apply to college. I took it again this past December, only days after my 53rd birthday.
Why would one do such a thing? Spoiler: I’ll explain my reasoning—but it will hardly satisfy the questions you have now about my sanity.
A few years back a young woman at my consulting firm was studying for the LSAT. I commented how for all the downsides of middle age, it was a relief knowing I’d never again have to take a standardized test.
It made me start to think about how I would do on the SATs as an adult with decades of “real life” experience in the world where it turns out our high school suspicions were prescient: adulthood doesn’t involve much geometry or iambic pentameter.
I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life using language as precisely and persuasively as possible. In other words, I’ve worked in politics.
Second only to not remembering who spoke at your graduation is remembering what you scored on the SATs. But for whatever reason I do: 700 on the math portion; 580 on the verbal for a combined 1,280 out of a possible perfect score of 1,600. Perfectly adequate. I’ve never been particularly proud or ashamed of this four-digit judgment of my teenage intellect.
But given the road I’ve taken I often thought to myself how funny it was that I did much better arithmetically than linguistically. Seemed pretty clear that would not hold true decades later. Because as suspected my real life did not need any of the academic detritus foisted on me. My score, no matter how high or low would certainly flip in its balance.
There was only one way to know: Take the SATs again.
I signed up to take a test one Saturday in 2018. I bought my #2 pencils and a calculator approved by The College Board, the company that designs and administers the test.
But when the day rolled around and my alarm went off at 6 am, I asked myself what the hell was wrong with me. (I’m not completely insane.) And I went back to sleep.
A few months ago though for reasons I don’t even remember, I decided to do it again. I feared though that the spate of cheating scandals and the Varsity Blues scandal would make it impossible for someone born in the last century to do so without raising eyebrows. But I was pleasantly surprised. The College Board’s Security & Fairness Division did in fact send a subsequent form with a series of questions to allay any concern I would be taking the test for nefarious reasons. Thankfully, though not multiple choice, I passed this initial test and my registration was approved.
Not having any idea where either the pencils or calculator went, I hit Amazon for a pack of 30 pre-sharpened #2s and a Casio FX-115ESPLUS2.
What I did not do is study. That was the only rule—despite receiving a study guide upon registering that reminded me of the Bell Telephone Yellow Pages of the last century. Doing so would have undermined the entire point of the experiment: seeing what half a century of living has equipped me with, at least according to the College Board.
I arrived at the testing site, a large high school in the Northwest section of Washington DC, at 7:30 am. There were two administrators in the lobby helping to direct students to their respective rooms. They immediately asked me to confirm I was there to proctor a test. When I responded that I was there to take the test, they re-asked the question, as if I had just told the airline check in agent that I complete stranger packed my luggage and I had no idea of its contents. But a few clipboard consultations later, accompanied by a smirking, “Don’t ask,” I was on my way to my assigned room.
The doors were still closed so students were lining the hallways. Sitting on the floor leaning against the row of lockers brought me back to, well, never. But that seems pretty standard high school behavior in movies.
What struck me was the silence. No shuffling. No last minute rifling through papers. No discussion. If they knew each other they clearly had no interest in talking to them. There was no feeling of tension or anxiety. More of a killing time at a bus stop, a state of suspended animation until its arrival.
Once entering the room, my first fear was shattered: having to spend three hours in one of those one piece desks inspired by the molded plastic chairs with TVs one would find in the Pan Am terminal at JFK in the 1970s. (The concealing my age ship sailed in the first paragraph of this essay.)
When 8 AM hit and the proctor started reading the instructions, my inner serenity—born of not having anything at stake—bursted. The mere sight and feel of the blue books triggered a flood of dread as it did in 1986. I half expected zits to spring from my face. I was amazed at how identical it was, as if The College Board had bought millions of the exam books in the 1950s at wholesale and was depleting their stock slowly over time. I was taken back by my tactile familiarity with the paper stock.
Then it began.
