Numbers Rule Our World


Corey Emery, Features Editor

Pick a number, anywhere between one and twenty-four hundred. What does this number mean to you? Given out of context in this fashion, you would probably not be interested in trying to decipher a meaning. Some may see it as a reading in military time, or a height above sea level, but most others would just see a randomly selected number, and continue their busy schedules, uninterrupted and unaffected. However, when you show this number to many high school students, their minds will immediately jump to the SAT.

After studying, stressing, and struggling to master the SAT reasoning test not once but twice, I have tried to immerse myself in the inner workings of the test. However, the one point that still puzzles is me how we all can place such an emphasis on a number generated from four hours of a student’s life. According to the CollegeBoard website, the SAT is, “designed to assess your academic readiness for college […], measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.” But how can a quantitative evaluation truly measure a student’s ability to perform in real life? Life is not a test. It is not based on 170 questions and an essay, centered around three specific subject fields. It is based on the years of experience that a student has obtained, and the real life applications of that gained knowledge. The SAT, comparatively, is based on months of information and skills cramming, all of which is forgotten immediately after the test. Additionally, numerous other issues also exist with the exam, including differences in curves and questions, and the inability of many students to perform to the best of their ability in stressful situations.

However, while many students, myself included, often blame the CollegeBoard and universities for the stress they are under, it is imperative to recognize that students play the largest role in the over-exaggeration of the value of the SAT. I do admit that CollegeBoard does the best within the limits of a standardized test to examine the critical thinking skills that students possess. Furthermore, universities make clear that admissions officers look holistically at a candidate, not placing undue emphasis on any one test like the SAT. So the question remains, why is there so much stress and hype centered around one test?

The answer is merely student attitude. According to Ms. Linda Bergson, the Chairperson of the Guidance Department in Ward Melville High School, “Many students get stressed when taking an SAT or ACT exam because they feel that this one test counts so heavily in the college’s decision. They often feel that a three-and-a-half hour test is more of a reflection of how hard they worked throughout high school than their transcript.”  In the competitive academic environment of Ward Melville, many students aspire to be the best and to outperform their peers in the competition to get into the nation’s top-tier universities. While it is true that these universities do take into account extra-curriculars and other outside-of-school activities, it is extremely hard to compare these on a resume since students participate in so many different, unique organizations. Therefore, for the sole basis of comparison, focus falls on the SAT and ACT, the only tests that all students must take. Having taken AP Statistics, I recognize the value of having quantitative values available to determine percentile rankings and other useful comparative information, and so do my peers. On a larger scale, this usefulness becomes harmful. In the mad rush to increase scores to look better on an application, the general consensus among the student body becomes that this is the “be-all and end-all” factor determining college acceptance.

In an even broader sense, this trend also begins to apply to two other major areas of academic focus: the AP Exam and the GPA. Students begin to “self-study” for extra AP Exams so that they will have taken more than other applicants for the same university. They fill their schedule with AP and Honors courses so as to increase their weighted GPA to send to universities (a weighting that many colleges eventually unweight and re-weight at some point during the admissions process). In this way, many students, even myself at many times, begin to focus on the numerical values that we believe to define us on a college resume. The numbers begin to control us, and any dip in these numbers drives us to over-perform in the immediate future.

And what is the result of this effort to achieve high SAT scores and a high GPA? The results still remain uncertain when dealing with many universities. I know plenty of students with perfect SAT scores, a 4.0+ GPA, and 5s on 8+ AP Exams who receive letters of rejection from many of their top choices, while students with lower statistics are accepted in their stead. In this race to increase our scores, the numbers eventually consume the whole of our energy and effort, leaving us to neglect other activities that would make us well-rounded individuals. We participate in fewer clubs and perform less volunteer work, only because we are focusing on what we perceive as overly important, and failing to recognize the importance of these other activities.

The ultimate effect of this is a large amount of added stress that the student experiences. As students begin to think that the SAT is the best basis of comparison, they believe that admissions officers think the same way, only exacerbating the overvaluation of the test score. I’ve heard numerous rumors in which students say, with a high degree of certainty, that, “College A will just throw out any application with an SAT score below a certain level.” For the students who want to apply to this school, they now feel the added pressure to increase their scores not only to be able to compete, but to even be considered at all. In today’s world, where the college admissions process is already stressful enough, the last thing that many students need is added pressure. This will only lead the student to dedicate his/herself to master a test, rather than master the practical skills that would actually be needed in college and real life beyond that.

The best way to combat this problem is merely for students to calm down and realize that college admission officers are not lying when they say that the SAT does not outweigh other parts of the application. After visiting numerous colleges over the past few months, I have realized that no matter where I am, the emphasis is always placed on finding well-rounded students who excel within (not beyond) their school’s curriculum and would make a good fit at that college. Once students realize this, and once they’re able to let go of their existing perceptions of the SAT and AP Exams, they will be better able to change their habits and begin to relieve the stress they have placed on themselves. “There are over 800 colleges and universities,” Ms. Bergson continues, “that have taken a different approach in their decision-making, requiring neither the SAT nor ACT in their application process. Instead, they take a more global perspective and weigh more heavily on factors like the student’s transcript, teacher and counselor letters and the student’s essay.” Students can now also realize that there many options for them to pursue their interests while also not having to study and direct their focus to a single test.

What CollegeBoard provides us is merely a number, no different than the one you selected at the beginning of this article. It only possesses the value that we as students assign to it. We must treat it as a number, rather than giving it such a degree of importance, because in the end, only focusing on this one minute aspect instead of all areas of the application equally, will only hurt, rather than help, a student’s chance to get into his or her top choice.