SATs Don't Get You In

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The numbers craze on SAT scores is surpassed only by the way people talk about their weight.

The numbers craze on SAT scores--in the media and in the minds of high school students and their parents--is surpassed only by the way people talk about their weight. It's as if students are their scores.

Choosing a college has become big business in America, with SAT coaching, companies vying to "package" students, canned personal essays, and paid college consultants outside the high schools creating a multimillion-dollar industry. Applications to competitive colleges are up and climbing, competition for admission is worldwide, and the media hype is sometimes pushing frenzied parents and students over the edge.

Within this moneymaking machinery, numbers are easy to understand and to sell. That's why parents and students alike ask college advisers questions like these: "Will a 1440 get me into Harvard? Columbia? Stanford?" "I have to go to Brown or Amherst or Georgetown--when should I take a course to raise my SATs?" My reply to anyone with a 650 verbal and a 650 math score and above is simple: "No, your test scores will not get you into Yale or Duke, but most important, they won't keep you out. And that's all you need to know about SAT scores. Don't waste your time and resources worrying about SATs, when there are so many interesting and exciting learning experiences you could invest your energy in."

This message, however, remains a hard sell. It may be easier for students to understand the relevance of numbers if we ask them to think of height and weight in athletics. We can all agree, for example, that even though an athlete's height may enter into the performance of a basketball player and weight into the performance of a linebacker, the 7-feet-tall or 275-pound numbers will hardly predict a winner. And even though the speed of a tennis player's serve can put him or her into the top competition, no one would predict the world's best tennis players based simply on the velocity of their serves.

It may sound scary at first for students to learn that Princeton University turns down 76 percent of its applicants who scored between 750 and a perfect 800 on the SAT--and that it offered admission to only 495 of 1,534 class valedictorians. Think about it. More than one thousand applicants who were No. 1 in their high school class were sent a denial letter from Princeton. But, on second thought, that could be seen as an encouraging, even refreshing, sign that a student doesn't need a perfect score and perfect grades to get in. Those numbers won't do it.

When parents begin to realize this, they understand that their child can concentrate on learning and on pursuing the interests and activities that are unique to her--rather than spending two years of Saturdays at an SAT-prep course. She can be reading instead of memorizing vocabulary from flashcards. Their teenager can be spending his time performing in a play or practicing the cello or collecting model World War II tanks. Their children can be developing the skills and sensibilities unique to them, rather than molding their lives to fit the robot-like affinities of a testing regimen that won't necessarily pay off. Test scores disappoint.

Students' numbers (SAT scores and high school grades) could get them into the top colleges if we were looking only at the qualifications necessary to do the work at a particular college. But we're not looking only at Allison's or Paul's ability to do the work. Parents and counselors may be, but the colleges aren't. Colleges are looking at thousands of applications for perhaps a few hundred freshman places. They know that they can separate out interesting young people for their college community who are within a wide test-score range. It's the student's ability to use his brainpower that the college is eager to know--what a student can do with all of those raw numbers is what counts.

How high school students spend their time outside the classroom is the measure of their values.

There isn't a college in the country where the motivated student can't do the work with a 650 verbal and 650 math SAT. The last thing a college admissions officer would do is compare Jane with Dick and say, "Oh, these two are exactly alike except Jane is 30 points higher on her verbal, so we will take her." Yet, most of the questions to college admissions deans run as if this were the basic assumption of students and their parents.

As the dean of a small competitive college told me, "After we select the 'qualifieds' out, we still have 4,000 applicants for 500 places. Then we make a selective judgment of just what kind of brain the kid has. How does she think? What kind of a learner is he? We look for the student who can ask the best questions, not the one who can give the right answers."

To be reasonable about the competition for college admission, we should look from the college's point of view and try to understand what schools are after. Once a student falls within a certain range of SAT scores and grades, the admissions officer is looking for an interesting freshman class that will be a perfect match for his particular campus culture. Admissions people consider curriculum choice, in-depth study (especially in mathematics, foreign languages, and science), and the risk-taking factor, especially in areas the student isn't crazy about. As they read through students' folders, many stand out as instant superstars and fascinating applicants. So for students, it's important to know that the selection process is not so much a question of "What's wrong with my application?" as it is a matter of what's right with the outstanding applications. To draw another athletic comparison, we can measure a track star's or a swimmer's numbers--height, weight, time, speed, and distance of previous events--but what we look for in a winner is also motivation, discipline, attitude about winning, ability to focus in all kinds of weather, "coachability," and the ability to function in competitive situations. Numbers alone won't do it. Values, attitudes, and behavior have to be factored in.

And if the top colleges value one skill above all others, it is writing. Writing reflects how a person thinks and can express himself. Good writing means more than technically correct writing. An essay can be grammatically correct and structurally clean and still be very ordinary. Most writing is. But it's the extraordinary writer the top colleges are looking for. The written word that soars, or is inspirational, or has an internal logic that may differ from the ordinary, or that is creative and shows in a fresh, innovative way how the student sees herself in the world. A teacher can encourage all these qualities, but it is only from within the young person's own experience that he or she can draw the material and the flair to shine, and to stand out above the others. These are the students that get to go to the top colleges. Their range of SAT scores will vary from 650 verbal to 800. A few will come in under that.

Besides finding the fascinating, curious, smart student, colleges also need to fill the positions that will make the college community run. As one director of admissions put it, "If I need a quarterback, I'm going to get one." Beyond quarterbacks, those people the admissions dean will want to find include legacies; leaders for school publications, student government, and other areas of student life; children of influential families; musicians, athletes, public speakers, and others with special talents; and students from underrepresented ethnic groups and geographical areas.

America's top colleges get to choose their freshmen from thousands of interesting young people who will eventually lead the world in every imaginable field. High school is where their abilities, ambitions, and sensibilities develop through the opportunities they find in their families and their communities. How high school students spend their time outside the classroom is the measure of their values. Competitive-college applicants are curious, disciplined young people who have already achieved, whether it is in filmmaking, church work, developing software programs, entering political contests, writing poetry, or making music, science experiments, or theatrical sets. Spending their school years becoming singular teenagers and documenting their achievements in a readable, compelling essay is what will get them where they want to go.

Joyce Slayton Mitchell is the director of college advising at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City and was a contributing writer for the 1998 edition of U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 33-34

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as SATs Don't Get You In
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