I took the SAT a grand total of one time when I was in dipshit prep school. This was 1993. Like any other kid, I wanted to do well on the test, primarily so that I would NEVER have to take it again, but also because kids at my school were real dicks about their SAT scores. You'd hear through the grapevine about other kids who aced the test, and all that test gossip resulted in an great deal of fear and paranoia about your own performance. It was horrible. If you can, avoid going to high school altogether.
They administered the test at a nearby public high school and herded us into the classrooms. Every classroom had a test monitor, a stack of test booklets, and a large box of sharpened No. 2 pencils. My friend Darren sat in front of me. Thirty minutes into the test, he had to go pee. The monitor denied him a trip to the bathroom. Darren ended up getting a 900 out of 1600. That monitor was a dick.
Shockingly, little about the SAT has changed since I set foot in that classroom. Most students still have to take the test using bubble sheets and a No. 2 pencil, which is insane to me. They've managed to digitize VOTING, for shit's sake. And yet here's the SAT, still feeding test sheets into the Scantron machine like it's 1982. Maybe the only differences with today's SAT are the essay question (barf), the higher maximum score (2400), and the hugely metastasized frenzy over the test. Wired reports that as recently as 2009, the test-preparation industry had earnings of over $4 billion. Private tutoring from a Kaplan expert to study for the test can cost you close to $5,000, an expense plenty of nutjob helicopter parents are happy to throw down.
There are many shitty things about being a grownup. You have to make money. You have to do taxes. You have to show up for your bail hearings. It's all really fucking annoying. But one of the few upsides of being an adult is that you NEVER have to take the SAT again. You never have to worry about it. You don't have to give a shit what'll happen if have to pee during the test. You don't have to look at another analogy ever again. It's not bad tradeoff for all the other piddling crap you have to deal with. I know I was happy with the arrangement. But recently, I got this question from reader Brendan:
If you had to take one of the standardized college acceptance tests today, how do you think you'd fare? I did pretty well when I took it in high school, but I'm almost certain these days I'd score like, a 12 on the math section of the ACT. Me no make numbers good.
Me no make numbers good either, Brendan. But there was only one way to find out if I truly am dumber than I was 18 years ago. I had to take the SAT one more time, cold. With no preparation of any sort. And I had to do it under the exact same conditions as before: using bubble sheets, a No. 2 pencil, a standard calculator (I sold my TI-81 graphing calculator after I graduated. OOPS!). And I had to do it in the time allotted. So that's exactly what I did. I went to the College Board and printed out a sample test, then sat down and took it from beginning to end. Here now is what transpired.
Before you even begin taking the SAT, it's already worn you down. There's an entire form you have to fill out at the front of the test booklet, including a bubble sheet with your name, your DOB, your ZIP code, your test center code, your form code, your test-book serial number, your registration number (???), your gender, and OK WE FUCKING GET IT. I think you have more than enough information, College Board. Would you also like the results of my most recent HIV test? God forbid you simplify this so students have to enter only one code. About the only mercy they extend to you is that you're required to fill out only the first six letters of your last name and the first four letters of your first name. When I was a kid, you had to fill out your full name, and if you were unfortunate enough to be some Polish kid with a 30,000-letter last name, you were dead and buried before you'd even reached the antonyms.
There are three overarching sections to the SAT: writing, math, and reading. The fact that the essay comes first is a real kick in the balls. But I suppose they're trying to get the painful shit out of the way first. Usually, teachers drop the essay hammer on you at the end of a test, which isn't much better.
You must take the test in order. There's no skipping over sections and going back later on if you have some free time. I think one of the reasons that the SAT is so feared (and reviled) is because of the way the test itself is written. There's no way around it. The SAT is an ASSHOLE. Everything is an order. Every line of text you read in the instructions is a dire warning that if you do not do exactly as you are told, your life will be DESTROYED. Take these bullet points from the essay introduction as an example:
• Off-topic essays, blank essays, and essays written in ink will receive a score of zero.
• If your essay does not reflect your original and individual work, your test scores may be canceled.
• BEGIN WRITING YOUR ESSAY ON PAGE 2 OF THE ANSWER SHEET.
Jesus. Chill the fuck out. It's as if the entire test had been conceived of and written by the SS. Would it kill them to have a bit of levity in the copy? Perhaps a bit of gentle reassurance? "Look, we know this is stressful for you. Just hang with us and you'll get to go to Dairy Queen afterwards." I think something like that would be really helpful to the more testing-averse kids out there.
Anyway, you get 25 minutes to write your essay. The topic in the sample test was, "Do people accomplish more when they are allowed to do things in their own way?" The essay I ended up writing used South Park and "Chinese Democracy" as its two biggest support points. I didn't do that on purpose. I wasn't trying to sound like a high schooler. Those were legitimately the only two examples I could pull out of my brain. No actual works of literature or instances in world history. So that was unpleasant.
