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March 17, 2014

I used to be terrified of the SATs. This is why I'm not anymore.

— I tried. I really did. When the College Board announced its latest SAT changes and my e-mail box overflowed with analyses of their importance for the future of our republic, I tried to ignore them.

The SAT and its feisty competitor, the ACT, are the most discussed and feared exams in the country, but I learned long ago that they don't deserve all that attention. I wanted to let this latest SAT freak-out pass without my mentioning it. I decided to weigh in only when otherwise intelligent people began to suggest even more bizarre changes to the test, such as adding ways to measure emotional maturity and creativity.

No one will pay attention to me, of course. Too many of us have invested our hopes in the SAT. It is so much a part of our nightmares that we couldn't free ourselves if we tried.

I have had some scares. In the Army, the Viet Cong rocketed my base several times. While reporting in Alaska, I fell asleep at the wheel and put my rental car in a ditch. My wife and I had the usual heart-stopping moments raising three children.

But I have never been as frightened as I was during my one SAT experience (back then, we never thought of taking it more than once). I discovered I had only three minutes left to answer 20 questions. Let me put this delicately. Only my mother, who did my laundry, knows the depth of my terror.

I tried to forget about that. But I became interested in the college admissions process as my children grew up. I wrote many articles and eventually a book on the topic. I had the advantage of being a volunteer interviewer for my selective alma mater. That opened my eyes to how trivial an impact the SAT and ACT have on the selection process, even if many Americans believe a high score gets you into the college of your choice.

To start with, few colleges are very selective. The vast majority will take almost anybody with decent grades, plus some applicants whose grades are bad but improving. Your GPA is still the best predictor of college success. At least 300 colleges, including most of the big state schools, have educational resources and alumni as good as Princeton's. Many of them don't require the SAT or ACT.

As for the colleges that reject far more applicants than they accept, a top score puts you only in the maybe pile. If you have an SAT score of at least 2100 (or 1400, once we switch back to the old 1600 system) you likely will get a close look. But even the highest score doesn't guarantee admission.

My impression from three decades of interviewing admission officers, high school counselors and students is that at big-name colleges, extracurricular activities (no more than two great ones, not a lot of little ones), teacher recommendations and essays make the difference, in descending order of importance.

Rather than fret over the SAT, Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, recommends that students take the most challenging high school courses they can handle, get deeply involved in one or two activities, and get to know one or two teachers very well. My best essay tip is to be warm and humorous, with a dash of self-deprecation. Celebrations of how great you are will convince admissions officers that you would be an irksome bore on campus.

Even when The Washington Post was still a corporate partner of Kaplan Inc., I recommended against spending money on SAT prep courses. I paid for one my daughter wanted to take because she, like most people, feared the SAT. I wanted her to be comfortable. It did not improve her score significantly. Students like her who pay attention in class and do their homework will get into fine colleges.

Many smart applicants don't believe that. But they will discover that success in life, as the research shows, has little to do with the SAT average of one's alma mater. It's what you learn and how hard you work, not what you score, that counts.

 

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