What's It Like Taking the SAT as a Grown-up?
DISCLAIMER: Before I begin, I want to be 100% clear that this blog post will not discuss the test itself or any of the test questions on it. If you choose to leave a comment below, please be respectful of the College Board's policy on discussing the test or its content.
Last Saturday — the same day as my 15-year high school reunion — I woke up early, kissed my wife goodbye, and drove across town to take the October SAT. This was my most recent effort to take the SAT as a grown-up... without looking like a weirdo.
June 2000 SAT
When I was in high school, SAT prep wasn't really a thing. That's probably less a function of when I attended high school and more a function of where I attended high school, considering the findings of a 2016 study by WalletHub.com. In that study, my hometown of Visalia, CA, ranked 148th on a list of The 150 Most and Least Educated Cities. So as you'd expect, hardly anyone I knew in high school prepared for the SAT. Sadly, I was no different.
That's not entirely true. My buddy Nate had a copy of the College Board's Official Study Guide for the SAT, which he pretended to study every Sunday while his parents were out shopping at Costco. It went like this: he'd advance his bookmark ten or twelve pages, and then we'd play Golden Eye on Nintendo 64 for the next two hours. Despite blowing off the SAT, he went on to attend some of the top schools in the country and earn a Ph.D., so hopefully his parents won't be too upset if they happen to read this post.
Suffice to say, my experience with the SAT in high school was not particularly good preparation for my career as Cofounder of Clear Choice Test Prep. However, during my time at Clear Choice, I've had the opportunity to take the SAT numerous times. In fact, I've now taken the SAT twice since the debut of the newly redesigned SAT in March of 2016.
March 2016 SAT
Like many tutors, I was bumped from taking the March 2016 SAT due to a new security protocol which prohibits persons over the age of 21 from taking the SAT. College Board makes an exception for the May and October SAT tests because those two tests are released shortly (?) after they're administered. None of us knew that back in March, however. So I was a little bummed out when I received an email on the Monday prior to the March SAT stating that my registration had been transferred to the May SAT test. Not ideal, considering I'd booked airfare to Austin, TX, for that weekend.
The plan, so far as we'd thought it through, had been to take the SAT at a high school near my brother's place in downtown Austin. I think we'd hoped that "the buddy system" would make the whole event less awkward. Looking back, I don't know how we ever arrived at that conclusion. However, it was not to be.
Upon learning I'd been bumped, the Austin trip devolved/evolved into a working-vacation/brewery tour. All things considered, it could have been A LOT worse. Think, for example, of the international tutors who had booked non-refundable airfare to the United States to take the March SAT. I just hope they were able to book brewery tours of their own.
May 2016 SAT
In the days leading up to the May 2016 test, I half expected to receive another email saying, "We regret to inform you of another new policy." This time, however, I received no such letter, and at 8:00AM-PST on Saturday, May 7th, I took my seat at a local city college, and prepared to take the redesigned SAT.
My recollection of that day is one of a bizarre feeling of unpreparedness. I should be clear, the test itself was not a surprise. The College Board had done an admirable job replicating the SAT in the first four (now six) practice tests it released through Khan Academy.
What threw me off was the test anxiety I was experiencing for the first time in a long time. It didn't help that I had arrived with very little time to spare, and finding the parking permit machine out-of-order, elected to park there anyway and face the consequences later (note: there were none). Nor was I comforted by the expression on the face of the woman assisting students to find their testing rooms. But after a hurried explanation, two forms of photo identification, and a careful scrutiny of my admission ticket, I was directed to the testing room.
Inside the testing room, I began my explanation a second time for the proctor, who didn't actually seem interested. She just glanced at my passport and my admission ticket and pointed to a seat in the very back row, away from the other students.
If I sound upset about my treatment or my seating assignment, I'm not at all. I was quite pleased with my relative privacy in the room. I didn't like the idea of students staring at me wondering what led some guy in his mid-thirties to take the SAT.
In fact, the night before had I wondered what students at the test might conclude about me. Perhaps they'd think that I had been woefully misinformed about the college admissions process? Or that I'd recently emerged from a lengthy coma? Or maybe that I'm that guy who brags about achieving ten perfect SAT scores. Mainly, I just hoped that nobody would think I was there to advertise test prep to students or, worse, steal the test.
One look at our website shows that we deliver custom branded test prep resources for tutors, so I wasn't that worried that my presence would be mistaken for an advertisement to students. But I have no doubt that at least a few tutors around the world make every effort to steal each version of the SAT that's administered. The thought of being mistaken for one of those thieves made me really uncomfortable.
To that point, I want to be very clear that my goal was to take the SAT, not to TAKE THE SAT. Nobody reading this will be surprised to learn that there are tutoring companies who have used stolen SAT & ACT tests as their primary curriculum for decades.
We're not one of those companies. We don't work with those companies. In fact, part of the appeal of our 100% custom branded test prep system is that it enables tutors to distinguish themselves from those shady business practices. We've worked hard to develop more than 1600 representative SAT-style practice problems. As a measure of quality control, we periodically sit for the SAT to ensure that our system and the strategies we endorse remain consistent with the evolving SAT. And if I'm being perfectly honest, I find the test pretty intriguing. I'd take it every time it's offered if I were allowed.