Because I work on a computer like normal human beings, I'd forgotten how painful it can be to write in longhand for long stretches of time. I know it's not as bad as digging trenches in the Amazon, but still—it's AGONY. Your neck gets sore from staring down. You get that weird dent in your middle finger and thumb from pressing the pencil too hard. Everything around you starts to smell like old pencil shavings. This is why I fucking hated blue-book exams in high school and college. It wasn't that I had to study, or that I had to think on the fly. It was the hard LABOR of it all. Every time I finished a blue-book exam in school, I felt as if I had just moved a cord of firewood. Many times, I would hurry up and try and finish the essay early, just so that I could stop writing and rest. It's amazing, when you think about it. You spend a whole semester studying for some test, and then you rush it because you just want five extra minutes to relax. That's how my brain works. It's not a perfect organ.
The rest of the test is divided into eight sections (GAHHHHHH), alternating between sections of math questions, critical-reading questions, and writing questions. The writing questions are scored in tandem with the essay, to give you a composite score (maximum of 800) that goes along with the math and verbal scores for your final tally. You aren't allowed to use scratch paper for the math questions (what the fuck?!), but you are allowed to use a calculator. And I noticed that the beginning of each math section gave you basic reference formulas, like the area of a circle, the volume of a cylinder, the Pythagorean theorem, and more. Which was good, because I completely forgot all of that shit. Did you know that the sum of degrees in any triangle must equal 180? I HAD NO IDEA. I have to think the smart kids who take this test must be angry at the inclusion of this free reference guide. Shouldn't the stupid kids be forced to remember all this?
Another wrinkle: Not all the math questions were multiple choice. Some of them required what was called a "student-produced response" (aren't they all student-produced responses?), which involved figuring out the answer to the problem and then filling in a little sequence of numbers on your test sheet. They do this so that you can't use trial-and-error to figure out the answer, the way I did with most of the multiple-choice questions. Assholes.
Given that I haven't had to take a test in over a decade, it was easy for me to forget just how daunting a math question can be. For example, look at this:
I mean seriously, HOLY FUCK. My mind exploded when I looked at this. You may as well have asked me to climb Everest using a fork. It took me five minutes just to try to understand the QUESTION. Once I had figured it out, time was up. I finished most of the verbal sections of the test under the time allotted. I had no such luck with the math sections. Even when I got the question right, the mental strain it took to try and dig through the piles of shit-encrusted mildew in my brain to retrieve the information needed to solve any given equation was brutal. How do you divide fractions again? Don't you flip the top number and the bottom number or something? And what's the top number called? The Ruminator? The Kilometer? OH FUCK IT.
Many times, I had to skip a question because I couldn't figure out the answer, and then I got that paranoia that's unique to someone taking a standardized test. I became fearful that I had failed to skip over the question on my answer sheet. So every five seconds, I'd double-check my sheet to make sure I didn't fill out my answers in the wrong slots. One time I did this, and so I had to erase the answers and move them all forward. Only I had a shitty eraser, which failed to erase my mark and instead smeared the mark all over the rest of my sheet. FUCK YOU, TRICK ERASER. I HATE YOU.
It didn't get any easier after that. The SAT lulls you into a false sense of security by front-loading most sections with a few softballs, so that stupid kids can get at least a few questions right and then enjoy the rest of their lives working on an oil rig. But as you get deeper into each section, the questions take a nasty turn. Like so.
I just ... Christ. Where do you even begin to figure out the methodology needed to solve this? I guessed. I guessed wrong. That's the amazing thing about the SAT. YOU WILL NEVER GUESS RIGHT.
The verbal sections were a little bit better. Much to my relief, there were no analogies anywhere on the test. All of the verbal questions involved choosing the right word for a sentence (piece of cake) and reading comprehension (GUHHHHHH). One of the former sections included this question about hip hop, which I assume the testmakers added so that no one would accuse them of being RAYCESS:
Stupid SAT. Hip hop is the genre. Rapping is the vocal style performed WITHIN that genre. This is the whitest question ever.
Reading comprehension is every bit as painful and horrible as you remember. You get a few paragraphs of bone-dry text about a random subject, and then you have to go and answer questions about what the text means. I had to re-read entire sections over and over again just to make sure I understood the question. In some cases, you had to read TWO awful passages and then answer questions as to how the two differed. Everything felt like it had been written by George Will.
Genevieve is clearly a little shit. What kid gets her panties wet over mechanical pencils? And if they're so great, WHY THE FUCK CAN'T I USE ONE ON THIS TEST? And why is Genevieve hanging out with her great aunt? Did her parents die? Doesn't she have any friends? Her great aunt is a creepy old lady who gets all weepy over pencil shavings. BUY A MAC, LADY.
It got worse. The test says this passage came from a novel written in 1909:
Jesus, that's the worst thing ever written. It's like a failed submission to The Atlantic. I bet Gregg Easterbrook has read whatever novel this comes from 50 times over and made copious notes in the margins. Would it have killed them to throw in a passage WORTH reading? Like a section from The Dirt? "When Nikki Sixx nailed that guy's ear to the floor, it was a sign that he was A.) angry, B.) surprised, C.) melancholy, D.) Batman, E.) all of the above." It wouldn't kill them to at least try to entertain kids while giving this test. It shouldn't have to be a deadly march through bland subject after bland subject. It could be humanized. It could even be lively in the right hands.
