Thomson Peterson's, the test-prep and college guidebook company, put out a news release recently saying that the scents of grapefruit oil, ginger, lavender and spearmint both energize and calm the brain when cramming for high-stakes exams. Such advice can't be any less useful than the guidance being sold to college-bound teenagers fretting over the latest national testing crisis -- should they take the old SAT, the new SAT or both?
Next March the College Board will switch to the new SAT, adding an essay section and second-year algebra questions. That will increase the testing period to 3 hours 45 minutes and the top score from 1600 to 2400. Until March, this year's high school juniors, if they wish, may also take the old SAT. Experts at the test-prep company Kaplan Inc. (now a bigger part of The Washington Post Co. than The Washington Post itself) recommend taking the old test, too, if you think the new test might hurt your scores, since most colleges will count the highest scores you get, old or new.
Kaplan's rivals at the Princeton Review say not to waste your time or money taking the old test: Most selective colleges will require that juniors seeking admission in the fall of 2006 take a writing test, so you can't escape an exercise in stilted prose. And, they say, whatever you get on the old test, you are likely to be convinced that you could do better on the new, and will take it, too.
No wonder so many students are confused. Nora Dankner, a junior at Sidwell Friends School, says she and her classmates aren't sure whether to take the SAT subject test in writing in addition to the new SAT. "It just hasn't been very clear as to what things you should do," she says.
That grinding sound you hear is me trying to suppress another tantrum about the SAT. I am glad they are getting rid of the old SAT analogy questions. Who cares if rhinos are to mud holes as starlets are to spas? And adding a short essay is probably a good idea. But this old-vs.-new debate is just another silly, aggravating distraction in the college application process.
"This is a road to Hell that was paved with good intentions," says Pomona College's vice president and dean of admissions, Bruce Poch, of the SAT change. "But here and now we face the speed bumps."
I have disliked the evil little SAT ever since I ran out of time while taking it my senior year and went home terrified that I'd blown it. After that, I spewed venom on the test whenever I could. It was only loosely related to high school classes, I said. All the prep courses were a waste of money, I said. Then my lovely daughter informed me that all her friends were taking the Capital Educators test-prep course, and she needed $950 to join them, or she would worry that she wasn't as ready as they were for the ordeal. Lacking any backbone, as usual, I shut my mouth and wrote the check.
But I still don't like the SAT. It is a blunt ax, an outdated ritual, a vile weed. If you have been paying attention in school and doing the reading, you will do fine in college. It doesn't matter whether you take the new version or the old, and no matter what the ads say, your test-preparation course is unlikely to do you much good. (My daughter's many weeks in her prep course produced a whopping 10-point increase in her score, or about $100 per point.)
Thank goodness she didn't do better. A 200-point boost can, I'm not kidding, actually backfire -- if you don't have the schoolwork to go along with it. "Without a challenging curriculum and excellent grades, a great score on the SAT simply screams bright but lazy!" warns Robyn A. Lady, a guidance counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.
In the application vetting practiced by those colleges most likely to reject you, a good score only gets you tossed into the "maybe" pile. Whether you get in will be determined mostly by other things, such as your grades, your activities and your recommendations. This is no longer a rational process. Attending one of the best and most competitive high schools, such as Thomas Jefferson, can hurt your chances of getting into certain colleges, because you are going to be part of a mob of people applying to schools like MIT, and easier to overlook than if you were one of a very few MIT applicants from, say, Liberty High in Fauquier County.
SAT scores are more useful in your selection of colleges than in their selection of you. It is smart to apply to colleges that accept a lot of students with your scores, because you are likely to get in. Even at schools where the average SAT score is nowhere near 1450, there are plenty of smart undergraduates, great professors and millionaire alumni you can hit up for jobs when you graduate.
So tune out the SAT debate, and just do your homework. Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment at Cornell University, says students should "take the SAT when they feel academically ready, not based on whether they will take the new or the old SAT."
And if that still scares you, there is a less stressful alternative. Sign up for the ACT, the competing college entrance test that is taken by almost as many students and accepted by as many colleges as the SAT. The ACT advantage is that, unlike the SAT, you can send just the ACT results you like. If you blow that first ACT, no one needs to know. Sprinkle on some grapefruit oil, chew a stick of spearmint gum, and try again.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.