Note from the future, 2017-11-25: I am fairly unhappy with this rant as it stands — it makes many points I still agree with, but it just sounds sooo pretentious — but it is one of very few posts to actually receive a link from an external post I’m aware of, so I am letting it stand for historical interest. I wrote this years ago; please don’t take it out of context.
I have to admit, I got unhealthily worked up about getting this score.
For the purposes of college, I only ever wanted a score that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker — anything above 2300 would be enough. Any other time I had left would be better spent in other endeavors. Such endeavors might help on the college app, but more importantly, I’d also get to enjoy them.
So why am I here? Partly it’s because my classmates got worked up about it. Somebody specifically requested me to post my score somewhere. And partly it’s because there couldn’t be a better way at the moment to establish my authority to (yet again) rant against standardized tests here.
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Despite the cliché, I don’t think what my peers are going to end up studying in college differ as much as swimming and tree climbing do. Basic writing, reading, and arithmetic skills should come in handy in the future no matter what one ends up doing. And they can be measured by a uniform standard… in theory. So maybe the SAT is a necessary evil — it helps logistically because an SAT score is an SAT score, and everybody knows what is tested and what one’s score means (and what one’s score doesn’t mean).
Unfortunately, there’s a fundamental issue with standards of all kinds: the more specific and predictable those standards are, the more they can be gamed, and the more they get distorted from whatever they were intended to measure. And my goodness, is the SAT predictable. Those vocabulary words, those grammar tricks, that vague 25-minute essay prompt. What ends up happening is that fish and birds and monkeys are all being judged by their ability to climb metal poles with protrusions at specific intervals, and the enterprising coyotes are manufacturing similar metal poles and training monkeys to climb them and birds to fly around them and fish to aim their flops properly to get up the poles, and meanwhile the senior monkeys are annoyed by all the allegedly outstanding young adult monkeys entering their fruit-gathering squad who are really good at climbing metal poles with protrusions at specific intervals, because fruit doesn’t grow on metal poles, it grows on trees. No offense to coyotes.
Or, sans the metaphorical language: I’m accepting this 2400 fully aware that it really only means that I’m a good test-taker, and being a good test-taker is an extremely useless quality to have. It is not going to help me do problem sets, or write a dissertation, or prove the Riemann hypothesis, or find a purpose for my life.
"I’ll tell you right now that my SAT I score is 2250. I hate this score.
It is way too fucking high. Certainly if I score so high on such a dumb test, I must be very dumb."
— d684n, “Academics”
My essay got a 10 out of 12. It’s an essay I’d be ashamed of posting anywhere else; it’s disgustingly traditional and formulaic. I didn’t quite follow through the holy trinity of examples: there was world history and there was literature, but for the last example I wrote about football. But I’m not even interested in football; I simply crammed on a book about cognitive biases and memorized all the examples. Tenerife airport disaster, Michael Jordan’s baseball career, and Steve Spurrier leading the Florida Gators to dominate the Southeastern Conference in four of his first five years. And so it goes. This was simply because I knew that using my normal essay-writing mindset, I’d get maybe a 3, because I’d spend the first twenty minutes debating myself over which side I was on and rewrite the introduction ten times. Too bad. I wasn’t there to write a good essay; I was there to get a good score on the SAT.
“By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.”
— Paul Graham, What You’ll Wish You’d Known
The rest of the SAT varies considerably in terms of how valuable it might be to study for. I think I was actually pleasantly surprised by the nonroutineness of a few of the math problems. But still, I don’t want people to beat themselves up over this test. Even though I know that’s completely hypocritical. After all the panic I’ve put on this blog, I guess I’ve relinquished my right to tell people to curb their studying for the SAT, and I would have no grounds for doing so. We all want to get into a good college, but I’m not an admissions officer; I can’t tell you whether the SAT plays a huge role in your future. I think the test is distorted, and I can point to a few data points that support this interpretation (d684n is thriving at MIT; you should read what’s left of his opinion blog), but it doesn’t really matter what I think about it. So I can only say: go ahead, if you think it’ll benefit you, study for the SAT all you want.
But of course, there’s a tradeoff to be made, because this studying is going to be pointlessly vapid. The question is simply: how much of your actual learning, your high school friendships, your health and sanity, and your last few years being able to do whatever you want with your parents in the background protecting you — how much of your life — are you willing to give up, just to try to get into that college?
It’s terrible that this is even a decision that has to be made.