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The SAT II might be a roadblock for extraordinary accomplishment

August 2, 2011

Great new physics blogger Brian Lamore, wrote this post, Do College Admissions Policies Provide Motivation for Sit-n-Get Education?

His post contained the following quote:

A discussion regarding our respective classroom philosophies ensued. One point I offered was that college professors complain that their students don’t come with a good conceptual understanding of the material. My colleague offered that unless the student gets at least a 780 on the subject exam they can forget about getting into a prestigious college.

She has a point.

So again I return to wrestle with my nemesis: what is the balance between a low-structure, open, and exploratory classroom and preparing my students for standardized tests that could have just as much impact on their future as instilling a love of learning? Does the product of these functions have a maximum? And does “doing” science even have a chance if college admissions policies remain so heavily dependent on test scores?

Longtime readers will know I’ve railed against the SAT II many times before.

So I had to leave this comment for Brian, and I’ve repasted it here.

Hi Brian,
I’ve wanted to write about this for a few days now, but have finally found the time. As a former college counselor and physics teacher who worked with dozens of students who earned admission to elite colleges, I can tell you that your colleague is wrong. You don’t need to earn a 780 on the physics SAT II to earn admission to an elite college.

Here’s a story of how a student gained admission to MIT, told by Brian Carpenter about a student he worked with. The basic idea is that you do something extraordinary—this student learned integrated circuits, then went on to land an internship at an engineering company and built all sorts of cool stuff. All of this looks a million times better than an physics SAT score of 780, which only puts you in the top 12 percent of test takers, and I can guarantee than every one of those 12 percent sees themselves at MIT. Brian’s student student score was good (near 700), unfortunately the way the scores are normalized, that’s the 63rd percentile. But when you’re learning integrated circuits in your spare time and building advanced electronics, MIT admissions officers could care less about SAT II scores (so long as they aren’t truly horrible.

I’m sure you know the SAT II in physics is a pretty crappy test. It’s an especially crappy test for freshman, and if your goal is to have students get outstanding scores on the SAT II, it’s almost certainly going to require tutoring and many hours of study. And the problem with that is those hours of study have to come from somewhere. If that somewhere is doing something unique and interesting like learning integrated circuits, the student is actually harming his/her chances of admission by over prepping for the SAT II.

And that’s the problem with chasing scores. If you’re going to distinguish yourself on scores and grades along, your scores and grades have to be out-of-this-world good. Better than 780. Heck, 7% of all test takers got a perfect 800. It’s a tightrope walk for most students that leads to an incredible amount of stress, and it won’t stop with the SAT II physics test.

But if students do focus on developing a deep interest and establishing strong connections with teachers to help them explore these interests, their path is actually fun, and very low stress. The amazing thing is, in the end, to the admissions officer, this low stress path often looks to be more impressive, since leads to extraordinary and unique accomplishments (as opposed to the perfect test scores they see all the time).

I’ve written a couple of posts about my thoughts on the SAT II on my blog, and if I could recommend only >one book for incoming freshmen to read about how to succeed, I’d recommend How to be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport (and his incredible blog— Study Hacks). It is a manual for high school students to lead a life in high school almost devoid of stress, focused on exploring one’s deep interests and leading a life worth living, which just happens to have a side effect of extraordinary success in the college process.

If you’ve got some comments, I would encourage you to go to Brian’s post and leave them there to continue the discussion on his blog.

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