When We Took the SAT

Mike: Ester, the SATs are back in the news cycle this week and it something I thought I would not have to think about ever again after high school.

Ester: I had nightmares about my SATs in high school — actual nightmares that I can recall and describe. The tests were taken so seriously I was convinced my results would be carved on my gravestone. Was your school that crazy about them?

Mike: I mean, we knew that they were important, but it did seem like half of my class didn’t really care about it. There were definitely some students who obsessed and bought all of the SAT prep books and took tutoring classes at night. I was not one of those kids, mainly due to the fact that my parents couldn’t afford to buy those books or give me those classes. Though I did go to the library. Actually, if I recall, I didn’t think that much about the SATs.

Ester: Did you feel at a disadvantage compared to the more affluent kids?

Mike: Not really? I mean, I felt confident in my ability to test, hah, which is what is important when it comes down to it. I did not study for the SATs.

Ester: Because you’re Asian? :) Seriously, though, I feel like certain groups have a bit of a leg up because it’s assumed that they will do somewhat better — I went to a Jewish Day School and everyone was expected to go to college. To take the SATs seriously. To some degree, though there was a lot of pressure, it was also a gift, I guess? It was taken on faith that we were all smart enough to succeed if we tried. Whereas I don’t think all students from all backgrounds are told that, and that can work to their detriment.

Mike: No, that is true. I mean, I did not have the financial backing for SAT prep courses, but I had a life that was keenly focused on academics, so in a way, my parents had prepared me to take the test. And that is a cultural thing we’ve all heard of by now (the tiger parents thing).

Ester: I don’t know what the Jewish “tiger parent” equivalent is. Maybe just “Jewish mother” says enough. In my house, my dad was actually more like the typical “Jewish mother.” Either way, it was expected that I do well. I took the test for the first time in 7th grade, I think? And probably another three times thereafter, counting the PSATs. Do you remember how many times you took it?

Mike: I took it twice in high school. The first time I got a 12-something, and then the second time I took it I got a 13-something. 1360? I don’t remember exactly. I just remember being like, GOOD ENOUGH.

Ester: That is hilarious to me. I remember those four digits exactly. I could use them as my PIN. Also I remember the breakdown. Did you see this list the NYT put up of celebrity scores?

Mike: I did not—tell me about them.

Ester: It had Al Gore’s score (1350) and George Bush’s (basically a 1200 flat). I was surprised by Gore’s score, but then I remembered that they started to be graded on a curve in the 80s, or something, so it became easier to do well. But Bill Gates got an almost perfect score. I wonder how much he studied.

Mike: Bill Gates doesn’t seem like a person who would have studied for the SATs or really care for them. He’s one of the famous college dropouts, right? (Yes.)

Ester: Yes, he strikes me as a careless genius, someone who would just wander into the test and then ace it. I am jealous of those people. Although I never studied for the Verbal section. All of my angst had to do with Math. The evil god Math, how he mocked me. No sacrifice would appease him.

Mike: Hah. MATH. I hated math too. I hated math so much that I took math classes at the local community college during the summer so I wouldn’t have to deal with it by the time my senior year rolled around. I finished Calculus my junior year and that was it for me. I had a math-free senior year! Fun, right?

Ester: Mike, that makes zero sense. (Look, I used a number! Numbers: Not so scary after all.) You hated math so you took extra super bonus math over the summer? I never took Calculus. Even the word Calculus sounds like a barbaric Roman emperor. Calculus and Caligula. One summer my parents kept me home from camp so that a nun could come over and teach me geometry. She and I got along all right, but by the time I started school, I was so scared again that I forgot everything.

Mike: Hah, well my parents for sure wanted me to study math until there was no more math to study. At my high school, Calculus was the last you could take, so that was my goal: Get Calc out of the way and never have to think about it ever again. Plus, I got college credit for it, which also made my life easier because then I had those requirements done by the time I attended.

Ester: Why did your parents think math was important? Do you know?

Mike: Because math is something you will use as an engineer or in the sciences. And they wanted me to move in that direction, and not—hah—anything to do with writing and words (sorry mom and dad, you will never forgive me).

Ester: Oh my. You are the least disappointing child I can picture, but I know that parents have different expectations? It is hard for me to imagine a parent not being happy with how you turned out. ANYWAY my parents just wanted me to do well enough on the Math SATs that I could get into whatever college I wanted and then do whatever I wanted, which is luckily what happened. But I did have to take a Studyworks class and take the test three times, I think, in high school to get a respectable score. By then I was so addicted to test-taking that I also took the ACT, just for fun. Stockholm Syndrome in action.

Mike: Everything turned out ok! And I have seriously not thought about the SATs since high school, which feels like a billion years ago, but I know is just like 15 years ago, because: math.

Ester: Yes, well done. Was going to the UC system a foregone conclusion for you? Because I think some students stress about the scores as a way of getting a scholarship to a school they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Mike: Yeah, and the UC-system was great and super affordable. I did apply for NYU and could not afford to go there. I also applied to USC. But then looking at what cost what and knowing that I was going to be funding it myself, it just made sense. I mean, it’s crazy how much it costs now. When I was a freshman at UC-Irvine, my tuition and fees were less than $5,000? I thought that was a good amount of money then, but oh my god was that great.

Ester: Wow :) Honestly I was so sheltered that I was never told how much my education cost, and I never asked. I got embarrassed when I arrived at my fancy liberal arts school and all my friends started talking knowledgeably about when to consolidate their loans. It made them seem much more adult and mature, whereas I was a little girl still taking money from her parents. I was also incredibly grateful, though, and thanked both them and my grandparents, who started saving for me when I was born (and were lucky to be able to do that). Also, I was from DC, so there wasn’t really a state school for me to assume I could attend.

Mike: We both turned out ok!

Ester: Except I’m still afraid of money, and numbers, and math … I wonder when that will go away. But back to the SATs: test prep costs, on average, $1100. That’s an incredible figure. And apparently success on the test correllates very strongly with family income. Do you think the idea that the SAT is a meritocratic way to determine a student’s general ability is pure fiction?

Mike: Hmmm. That is not an easy question to answer! I mean, I hoped that when colleges were looking at me, the SATs were like toward the bottom of their list, and they saw that I was involved in a lot of fun things, and that I had taken the initiative to take college courses over the summer, and that I had written a compelling essay.

Ester: That’s adorable. My school did not let us get away with thinking that way. We were told we would sorted immediately by SAT score and only then would colleges consider the other stuff. But different schools certain approach selection processes differently, and more of them are doing away with SAT consideration altogether. I could get behind that. The classism of the process bothers me. I had so many more advantages than the average student. It just feels unfair.

Mike: It does. And I had culturally specific advantages. Well. I am glad that I am not in high school and that I will never have to be in high school again!

Ester: Wanna hear my SAT nightmare? It’s pretty good.

Mike: With an intro like that, OBVIOUSLY.

Ester: I’m Sonia from Crime and Punishment and I’m with Raskolnikov in a girl’s bathroom. My heart is pounding because he’s going to confess. He turns to me with teary eyes, takes a deep breath, and then says, “I cheated on my SATs.”

Mike: Hahahahah. Ester. You got a perfect verbal score didn’t you.

Ester: A lady doesn’t kiss and tell.



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