The rest of the May 7th test was largely uneventful, except that I, professional test prepper, had to be informed just before the first section that my mechanical pencil was unsuitable for this test. This was rather embarrassing because I knew that. I'd read the instructions a dozen times, but in my head I took them to mean that mechanical pencils may not have no. 2 lead. But my mechanical pencils were specifically labeled as no. 2 pencils, so I assumed I was good. I assumed that I was smarter than the instructions. Nevertheless, this was an assumption.
The lesson here is that you shouldn't outsmart yourself. Read the instructions; don't read into the instructions. And don't make assumptions!
This brings me to a few bad assumptions I made at the October 1st SAT.
October 2016 SAT
Well aware of LA's notorious traffic, I departed a bit earlier than Google Maps recommended, an entire box of non-mechanical no. 2 pencils in hand. I assumed that leaving an hour early on a 20-minute drive would give me plenty of time, even if I were to encounter a situation like the broken parking permit machine. Traffic was a non-issue until I got within a block of the high school, where I joined the hundreds of cars waiting to enter the school's parking lot. The last 1000 yards took nearly 25 minutes. I had assumed that roughly the same number of students take the test at each location. That was flawed assumption.
Inching along in that traffic jam, I felt my anxiety rising. It wasn't test anxiety, purely speaking. I was eager to take the test. And I was fairly certain I wouldn't be late, so it wasn't that. Finally it occurred to me that the primary cause of this anxiety was my fear that someone would tell me, "You don't belong here." I assumed it was only a matter of time until someone pointed out the obvious: I'm not a high school student.
I had taken the May 2016 SAT on a tiny city college campus with a few dozen students who were probably on that campus for he first time in their lives. They all felt just as out of place as I did. Now, I was surrounded by probably five or six hundred students on their home turf. I felt like a weirdo.
TEST CENTER SECURITY
As I handed my October 2016 SAT admission ticket and my passport to the proctor, I notice the May 2016 SAT admission ticket was folded up inside the front cover of my passport. At that moment I realized that it was probably unwise to have used my passport photo as the photo I uploaded to the College Board website for my admission ticket.
Think about that for a second.
In effect, I had just handed the proctor three documents: not one but two admission tickets and a passport. And all three documents featured the EXACT SAME PICTURE of me.
I smiled and explained, "Sorry. That admission ticket is from the May 2016 SAT test. I guess I don't use my passport very often."
She looked at the May SAT test admission ticket for a second time.
"This one is for today," I said, pointing to the identical-looking sheet of paper in her other hand. "I'm on your list as an 'over 21' test-taker for today."
Without speaking, she looked at the passport, then at me, then at the May SAT admission ticket once more. Then she repeated the cycle: passport, me, wrong admission ticket. When she looked up at my face on the third pass, I pointed to the October SAT admission ticket. Then, beginning to panic, I tried to hand her my drivers license, which only added to her confusion.
She stepped backward, trying to make sense of it all. After a moment, she leaned to her right and referenced a sheet of paper on a desk just inside the door. I watched as she located my name on the roster, checked it against the passport, and then ran her finger across the row, verifying that I was listed as a 21+ year-old "student." Apparently satisfied, she handed everything back to me and asked me to take a seat in the back row of the classroom.
Relieved, I sat down and finally relaxed. On the whole, I would say that test center security was totally adequate.
The October SAT, like the May SAT, was pretty straightforward. The only exception worth noting was a slight issue with the proctoring. Our proctor attempted to collect our tests booklets before she had instructed us to copy and sign the statement on the answer booklet. Fortunately, a sharp student near the front of the classroom pointed this out and we all completed that section before taking off.
Interestingly, when I spoke with a fellow test prep tutor on Sunday, she recalled that her proctor had also forgotten to have students copy the statement. I wonder if it's possible the proctors' instruction booklets for this round somehow omitted that step?
The test itself was very much what I expected. There were a few slight curveballs, but nothing you could reasonably say was uncharacteristic of the test. Certainly, there was nothing for which we haven't created ample practice resources to help students prepare. As I said before, I think that the College Board's official practice tests do a good job of presenting the range of concepts and problem types that show up on the actual test. Obviously, I'd like to see more of those tests made available, but the six practice SAT tests provide a solid base for a student's SAT prep.
As a test prep geek, I'd love to discuss every detail of the actual test. However, as I mentioned, the College Board prohibits test takers from discussing the content of test, including the topics of passages, difficulties of sections, and distribution of problem types. So I'll just share one last thing I learned.
Following the test, a girl politely asked why I was taking the test before blushing and blurting out, "just out of curiosity" as though the question required a hasty qualification.
"It's punishment for finishing last in my fantasy football league," I lied.
She was literally the only person who asked.
Back at my car, I realized that my worst assumption had been that every student in the room would point and laugh at me as though I were Adam Sandler in Billy Madison. And I had expected that as soon as the laughing started, I would feel very old.
In reality, taking the SAT as a grown-up was nothing like Billy Madison. Which makes sense because that movie came out in 1995 — half a decade before any of these students were even born.
Suddenly, I felt very very old.
Have you recently taken the SAT? What was your experience? Please let us know in the comments. Also, please take a moment to subscribe. Today's blog post was a little more personal than most, but you can be sure that we will never send you anything that we don't think you'll find useful or enjoy reading.
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