I have a son going to college in September, and thanks to his Early Action application, we are done with college stress until my daughter applies in four years. He was accepted by his number one choice and didn’t want to apply anywhere else after that, for two reasons: one, he got what he wanted so why bother and two, he just didn’t want to deal with the pressure of it all. I don’t blame him.

A foreigner, figuring out the SATs

I’m a Canadian living (and raising kids) in America, so the intense pressure on high school kids and their parents to figure out, apply for, and pay for college is pretty new to me. I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, so maybe that’s why I don’t see the SATs as a valuable piece of the application puzzle. 

I’m not a fan of standardized tests in general, and I know that the SATs are big business. There are the books that have practice tests, books of strategies, private tutors who specialize in them, and are classes offered across the country to help students get their scores up. 

This is a business that creates its own demand and then charges money for the supply, promising to boost those scores. And frankly, I’ve always believed that these tests measure how good you are at taking them, and little else.

My Experience

I was a college dropout for a little while, and what inspired me to jump back in was NYU’s Dramatic Writing program. I wasn’t familiar with the SATs but there were places to take the test in Toronto, so I signed up. 

I was working full-time as a receptionist, so I got myself a book of tests and took them, one after the other. After each one, I checked my results, and went back over answers until I understood why my wrong answers were wrong and how to work the system. I did this over & over, all day, while getting paid to answer the phone (remember those days?) and file things (remember those days?) and eventually I felt like I had a sense of what they meant when the questions seemed ambiguous, how to eliminate wrong answers quickly, and which questions to spend more time on. 

Basically, I learned how to take the test, which is what all those courses teach. I had the luxury of time, thanks to a job that required very little of me and bosses who didn’t care what I did at my desk as long as I still picked up the phone.

I haven’t found that particular bit of acquired knowledge useful since then. I did great on the test, got into NYU, graduated with Honors, and never had to take a test like that ever again.

Here we go: my son becomes a senior

When my son was a junior, the SAT chatter started. Parents were having their kids go to practice sessions and get tutors and take classes a year ahead of time, and my son deeply resented the pressure. I did too, but I told him it was just a test and he had to do it, so he should just suck it up and do his best, so he’d have as many options as possible for college. I may not like the SATs, but that doesn’t change how much a good score can affect an application.

Then came COVID-19. Tests were being canceled right and left. I did everything I could to find at least ONE place where he could take the SATs that wasn’t hours away, and eventually succeeded. We paid for the test, and for the books to prep him. He didn’t want to take a class and I didn’t make him… the whole year was surreal enough already and schools were already starting to hint about being test-optional.

He took the test, he got his results, he did all right. Not great, but good. When he filled out his application, he decided not to send his scores and rely more on the way his grades had gone up in the past year, his essay, and his writing portfolio.  It worked.  

Now I’m looking ahead to my daughter, who starts high school in the fall, and dreading the full-scale return of the SATs.

Is there a reason to keep them?

I know there are arguments on both sides of this one. I’ve read that the SATs are a good predictor of success in college. I’ve also read that The College Board (the company behind the SATs) financed the research. 

The tests were originally created to level the playing field, to make college more accessible to students without high-profile high schools and wealthy connections. But over the years as it became an industry, it started recreating those divisions, because those who can’t afford tutors or classes are at a disadvantage. I think these people have it right. The College Board makes over a billion dollars a year from its tests and products in non-Covid times – it’s an industry, all right. 

I’m not a hardcore journalist and I’m not an education specialist. I’m a mom who sees kids struggling, stressing, and sweating over these tests, and parents just as obsessed with them.

There are so many other ways for colleges to assess potential students: their high school grades, their essays and portfolios, teacher recommendations, interviews. This standardized test that allows one to game the system and do significantly better if there’s enough money (or time, as I had, when I made it my full-time job) is not the right tool for the task, and it’s more about keeping the machinery going than higher education. I hope it never comes back.

About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

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