SAT Madness at Top American Prep School: The Inside Scoop

“Hey, what are you doing over Thanksgiving break?”

“Oh, just heading to a camp in New Jersey where we do 8 hours of SAT a day.”

Welcome to School X: third best preparatory school in the United States, where some of the nation’s — and the world’s — wealthiest parents send their progeny, so that they can follow in their ivy lined path. Once known as a “feeder school” to Harvard, School X faces more competition than ever in securing its students admission to the top schools in America. And School X has adjusted.

When the college application process started, in the middle of our junior year, it was like nothing I had ever seen in Canada. At a school that let us believe that the name of our college would determine our futures, the SAT seemed like a gatekeeper to the Promised Land. The students’ excessive preoccupation with this test created an unhealthy culture of competition, dishonesty, and paranoia on campus.

But it hadn’t started there. Some students had been attending SAT prep camps every summer since they were 14 years old. Some had started a bit later. But everyone was paying thousands of dollars for coaching. A friend’s parents had her watch a National Geographic documentary every Sunday since Middle School, so that she would have something interesting to discuss in the writing section. It is also worth noting that, at School X, one’s preparation for the SAT was not complete until they had been diagnosed with a processing speed disorder and been afforded some measure of extra time on the test.

On the day of the SAT, which came around every 2 months, the real madness came out. Need a boost of concentration? Pop an “Addie” (Adderal) from one of your buddies! Chances were that 1 of your 4 closest friends was being prescribed some type of stimulant for ADHD. Got test anxiety? Just down one of your mom’s Xanax 30 minutes before the test. After all, she gave them to you for just that reason! During breaks, I remember girls throwing up in the bathroom, while others were just there to cry or kick a stall to blow off some steam…

But what were we making ourselves so sick for?

After a disastrous first attempt at the SAT, I had enlisted the help of a tutor. Yes, I too got caught up in the fuss. The first thing my tutor told me was that: “Yes, the SAT is a tough test, but it’s also a very learnable test.” Indeed it was! My scores soared, and every month, I saw my predicted college performance improve. But, did any of this make sense — was I actually better suited for college now that I knew the word “impecunious”? No. My higher SAT scores simply meant that I was better at taking the SAT, leaving open the question of what this test actually measured. And since it’s clearly not future college success, it’s hard to explain why we tortured ourselves over a test that lacks so much validity.