Chapter 1: SAT Do-Over

It has been almost exactly 25 years since I last heard, “Time’s up, drop your pencils.” I was taking the final pathology boards, marking the end of my 9 years of medical training. As I put down my No. 2 Ticonderoga, I promised myself I would never take another standardized test. I had endured the multiple choice questions of the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, MCATs, and four different sets of medical boards. In addition, throughout medical school, all the tests consisted of multiple choice questions. The dubious goal of my medical school was not necessarily to train insightful physicians, but instead to train us to pass the medical boards on the first try, since a high success rate was apparently a sign of educational excellence.

Therefore, every test in medical school exactly duplicated the boards – an endless parade of the evil variant of multiple choice questions – the multiple/multiple choice questions where you essentially had to correctly answer four questions in a row to score one correct. I can still remember the answer options, A: 1, 2, 3 above; B: 1 and 3 above; C; 2 and 4; D 4 only. Later on, I was the author of continuing medical education material, and somewhat vindictively decided to use the same question format. I soon got a call from the editor who said, “Will you quit the multiple/multiple choice questions – everyone hates them – just make the questions as easy as you can so that everyone can pass!”

I was always a pretty decent student based on hard work and good study habits, but I carried the burden of not being a good test taker. This didn’t really matter in medical school since once you got in, all you had to do was pass. But the MCATs and SATs, these were high stakes affairs. I was always jealous of those classmates whose SATs scores exceeded their class grades. I don’t remember what my scores were exactly, but I do know that they devalued my class grades. It was pretty obvious why – my general impatience meant that I tried to answer the questions to the dreary reading passages without reading the material.

I was pondering these ideas as I was wandering through the movie store, and spotted a homemade flyer offering SAT test prep from the “Ivy Insider.” Based on his email, which ended in “”, I guessed that this was a kid leveraging his status as an elite Brown student. In the 1970s, the SAT was certainly considered important, but I don’t recall any frantic prepping. The only things I did were to make sure my pencils were sharp and had a good eraser, that the alarm was set, and that there was somebody around to give me a ride to the test center. Now parents invest money and egos in prep courses and individual tutoring in the hopes of skyrocketing SAT scores. As I contemplated the offerings of the Ivy Insider, I wondered what the effect of 40 years of life experience might be on the SAT test – was I smarter than I was at 18, or would a 40 year hiatus of math and grammar doom any efforts? There was only one way to find out – sign up and take the SAT again.

I went on the SAT website, thinking that a college degree might disqualify me, but that was not a problem. I was asked what grade I was currently in, and the options included 7th-14th, but there was a box that said, “not currently in high school.” This seemed like an honest answer so I checked that. In a separate part of the form they asked when I graduated from high school and 1970 was nowhere to be found. I called the help line and a nice young man walked me through the process, never asking the obvious question of why a 58 year old was taking the SAT. My husband, in fact, said that he would rather have a root canal, but then he actually did have a root canal and found it relatively painless, so he revised his thinking and said that he would rather have a rope burn. Given the high stakes of the SAT, I was expecting some elaborate form of identification, perhaps involving a fingerprint or retinal scan, but for $47 dollars I was given an admission ticket and told to show up with a picture ID.

My next step was to define the ground rules for this experiment, specifically what type of preparation would be permissible – would I go in absolutely cold, do a little self help, or call on the services of the Ivy Insider. The SATs have been continually criticized for being biased (both culture and gender biased) and not predictive of students’ college performance, but regardless the SAT persists as a standard hazing ritual for high school seniors. Additionally, critics point out that prepping or coaching undermines the point of the test by teaching test taking skills so that students can “game the system.” Well, here is where I disagree – if there is one thing that I have learned in the past 40 years, it is the importance of understanding process, “gaming the system” if you will, and I would argue that this is a basic life skill. Starting as a freshman in college, you need to understand the system to get the best classes, negotiate for better grades, or work the lottery system to get a decent dorm room. When I was a freshman, I found a junior who was taking a semester abroad. I asked her to participate in the dorm lottery with me as her roommate and then tell the school that she would not be returning. The plan worked perfectly – after she announced her departure, I got the preferred room of an upper classman, and then was able to select my own roommate.

Gaming the system is an essential strategy for everyday things – like buying airplane tickets. You need to know the airline pricing strategy before you can develop your purchasing strategy. The pricing strategy makes sense once you understand the airline’s agenda. Specifically, there is a golden window of reduced airline tickets about 4-6 weeks before the flight. Before that time, the airlines know that they have the anxious traveler who will be willing to pay a premium. After this time, they have the last minute traveler by the short hairs, and they can charge outrageous prices. In the golden window, the airline company realizes that they have empty seats and start to lower the price, and all you have to do is monitor the situation for the optimal fare. One time I had to fly from Chicago to Minneapolis for a last minute business meeting. The cost of this round trip ticket for a 1 hour flight was more than the price of the round trip ticket I had recently bought for London.

Before I start any project at work, I stop to consider what the process is – who the players are and their individual incentives. Otherwise, it is like sending a batter up to the plate without telling him that he does not need to swing at every pitch. The SAT should be no different. If prepping is considered gaming the system, then bring it on. Why shouldn’t the SAT reflect how well students can apply testing strategies? The format of the SAT suggests some very basic strategies. In each section, the questions go from easy to difficult, but each correct answer has the same weight. So the first basic tip is spend more time on the easy questions – you don’t want to muff these questions in a rush to spend more time on the more difficult questions. The second basic tip is that easy questions have easy answers, and the hard questions are often more difficult “gotcha” questions, where there is some twist in the way the question is worded. Therefore, in the hard section, if the answer looks too easy, it is probably wrong. I would argue that real bias is that the SAT does not publish these testing strategies for everyone to understand to create a level playing field. However, the profits of the prepping industry are difficult to ignore; on the SAT website, one can purchase the “official” SAT study guide for $81.94.

So if I am assuming that my life experience counts for anything, I will not take the test “cold,” but allow myself some prepping to understand the testing strategies. (The ulterior motive here is that I don’t want to totally humiliate myself.) I will forego the Ivy Insider, but will self-prep with a SAT review book. My test date is October 9th, plenty of time to dust off moldering algebra and grammar skills. As the SAT website says, I had better “hop to it.” (Is that a cliché, simile or metaphor?)

The missing words in the following poems are all anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing anagrams will rhyme with either the preceding or folliwng line.  Your job is to fgure out the anagrams based on the above rules.  Scroll down for the answers.  In this poem, there are two sets of 4-letter anagrams, one noted by asterisks (*), the other with dashes (-).

Every fall is a * * * * of passage that the College Board holds – – – –

It’s the SAT that students must take their senior year.

It’s high stakes for those who aspire to colleges in the top * * * *

Because they only accept students scoring in the stratosphere.

So the following are some testing strategies to help you succeed,

First keep your focus when you have all those boring paragraphs to – – – –

Second, don’t muff the easy questions, so double check the answers you chose,

And don’t worry if you * * * * out in the hard questions, you can skip those

Third, beware, the SAT will – – – – you to make the easy pick,

But always be on the look out for a sneaky “gotcha” trick.

Answers: rite, dear, tier, read, tire, dare

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