The Verbal section comprised the first two of the five-section test. While respecting the written pledge to The College Board to not share the specific questions of the test, it’s no secret the first section is made up of 52 questions, roughly 10 on each of five essays about a page and a half long. When I say essays I mean essays. Sophisticated topics, nuanced narratives. The kind that people like me need to read twice to absorb even 75% of. The questions were not terribly difficult, but not easy. They immediately confirmed that my verbal score would be higher. Except for one problem: the time limit, which I terribly mismanaged. Spending too much time on the first four essays I never read a word of the fifth. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so I slipped in a little math and decided to fill in all the remaining A bubbles. Figured I’d get one or two right—but this miscalculation was almost certainly calamitous.
The second section was more straightforward. Questions were designed to test knowledge of word usage and meaning, along with punctuation and syntax.
After a 10-minute break during which I didn’t budge from my desk, Section Three —the first of the math portion—hit like a ton of brick abacuses. I expected it to be tough. I haven’t had to figure out the length of a trapezoid since the 20th Century. Looking at the equations reminded me of Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting, solving some of the toughest equations out there. But in Sanskrit. Blindfolded. I could not process what I was seeing. To say I guessed for all 18 questions is an affront to guessing. I couldn’t even narrow down the four choices of each question to three, let alone two. The best way to describe my filling in of the bubbles in this section is that I was painting a pointillist piece. There is no question I went 0 for 18. So much so that I wrote all over the test pages that I didn’t show my work because I had no idea what I was looking at, lest they suspect cheating (until that is my score would prove otherwise).
But an interesting dynamic kicked in (one that I’d later learn was misguided). It was abundantly clear the Math section would be the debacle expected. So I relaxed. However, this newfound relaxation didn’t result in any greater ability to process the questions.
Sections 4 and 5 were not as terrible. By that I mean, I at least recognized what I was looking at, and some degree of memory kicked in. But my rate of guessing was still sky high. Same with Section 5.
When the last of the five “Pencils Down” command was given, the shock of the exercise kicked in. I managed to make a few jokes to the proctor on the way out, but soon enough the aftermath felt as if I was stabbed by a thousand #2 pencils.
I had made a point of remembering the format of the test. All told, there were 172 questions: 96 verbal, 76 math.
Now, anyone who’s taken the SATs recently knows the previous sentence is wrong. Not because my arithmetical abilities are truly that bad, but because the standard SATs is comprised of 154 questions. To the best I can figure, the 18 question discrepancy was Section 3, my bubble painting.
The College Board occasionally and randomly slips in an experimental section, one to use the captive Guinea Pigs to determine if proposed questions are too hard or too easy.
Dear College Board: They are not too easy.
So what did I learn if anything from this exercise? My biggest takeaway is that the verbal portion does test abilities one will need throughout life, certainly in college. Whether students are equipped by 12th grade to adequately answer those questions, I don’t know. I don’t remember if I was, or if I was supposed to be. What I do know is that imposing a fairly short and arbitrary time period to process complex language did not simulate any scenario I’ve experienced professionally or personally. If anything, the 36 years since have taught me that reading at the pace comfortable to me, whether fast or slow by others’ standards, is key to my ability to comprehend and process the written word. I read like I run: slowly. While running later that day I was passed by a woman and her dog.
Her three-legged dog.
As far as math, every adult has been lying to us. With the exception of continuing to study the hard sciences, there is as we all expected zero use for high school (and college) math. It’s no wonder so many people can’t handle their personal finances. They’re not trig or calc based.
It also occurred to me that college admission officers (and high school guidance counselors) focusing on the combined score can easily miss a diamond in the rough. Someone who scores well on one half but badly on the other will most likely be dismissed for a low combined score. It is not uncommon to say, University of X requires at least a Y SAT score. There are valid arguments to that approach. But it could easily miss the promise a student shows in one. Yes, someone who scores 800 Verbal but 500 Math has some ‘splaining to do. But unless that person is dreaming of becoming a mechanical engineer, they should not be dismissed out of hand. Conversely, the mechanical engineer in waiting should not be stopped because of a low verbal score. While an oversimplification, society is not looking for engineers who can design in Chaucer.
So how did I do?
Even worse than my low expectations. I knew my mis-pacing the essay section would cost me 80 or so points. And that the math section would be a bloodbath.
My 600 verbal was only 20 points higher than my 1987 score, and my 480 math score was a 220-point drop.
Rather than looking back though, I’m looking forward. Specifically, to March 11th, the next time the SATs is given.
Taking it again will let me test yet another life lesson we are taught early on: Third time’s the charm.
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