October 2012 SAT: Something to Do on a Saturday


To make sure we can keep you informed about the impact of the security changes and test day experiences we send our teachers in periodically to take the actual SAT. This report was filed by Bell Curves’ own Aimee Slater, resident Jeopardy champ (in our hearts), office redhead, and SAT teacher.


Background – In a few years you won’t remember and no one will care

I took the SAT several years ago (20 still counts as “several,” right?).  I was trying to remember my test day experience and my clearest memory about the test is “My high school made me take it 3 times.”  (Editor’s note: Aimee attended Haverford College on a  generous scholarship and doesn’t remember her SAT scores, but says they were just a bit better than average). I asked some high school friends what they remember, and that was their strongest memory too.  My other memory is of the word “nadir.”  I didn’t know what it meant,  I wrote it on the label of my shirt so that I could look up the definition later (Editor’s note: these days, writing on your clothes might get you kicked out… don’t do it!).

So armed with fuzzy memories and the teaching experience I have obtained through Bell Curves, I sat down to take a modern day SAT on October 6th.  I joined a few dozen area teens very early on a Saturday morning to take the test in Brooklyn.


Registration: Longer and More Annoying than You Think

Before I talk about test day, let me say a word about registration.  Registering for the exam is at least a 25 minute process wherein you pretty much lay bare anything and everything you have been, currently are and will ever be.  I had to upload a picture for my test ticket, which I had to carry with me on test day (even to the loo). The system, it turns out, is really picky about the photos it’ll accept, in fact, I had two perfectly lovely photos rejected before it accepted one I had a colleague take.  The photo is not currently a requirement, but will be required starting with the Jan 2013 test.  I also had to answer questions about my ethnicity, GPA, class ranking, parents’ level of education, indicate my college preferences (size, location single-sex, programs).  It was 3+ pages of questions, many of which are optional, but they are mixed in with the required ones so it’s not immediately obvious which are which.   It’s worth noting that “I don’t wish to respond” is one of the choices for all required questions, but still that’s a lot of work on my part without much in return.  College Board will then sell my information to schools or publish it in studies.  You’re welcome, College Board.  You should send me a piece of that financial pie.


Test Day

I dutifully showed up by 7:45am, number 2 lead pencils in hand and calculator (TI-86 was my calculator of choice) at the ready.  I was assigned a seat in a classroom with the 19 or so other kids who have R-Z last names.

Here’s some stuff I noticed:

  • No one cared that I was old and taking the test.   I didn’t even get a double take.
  • Three, 5-minutes breaks are not nearly enough.  Powering through that last 1 hour and 4 minutes (sections 7-10) is rough .
  • Kids were eating candy and drinking Red Bull early in the AM and at breaks.  This lead to a lot of crashing in the middle or toward the end.
  • A girl fell asleep, twice (probably due to a Red Bull crash).  The proctor was nice enough to wake her up, but I think that was above and beyond what’s listed as duties in the proctor guidelines, and some proctors would have just let her sleep through the test.
  • I am still not a fan of coordinate plane geometry but as usual there were about 5 questions.
  • No section asks 40 questions, and yet each section on the answer sheet has 40 bubbles.  I find this vexing.
  • I miss analogies.  The College Board removed them in 2005, and in doing so, took away the fun portion of the test (if there is such a thing).
  • I did not have to write an essay the first time around, and was excited to do it this time around.  I went in knowing that I was going to use The League of Nations and Game of Thrones.  As we tell our students – the question hardly matters.  Pick a position, have some examples at the ready, and write!

I know some old timers have gone back and taken the test in recent times and had negative experiences.  I’m less negative about having to take a test, than about what it’s actually testing.  Sitting through long exams is something I had to do in college (3 hour finals!) so I don’t think taking a test is too much to ask of students who want to go to college.  The content of the test?  Well, let’s just say that I have some disagreement with what and how things are asked.  But that’s for a different blog post.  For now, this is the system we have, and if our kids want to go to college, we need to work within this system to ensure as many of them as possible are prepared for the test, the admissions process, and college success.

I admit that my stakes are relatively low; I don’t have my admissions decisions or financial aid riding on my 2012 performance, although the College Board will be sending my scores to my high school guidance counselor so that person, whomever it is now, can go over them with me (I didn’t have an option to opt-out).  I’m looking forward to that phone call.   It was a long day, but most students seemed to sail through (aside from Red Bull Crash Girl.  Airheads candy is not the breakfast of champions, chica!), and I think that anyone preparing for the November or December administrations should remember to

  • review the content – get comfortable with how questions are asked and what information they are looking for
  • take practice tests under real-test conditions (timed, with only the breaks given on the real test)

For test day:

  • for Math, strategies like plugging in were still awesome and time-saving and helped me avoid mistakes on at least 7 problems
  • for the Critical Reading, remember to answer the questions (all the questions) in your own words first (Click here to read up on how to Avoid Looking at the Elephant)
  • bring brain-food snacks like trail mix, carrots, peanut butter crackers etc.  Avoid caffeine highs which can lead to crashes, and go for hydration – water, seltzer water etc.
  • UPDATE: check out this list of vocab words from the October 2012 SAT

Good luck!

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