In quite possibly one of the smartest and innovative moves by any large institution, George Mason is making the somewhat controversial SAT exam optional  for applicants in the top 20% of their class with a grade point average about 3.5. In return for not taking the SAT, students simply need to write an essay and submit two more letters of recommendation, something that shouldn’t difficult for a high performing student. However, that’s not the part that surprises or impresses me, anyone can remove a requirement, but the justification was something I’ve always believed – “the university examined the performance of students who did well in high school and found that SAT scores were a poor predictor of how those students would fare at the university.”
The first time I took the exam I had no preparation and worked for four hours the night before. I had taken the PSAT’s a year earlier (I took the SATs in 1997, before the writing section and all that other craziness) and I knew the format but I wasn’t entirely familiar with the types of questions. When I retook the exam a month later, having gone through all seven tests of some 7 Real SATs book, my score was 180 points higher. Why? I learned the stupid math tricks (if it doesn’t say to scale, don’t assume it is) they play and answered accordingly. Even the tricks are predictable.
While university admissions staff always say there’s more to a student than an SAT, what’s the one thing that’s normalized across all students? Their SAT score. Is it indicative of how smart they are? George Mason doesn’t believe so and neither do I. Once you learn how to game the system, and it’s easy once you see the dozen stupid math tricks they use (and there really are the same twelve tricks), it’s not difficult to perform well on those questions.
That being said, there are lots of smart people that don’t perform well under test taking conditions or have disabilities that prevent them from finishing. That and you add the pressure of college admissions and you’re going to get brilliant people who aren’t going to see that stupid “to scale” trick on a triangle.
Finally, think of all the smart people you know who can’t write worth a lick. Exactly. I work with engineers, I myself am an engineer, and most of us write like school children, mixing up homonyms and spelling like we’re writing in Russian, and it doesn’t affect our ability to perform. Do I ever have to figure out which side of a triangle is longer? No. Do I ever have to write eloquent essays about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations? No.
SATs are meaningless, expensive, and a waste of time – and I’m glad some colleges are starting to realize it. I’m done ranting now. 🙂