Questions & AnswersProductsAbout Mitch Adler


Dear Mitch,

As a parent of a child who will be taking the SAT exam this year, and as someone who has read so many negative things about the test and all the pressure it puts on students who already have enough work with all the applications and the work they do in the last two years of high school, I am curious to know if you could tell me even one good thing about the exam? As far as I can see, it just cuts into their school work.


Mrs. L. W. Canell

Allentown, PA


Dear L. W. Canell,


Yes, I can tell you something good about the exam, although this feature has changed slightly in the last few years as the test has been overhauled. What I liked about it before was that it was initially intended to give students a chance to show how capable they were at figuring out the types of problems and grasp the meaning of reading passages that neither they nor anyone else taking the test was likely to have come across before that day (and if a student had read one of the classics or articles from which a piece was reprinted on the test, then it's extremely unlikely that that student had the same lucky surprise on more than one of the reading passages). BUT TO BE CLEAR, WHEN EVERYONE INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF THE TEST IS DOING THEIR TASK THE BEST THEY CAN, THE IDEA IS NOT TO KNOCK DOWN STUDENTS WITH GOOD GRADES, although that is always a possibility and does in fact occur in some cases. The best thing about the test is to give students who – for one or more reasons -- was not able to perform well in school and could now show in three hours that although his or her track record leaves questions to be answered, that student is indeed capable of some impressive thinking. For a long time the test was believed to be impervious to prepping of any kind, including tutoring or memorizing lists of vocabulary words. Of course, most people know that tutoring helps a lot of people a great deal, but that the test-makers still argue that tutoring cannot impact a score significantly. Why would they say this? I believe they feel they have to take this position, or the test would be ruled unconstitutional; after all, if tutoring is indeed a powerful influence, then the test clearly discriminates against the students who cannot afford such extra help – a form of extra help, incidentally, which is known for not coming inexpensively.

Basically, tests come in two categories: 'achievement' tests and 'aptitude' tests. The quintessential achievement test is a spelling test. Typically, the teacher distributes a list of words at the beginning of the week, and if the students review them and know their spelling they do well; if they do not know the list of words by the time of the test, then they do not do so well. But the main idea is that there is nothing on the test the students could not have at least tried to learn, and there are no surprises -- except, perhaps, for a surprise 'bonus' word or two. The other form of test, the aptitude test, is just the opposite: there is no set body of material that a student can memorize; in fact, the goal of the test-maker is often to create questions that the student has never before seen but which he or she can, with a little thought, attempt to answer. The student can apply one or more approaches that he or she has seen used on other problems and adapt them to the unfamiliar question. One test involves knowing what you were told you would have to know (the achievement test), and the other (the aptitude test) involves using your skills to solve new problems.

Sadly, I think, when the SAT exam was changed from what was basically an "aptitude test" to an "aptitude and achievement test", it became much MORE tutor-able and – to the extent that any single test could be considered unfair to different economic groups or a particular race of people who are more likely to be in one socioeconomic group or another (as determined from a statistical standpoint), the test has indeed moved a drop toward the category of favoring those students who attend certain types of schools and have access to certain types of tutoring or preparation. I find it a little sad that the newer version is less likely to give a once-in-a-lifetime risky but much needed chance to students who attend schools that do not recognize or develop all its students' natural talent. Still, there are always ways that good colleges and universities will find interesting students, particularly if the school wishes to remain interesting for long. I always find it reassuring that most admission officers to whom I've spoken over the years tend to say something like this: "More than a 'well-rounded student', our goal is to assemble a well-rounded student population on our campus". In other words, despite what some parents still wish were true, many of the finest and most interesting schools I know are more interested in accepting a student who has devoted his life to saving a species of whale that had been in danger of extinction, or one that may still be in danger, than a student with a lot of good grades who never demonstrated any concern outside himself, or even outside his school -- let alone demonstrated concern for any creature that lives deep in the sea!

Students with high grades and scores are more plentiful than all the colleges and universities have room to accommodate, but there aren't that many limbless marathon runners who donate their proceeds to those who have even fewer limbs. I think it's clear that a student like that may have to work hard to find his own path, but you can bet that once he/she does, he is going to go places!

And that student's first destination is likely to be the college of his choice!

In any case, I think it's a shame that parents and teachers don't try harder to get students to take a positive view of a three-hour test that most schools still (when combined with other criteria) consider pretty important. I would bet that many students would feel less stressed and do better on the test if they truly thought of it not as an enemy, but as an exciting opportunity, like a very competitive tennis tournament that any player has a chance of winning or – at least – enjoy an opportunity to demonstrate how keenly he has developed his skills!

If I were you, I would tell my child it's a tough challenge (and therefore not boring), and he/she has everything he needs in his head and on the paper to solve some interesting questions and focus on a few reading passages which – interesting or not – are short enough to swallow. And there's a game aspect to the whole thing, with learning how to guess, much like taking a shot in pool that might go in and might not, but you won't know until you ....

Anxiety should be recast as excitement, as almost any big thing worth doing in life is preceded by the thought: "I don't know if I can do this..."

THEN... AFTER the test, I would remind my child that it's just a three hour exercise in nonsense, and no matter what happened in there, the sun is just as likely to rise the following morning, gracefully announcing that it is time to move on to fresh challenges. After all, at that age, a student's life is about to REALLY begin to merge with the individual he/she was meant to be, and that prospect, with the right attitude, is about as exciting as things can get!

Hope this helps,