Whenever I finished a verbal section early, I got to a big warning that said: "STOP. If you finish before the time is called, you may check your work in this section only. Do not turn to any other section in the test." Whatever you say, MEIN FÜHRER. Since I was trying to simulate the experience of taking the test for real, I forced myself to stay in my seat for the remaining time allotted. I never went back to check my answers, because fuck that. I never went back to check when I was a student, and I wasn't gonna do it now. Instead, I did the same thing I did back when I had free test time as a kid: I stared out the window and thought about sex. Those small moments you get during the testing process—those times when you've finished early and you have a little oasis in which to set your mind free—that's all that matters, really.
Because the SAT is less a test of your brainpower than it is a test of your endurance. If you're taking it cold, and you haven't been inside a classroom for 14 years, you aren't physically prepared for it. Your back starts to kill after 30 minutes. Your brain can't handle being assaulted with so many questions in such a small time frame. You aren't properly conditioned for it. I certainly wasn't. If I had taken this test in a proper testing facility, I would have pulled an Emmett Fitz-Hume and hidden all the answers inside my eyepatch. OH THE PRESSURE!!!
Scoring your practice SAT is a relatively simple affair. All you do is tally up the number of questions you got right and the number you got wrong, multiply the number you got wrong by .25 (????), subtract that number from the number you got right for your "raw score," and then look up that raw score on a conversion table to get your actual score. See? EASY. And yes, it's still true: If you get every question wrong, you still get 200 points on each section, just for showing up and putting your name on your test. Though if you got every question wrong, you probably fucked up that part as well. I don't know why the test is scored like this. It strikes me as yet another needless complication in an already needlessly complicated test. But there you have it. Again, the SAT is an asshole, and forcing you to convert raw scores to scores that are somehow more accurate (but really not) is a typical asshole move.
The essay is graded on a scale of 1 to 6, with six showing "complete mastery" of writing and one showing that you will probably end up writing a ransom note at some point in your life. Mine is below. You can judge it for yourself. (Click to enlarge.) Yes, that's my actual handwriting. Fuck you.
We sent the essay to a teacher with the Princeton Review who asked that we not give his name. He gave the essay a 4, explaining the grade thusly in an email:
This essay successfully addresses the assignment and develops a complete response to the question with specific and generally relevant examples. In these essential ways, the essay qualifies as competent (between 4 and 6 points) rather than incompetent (between 1 and 3 points). Nevertheless, the essay would have been much better had it not relied on self-conscious and awkward transitions, wince-inducing colloquialisms ("this isn't to say there should be a man with a cattle prod hanging over you"), and generalizations.
(The teacher also explained that graders arrive at a number after only 45-60 seconds of reading. "It's a process of elimination," he said. "Did he answer the question? Did he use examples?" He went on to call my essay an "odd piece of writing." Of the "cattle prod" line in particular, he spoke of that "head-smacking, eyes-closed, face-down expression" he gets when he reads "crap like that.")
I thought I would be given credit for not using all caps, but alas. I don't know why they added an essay to the SAT. Two million kids take the SAT annually. Something tells me those essays aren't scored with a great deal of care. And whether or not you can write two pages of crap in 25 minutes hardly stands as a good barometer of your abilities. Some people write fast. Some people write slow. Some people, like me, toss in an f-bomb every other sentence. It's too subjective a process to whittle down to a simple number. I say this because I didn't get a perfect score on it. Pricks. I'LL SHOW YOU A WINCE-INDUCING COLLOQUIALISM.
As for the rest of the test, in the end, I scored 200 points better on the verbal section than I did back in 1993. I was 20 points worse on the math section. This makes sense, at least from my personal example. You never stop reading, particularly in the Internet age. I read all the time. Granted, everything I read is written in LOLCATS language, but still. If you read and write every day as I do, you'll stay relatively sharp. But I'll be goddamned if I can remember the last time I had to figure out how many sides a covered polygon has. That shit is useless. Unless you engineer planes or something.
I took my final score on this practice test and did a proportion (one more goddamn math problem) to see if my score was better than it was 19 years ago. And it was, by roughly 190 points. (I got 2140 this time. You do the math yourself.) I'm smarter than I was when I was 17, and that's a relief, because I was a fucking MORON at 17. If you're 35 years old and you're thinking about retaking the SAT as a kind of blog stunt, I would highly recommend you avoid it. In fact, I would recommend that no one take the SAT ever. It's a sternly worded dinosaur of a test, graded in an arbitrary manner with outdated equipment, and it blows. The only reason people take it is because they have to. It exists only so that preppy dipshits can brag about their scores well into adulthood if they did well. I hate it. I hope the Princeton Review gets fucked by a cattle prod.