College Applications: Standardized Testing

I figured I’d put down my thoughts on the college application experience here, before this all gets to be too long ago for my advice to be relevant.

Be your own prep class

I’m sure SAT Prep classes have are effective for some audiences, but seeing as you’re reading this right now, I’d wager you have it in you to save your time and money by sitting down with a practice book and reading the advice there.

The material on the exams isn’t new or hard, for the most part: it’s the (frankly unrealistic) presentation via timed multiple choice that gets you. Sit down with some practice tests and keep at it until you can produce the numbers you want, then take the actual exam.

Don’t omit

I’ve heard enough airy theorizing on this to make me want to weigh in: on the SAT, a correct answer yields 1 point, an incorrect answer -0.25 points, and an omitted answer 0.

The penalizing makes sense: there are five choices to a question, so for completely random selection we would average 1 right for 4 wrong, or (1 * 1) + (4 * -0.25) = 0 points, exactly neutral.

If you can eliminate even just one, the choice is clear: (1 * 1) + (3 * -0.25) = 0.25 points on a random selection of the remaining choices, so don’t omit. To a lesser extent, assuming you’re not the sort of person who falls for every trick answer, having even the slightest intuition means means a positive expected value.

SAT Subject Tests

For some reason no one ever told me about these, but the top schools will require you take a few. These are a bit more involved.

Filter your email

Standardized tests tend to have an opt-out checkbox in the personal identification section saying something about sharing your email. Leave this unchecked, and you’ll be treated to a deluge the most obscure colleges imploring you to apply. It’s cute, at first, but it gets to the point where you can’t use your inbox anymore.

The flood slowly recedes as you make your way through your freshman year of college, but for some reason a few schools still email me to this day, pathetic dejected puppies whimpering at my digital doorstep, wishing me a happy birthday and reminding me that “Revan, it’s still not too late to apply!”

The body count thus far? Over 3,400 emails.

Gmail, at least, provides the ability to automatically filter mail: set up a filter that acts on from:(university OR college OR admissions) -{CollegeBoard,OtherUniversitiesYouCareAbout} and tucks them away out of sight.

Don’t worry

In the end, these tests are fundamentally arbitrary, in that they measure your ability to test more than your ability to succeed academically. The people in admissions know this, so as long as you’re near the average score for the school, the SAT won’t sink your application.

Conversely, even a great score won’t carry you through: I happen to perform quite well on standardized testing, but even with my 2390/2400 I got my fair share of awkwardly worded rejections. More than I’d appreciate, for sure.

As it turns out, the other parts of the application are pretty important too.

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