This week's news about changes to the SAT format that will take place in 2016 reminded me of my own SAT experience just a few years ago. At the time, I was doing a webseries for Men's Health Magazine where I would attempt a different challenge every episode. I played goalie against a Division 1 lacrosse team, battled a world-class ping pong player, and even faced off against golf legend Gary Player on the links. Then my boss suggested trying something different. He wanted me to retake the SAT. I was not enthused. Most of the stuff I'd been doing was a bit more adventurous and while I may not have excelled or succeeded at most of them, at least I didn't come off looking too foolish. This one was different. By retaking the SAT for the first time in almost 30 years, there was a pretty good chance I was going to be exposed to the world (and more importantly, my two young sons) as an actual idiot -- clinically-verified, institutionally-recognized dolt of the highest degree. My boss' only response to my trepidation was a box that showed up on my doorstep one day. In it were an SAT Study Book and a handful of #2 pencils.
People sometimes think I'm smart because I'm a writer and my wife thinks I'm good at math because I can always figure out the tip quickly at restaurants, but that doesn't exactly make me Rainman. I cracked open the Study Book with a healthy dose of apprehension (and a less-healthier supply of Bud Limes). The Critical Reading and Sentence Completion sections were up first, and I was surprised that I actually did okay. Sure, I missed a few answers, but for the most part, I was scoring well. Maybe this wasn't going to be as bad as I thought.
Then came the math section. I built up a touch of confidence when I aced the first few questions, which seemed to be based more on logic and common sense than any real math issues. The first algebra question hit me like a ton of bricks. And then a graph. And something about Pi. And radii and cylindrical proportions. Now I knew I was in real trouble. As I went through the sample tests, I came across far too many questions where not only did I not know the answer, I didn't even understand what the hell the question was asking. This might be trouble.
Test day came and I headed out to the local high school. The one thing I didn't prep for at all was the essay so, of course, it was the first thing we had to do. I make my living as a writer, so I felt that I had to at least do well on the essay section. Even if I butchered everything else, I should at least score well on the one thing that puts food on my kids' plates.
The proctor told us to open our test booklets. We had 25 minutes to finish, but I didn't think time would be an issue at all. I've cranked out thousand-word articles in less time than that, so I dove right in. My head flooded with ideas and I rushed to plot out my thoughts on some scratch paper. As the lead etched itself onto the paper, I was infused with even more brilliance. One great idea led to another. Excellent premises were established. A wonderful all-encompassing theme held all the separate pieces together in my head. This was going to be an essay for the ages. It might go into the SAT Hall of Fame. It would be revered for years to come in Kaplan courses throughout the land! Then suddenly, the proctor announced that there were only five minutes left. Uh-oh. While I had three pages of notes written down, I had yet to put anything into the test booklet. I started scribbling an endless array of discombobulated thoughts and run-on sentences. None of the wonderful ideas I had in my notes made it into my essay. I ended up trying to compare the fragile political state of Northern Africa to the plot of Kafka's The Metamorphosis and an episode of Go, Diego, Go! I had recently watched about the blue monarch butterfly. Obviously not my best work. And I still had four-and-a-half hours to go.
The rest of the morning was a blur. A 20-minute math section, followed by 25 minutes of critical reading, followed by 20 minutes of sentence completion. After my display of poor time management skills on the essay, I was now feeling constantly under the gun. I found myself sneaking peaks at the clock every time I filled in a circle with my deteriorating #2. While the time quickly ticked away for each session I was working on, the morning was passing slower than my high school career.
Eventually, we completed the final section and the test was over. I joined the line of hundreds of other kids who shuffled out of the school like extras in a bad zombie flick. After five hours of shabby fluorescent lighting, the bright sun burned my retinas like so many of those algebra problems did. But at least it was over. Nothing left to do but wait for the results.
Would they be as bad as I anticipated? Or had I been dreading the worst, only to learn that my extra 30 years of life experience actually made me smarter? It was neither. I ended up scoring 1880 out of 2400. Not great, but not as horrible as I'd feared. There's no true conversion for old scores, but my new results were mostly in line with the 1110 out of 1600 I had scored back in 1982. A little online research showed that my scores were still good enough to gain me admission at my old alma mater, Fairfield University. While it seems that I hadn't actually gotten any smarter in the past 30 years, at least I hadn't lost any of the intelligence I once had.
The only thing that really stuck in my craw from the whole experience was my poor score on the essay. I should have excelled at this part, but instead I scored four out of a possible 12 points. Four?! If you simply copied the essay topic into the booklet, you scored 2 points... and my ridiculous ramblings were only a shade better than that. How embarrassing. When it's time for my firstborn to take his SATs in another decade or so, I hope he's not surprised to see his old man sitting next to him, frantically scratching away with his faithful #2.
Follow Steve Belanger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SteveBelanger