A Rating of the SAT


During my summer days this year—which I would typically spend doing absolutely nothing—I studied for the SAT. Now, post-testing, I am in a peculiar limbo waiting for the results. 

Throughout the month of August, I focused on nothing but the SAT, or the so-called “chance to show how prepared you are for college and career.

Yet I soon learned that I was not “studying” for the SAT, but rather learning how to navigate the test itself. The timed minutes of each section were ingrained in my head: 65, 35, 25, 55, 50.

In my first encounter with the testing material, I was overwhelmed by the time limits. Training in a cold turkey method, my brain forced itself to control fear and anxiety under the clock. Test after test after test, I began to rewire how I approached problems: learning to think like the test makers and pick the answers accordingly.

While enduring this process, I began to consider all of the work that went into making a test that plays such a large role for students during the college admissions process. 

The origins of the SAT began as an IQ test. During World War I, the Army Alpha, the first mass administered IQ test, was given to recruits in the U.S. Army. After the war, Carl Brigham, an assistant on the project, adapted the test for the college admission process.

In 1926, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was administered experimentally to a few thousand college applicants. 

The original test maker, Carl Brigham, was a racist and an eugenicist. Eugenics, the belief in selective breeding of humans, was popular science at this time. Eugenicists supported strict immigration laws and sterilization of the poor, disable, and “immoral.”

Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon people were considered genetically superior. Brigham even used his studies to conclude that African Americans and immigrants were inherently less intelligent. He warned against interracial marriage, predicting that society would degrade if the practice became prevalent.

Over the years, the Scholastic Aptitude Test changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test, then to the SAT I: Reasoning Test, then to the SAT Reasoning Test. Now, the SAT, most likely attempting to escape its racist past, stands for nothing. 

The SAT test itself is not very difficult. The reading passages are dissectable, and the grammar rules, for the most part, are straightforward. The math questions do not cover niche intricacies in geometry or trigonometry. So what makes the perfect score seem so unachievable?

The test forced me to face high pressure—agonizing over my abilities and bearing existential dread. In retrospect, most of the pressure came internally (as you are your own worst enemy), but  that self-motivated quality demonstrates how dedicated some students are to receive their ideal score.

A student taking the test five or six times is probably one who is driven and capable, fit for a rigorous college. Dealing with pressure is a skill to be mastered.

As one might predict, SAT scores correlate with socioeconomic status (SES), which means that students from higher income backgrounds are more likely to achieve higher scores. A 2012 study notes that the “source of the SAT-SES relationship is likely due to some combination of educational opportunity, school quality, peer effects and other social factors.” 

The SAT cost alone—$47.50 for the required test and $64.50 with the optional essay—is another barrier for many low-income families, which also struggle to pay for tutoring sessions and study materials.

I had the luxury to meet with a tutor twice a week. Since Harriton is very academics-focused, friends are eager to share their preparation techniques with me. Some attend the popular MJ Test Prep classes, others purchased the Barron’s books, and some even paid for the online Princeton Review course.

Although Lower Merion is such a high performing school district that receives millions of dollars of funding, it is also the financial capability of each individual family that allows students to excel in academics outside of the classroom.

It is a bitter feeling, seeing persistent inequalities and continuing to play along the same lines. Nevertheless, a small but mighty list of colleges are becoming SAT-optional. The entire system of standardized testing-dependent college applications may soon vanish.

For now, keep in mind that the SAT serves to divide. The test makers are known to be secretive, rigid in their attempts to keep the test questions out of the internet—especially out of memes. After all, we sign a contract on exam day, agreeing to conceal the contents of the test.

CollegeBoard, the company that owns and administers the SAT, defends the test, saying it predicts college preparedness. However, studies have shown that GPA is a better indicator of college success.

The goal of the SAT and its role in the college process is clear: it is a systematic survival of the fittest. 

So my rating of the whole SAT experience? 3/10.