Taking the SAT as an adult is a harrowing experience, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.
She was inspired by Debbie Stier, a 46-year-old mother who took the test seven times in hopes of motivating her son, a B student. Obsessed with earning a perfect score, Stier tried various SAT-prep methods. She ended up with a book, The Perfect Score Project.
Since 2005, the SAT has included an essay. Kolbert had to write on whether progress requires struggle and conflict. From reading Stier’s book, she knew the key to scoring well is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” Stier advises. “Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog,” Kolbert puts it.
There was no time to argue the premise or question the definition of progress. Kolbert went with “No pain, no gain.”
I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”— I made something up.
Kolbert, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, doesn’t report her scores.
Stier tells all. As a high school student in 1982, she received a below-average 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math. But she was able to go to Bennington College and build a successful career as a book publicist. Stier didn’t think that would work for her son.
No longer, she’s concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community.
On her fifth try, Stier scored a perfect 800 on the writing section, 740 in reading and 560 in math.
Her son, Ethan, did well enough on his SATs to get into Loyola University in Baltimore. Test prep taught him to “set goals and work hard,” he believes. “You have to have all the basic skills down before you try to learn any tricks because without a solid base of math and grammar, you won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough on the test.”
Still, his mother is doing test prep differently with her daughter. Before they start test prep, “I’m having her go back and shore up the fundamentals of math, grammar and reading,” Stier says. “I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.”
It sounds educational.