One thing has been gnawing at me recently: Am I dumber than I was in high school 18 years ago? I figured there was only one way to find out—take the SAT one more time, cold. With no preparation of any sort—just the way I did it then. I went to the College Board website and printed out a sample test, and then sat down and sweated over its three overarching sections: writing, math, and reading. If you’ve ever considered doing something stupid like retaking the SAT when you didn’t have to, put down that No. 2 pencil and heed the hard lessons I learned.
No One Likes to Be Yelled At
One reason the SAT is so reviled is the way the test itself is written. Everything is an order. Or worse, a dire warning: “Do as you’re told or your life will be destroyed!!!” Just look at these bullet points from the essay introduction:
- 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.
I hadn’t even started, and I was getting bawled out. Would it kill them to add a bit of levity to the copy? Perhaps some gentle reassurance? “Look, we know this is stressful for you. Just hang with us and you’ll get to go to Dairy Queen afterward.”
The Essay Is Hard
You get 25 minutes to write your essay, and the fact that it comes first is a real kick in the gut. The topic in the sample test I took 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 as one of its biggest support points. I wasn’t trying to sound like a high schooler. It was all I could pull out of my brain. No actual works of literature or events in world history. So that was unpleasant.
Did I Say Hard? I Meant It Hurts!
If you’re like me, you work on a computer like a normal human being. So it might come as a surprise to find just how painful it is to write in longhand for long stretches of time. Yes, 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 hated blue book exams in high school and college. It was hard labor. Every time I finished a blue book exam in school, I felt as if I had just hauled a cord of firewood.
The Math Section Hurts Almost as Much as the Essay
Given that most of us haven’t had to take a test in quite a while, it’s easy to forget just how daunting a math question can be. For example:
If x and y are positive integers, which of the following is equivalent to (2x)3y–(2x)y ?
C. (2x)y [(2x)2y–1]
D. (2x)y (4xy–1)
E. (2x)y [(2x)3–1]
I mean seriously. 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.
Me No Make Numbers Good
Because we haven’t had to do math in aeons, the mental strain it takes to dig through the piles of mildew in one’s brain to retrieve the information needed to solve any given equation is 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?