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Standardized Anxiety Test (SAT)

I just came back from a meeting with the College Board; the folks who help to bring you the SAT. And of course, with anxieties riding high this time of year about whether one's scores are "good enough" to get into your top-choice college, I was reminded of a passage I had copied a while ago, and it's been stewing in the back of my mind since:

From CNN.com:

The only bigger bummer than getting up and spending a Saturday morning to take the SAT? Getting up and not taking it. Dylan Ottman showed up at Westboro High School, in Westboro, Massachusetts, only to discover it was one of about 50 testing centers, mostly in New England, where the test was postponed because of inclement weather. Adding insult, the makeup date is April 2 -- her birthday.

"It's really stressful, because my whole life is the SAT," said Ottman, who had taken a prep course and said that now she'll probably spend more time preparing.

The thing that strikes me is the idea that one's whole life can be the SAT. I can understand how one might adopt this point of view, but it's incredibly sad that this is the state of affairs. One's "whole life" should be family and friends, new and exciting experiences, challenges to the mind and mindset, dressing up for Halloween, etc., not a standardized test.

When we read applications, it's pretty easy to sort and prioritize applications on different critera, including SAT scores. As you would expect, students with higher scores tend to have a better shot than those with lower scores. However, not every high scoring applicant is going to get admitted. And not every low scoring applicant is going to be denied.

I remember encountering an applicant toward the end of last year with an SAT score of more than 300 points (on the 1600 scale) below the median for our admitted class. Just based on that, I was already thinking in my mind that this student is going to have a tough time getting admitted. But when I started to actually READ the application, my perspective shifted dramatically.

The first thing that drew me in was how involved this student was in her school and community. Not only did she list a number of teams, organizations, clubs, etc. on her activities, but she was a leader in nearly all of them. Her personal story was also compelling--dad was completely out of the picture, and mom was working at a pretty low-paying job.

What most impressed me, however, was the progress that she made academically. As a freshman, this student was placed in the lower track of classes--no advanced, honors, or even college prep classes on the horizon. However, through sheer determination and force of will, she managed to claw her way through her unfortunate starting place to where she was taking AP courses in her senior year. That would be like having the absolute worst seeding in a race and somehow making it all the way through the pack to break the tape and come in first.

Oh, one other thing: the student came to campus and had a stellar interview with one of the admission counselors.

Now, in isolation, the SAT looked bad. But compared to everything else this student had accomplished, it started to look pretty darn meaningless.

So what's the moral of the story? Let's ask in an SAT-inspired way.

Poor standardized test scores can be overcome by:
A) A good sob story
B) Outstanding extracurriculars
C) A strong interview
D) Solid performance in challenging courses
E) All of the above

The answer is probably closest to E. A, B, or C by themselves likely won't cut the mustard, (although D stands a chance.) Had the student not pulled down As and took on AP classes, this post probably wouldn't exist. Think of it like a see-saw: when you throw A, B, C, and D on one side and the SAT on the other side, the see-saw is going to be quite lopsided (although D carries the most weight.)

The other lesson to learn here: guess what? We really do read your application. We're human, and as humans, we're going to form quick impressions and have internal biases. It's part of the game. But we also dig beneath the surface and don't judge you by numbers alone. If you have some unique personal circumstances, come to campus and talk to us. It can definitely help.

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