Today's post is brought to you by one of our SAT teachers who recently took the SAT. We periodically send our teachers into the actual test to make sure we have the most current info on the test, the proctoring, and the experience so we can share that with those we're helping to prepare for it. While all of our teachers have taken the SAT in high school and have done many practice tests either at home or proctored in our office, the experience of going to a testing center always reminds us of what students actually go through. - Editor
BACKGROUND: Trust me, you won’t remember anything!
In the past, I’ve been embarrassed a few times by students who ask me about my own SAT scores and how I studied. The truth is that I don’t remember studying at all. I procrastinated opening my ten-dollar Barron’s book until the week before the test, and then I decided to register for a later administration instead of cramming in just a few days. I wouldn’t have taken it that day at all if my mother hadn’t insisted that it would be good practice. But I got lucky: when my scores came back, I discovered that I had surpassed my goal and didn’t need to test again. I suppose I should’ve done it anyway, just to try to improve, but at seventeen, I didn’t think that way. Needless to say, this isn’t a strategy I like to encourage, so I’ve tried to keep that story to myself. But perhaps because I wasn’t all that nervous, I find that I don’t remember the day of the SAT very well, even though it was only seven years ago. All I can recall is the vague feeling that it wasn’t as bad as it was hyped up to be, and also that Stuyvesant (where I took it) was way too big. Despite almost two years of teaching the test, as I was stuffing a graphing calculator and a few blunt pencils into my purse at the ungodly hour of 7am this Saturday, I found myself unsure what to expect.
I registered to take the test at Washington Irving High School, because I grew up near it but had never been inside. Once I got there, I found myself, yet again, surrounded by kids who were way more nervous than I was. I had made a fairly transparent attempt to go incognito under a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, but I don’t think the kids around me would have noticed if I were dressed like the Grim Reaper. They just sat in their seats, facing forward and sweating profusely, until the moment came to bubble our names in. Security was tougher than I remembered, even at Washington Irving, which a student had told me was the most relaxed testing center. We weren’t allowed to chew gum, drink water, or eat snacks in the classroom, even during the breaks, and we had to carry our printed photo-tickets and government-issued IDs with us everywhere, even to the bathroom. A kid next to me had a simple, dollar-store-type calculator on his desk with the cover on top, and he was asked to put it under his chair during a reading section, which I thought was a little unnecessary. The main conclusion I took away from the test was that this testing is harder on the kids than we like to admit. The students around me all looked on the verge of tears and were visibly pale by the end of it. And the addition of an experimental section (a section of the SAT that the college board uses to develop future tests — one which will not be added to your score, but which is also not identified on the test) is just cruel. On my test, it took the form of a math section with material I’d only seen on 1 of the many released test I’ve seen (some kind of polynomial function thing); for other kids, I found out later, it was a series of reading comprehension questions which referred to earlier questions rather than to the passage itself [Editor's note: This is as yet unverified.]. The slog of the four-hour test is bad enough without the additional shock of being tested in unexpected ways on unexpected material, in my view, and anyway, just knowing that one section was experimental makes you sort of paranoid.
On the whole, though, the taking the test was easier than I remembered [Editor's note: let's not forget that the writer has been teaching the SAT for a couple of years], which I found reassuring; the questions seemed clear and direct, for the most part, and the reading passages were engaging. Some observations from the test:
- No matter how many hours-long written or oral exams you’ve taken in college, there is something uniquely tough about the length of the SAT. I think it has to do with the fact that you’re switching subjects and have such measly breaks.
- Students didn’t eat enough. I was the only one who ate anything at all during the breaks (thanks for the granola bars, mom!) and, more alarmingly, the only one who brought and drank water. Lots of kids did use the toilets, which you pretty much had to run to because they were so far from the classroom we tested in. Based on my experience, I’d advise peeing before the test and rehydrating during it, not the other way around.
- I was impressed by the alertness of the students. Nobody even seemed sleepy. I fear for when this tireless generation enters the job market. It is surprisingly easy to mis-bubble. I actually caught myself doing it three times (!) — two of them only because I was checking my work. Check your work, everyone!
- The room I tested in was freezing at first, but slowly shifted to 78-and-humid in the course of the test. I always advise students to wear layers to the test, so that they can adjust for any unexpected indoor weather, and I’ve never been more glad that I followed my own advice. By the end of the exam I was in a tee shirt, regretting my woolen long underwear.
- The general impression I had was that the students’ nervousness was a serious handicap to them. They all seemed jumpy and unhappy, and I can’t imagine producing a calm, logical essay if you felt the way they looked. Timed practice tests and going over old exams should make the test less intimidating, and being prepared to take the test more than once also helps reduce the pressure.
In conclusion, my advice for students taking the March or May tests:
- Plug in wherever you can. As always there were tons of questions where plugging in cut your work in half.
- For the essay,
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it helps to use the test booklet as scrap paper.
- If you have extra time, check your work, check your work, CHECK YOUR WORK! I must have saved myself a hundred points by re-checking, and I’m usually very neat. Something about the long-distance aspect of the test makes you sloppy.
- Also periodically check that you’re bubbling in the right section or column.
- Come wearing layers and bring light snacks and a lot of water.
- Be sure to bring extra batteries for your calculator, a pencil sharpener, and at least two pencils.
- When taking practice tests at home, don’t skip the essay! No matter how great a writer you are, producing a structured, logical essay in 25 minutes is a unique skill that takes practice.
- Relax, get in the zone, and try to enjoy it, no matter how stressed the other students seem. Calm minds make better decisions!