The college-application process starts for most in junior year and is characterized by anxiety, meeting college counselors, and dreaded standardized tests.
“SAT or ACT?”
The question is enough to drive millions of high schoolers into a panicked frenzy. You might as well ask “Where do you want to work in thirty years?” or “Are you ready to sign off on fifty grand of debt?” After all, any of these allude to the unknown expanses ahead of us, and the ridiculous (read: terrifying) power a multiple-choice test can wield.
Honestly, I was pumped to start the college process. Having worked my tail off since freshman year, I was excited to see where all my hours of studying and extracurriculars could take me. But first I had to take an important test. Then another. Then two more.
There’s an unspoken rule amongst many college counselors, admissions officers, and even test takers: if you’re applying to a highly selective school, any more than three attempts at a given test are futile and look bad. So of course I, being the iconoclast I am, tipped one retake over the golden mean—I took the SAT four times.
A profusion of emotions were at play throughout my year-long journey, but before I dive into the factors that fueled my incessant desire to improve, here’s a breakdown of my score reactions.
1st test: I was sitting with my mom in her room, nervously scrolling through the College Board website with a hand over my mouth. “Come on… Let’s get that perfect score! Let’s never take this test again. The math section was so easy.” Then, a pause. “I guess I’m taking it in March.”
2nd test: Between eating forkfuls of rice curry in the cafeteria, I positioned my phone under the table and logged in to see my scores. I was the last of my classmates to check, and having heard their success stories, I was pretty hopeful. Then, four numbers appeared on the screen. “Oh,” I finally said. It kind of crushed me, and I had to leave the table to get myself together.
3rd test: In the midst of IB exams, I decided I couldn’t study for the test anymore—I was just too crunched for time. So after saying a prayer on results day, I did a little happy dance when I saw my score. I was finally in the range—albeit the lower range—of my dream schools. “Yay! It’s good! I mean, not great—it could be better—but it’s good. Yeah.”
4th test: I was in Lagos, Nigeria, basking in the humidity when I got an email about the latest score release. “Am I looking at the wrong number? Oh, yep that’s it. At least my superscore went up. Now I can say that was my score. Yep, I’m happy with it. Never again.”
While my fourth test became about pushing myself as far as possible, this wasn’t always the case. And even during my final sitting, I was conscious of another underlying factor.
I’ve read the comments of college reaction videos on YouTube, and I’ve had debates with my friends about how race plays into the admissions process. So I understand some people’s perceptions.
If a blonde, freckled girl gets into a top school with below-average scores, her dumbfounding extracurriculars must have overcompensated for them. Hey, that’s why they’re called holistic admissions, after all. But if a black girl with cornrows is in her exact position, she has affirmative action to thank. At least a little bit. Like, she doesn’t really deserve to be there—the odds are just in her favor.
I hate to say it, but even I (a blickety-black girl) fell into this trail of thought. I questioned my own intellect, and that of my race as a whole. After all, if every thriving black person is indebted to positive discrimination, what does that say about our competence? Where would we be without the extra push?
Nevermind the black kids with perfect scores. Or the thousands who are overqualified and still rejected from their dream schools. Nevermind the innumerable forces that work against this “extra push” throughout our lives.
Because people don’t seem to talk about that. And when you’re hearing constant chatter about who and who didn’t deserve to get in where they did, these truths are even easier to forget. I was scared of being regarded through condescending eyes, so I ran to tests, a “problematic means of measuring scholastic ability,” for validation. It was a weapon I could use to quantitatively assert that I belonged—that my success was independent of my race. Because, “see, the numbers show I’m above average. See, the shape of my nose doesn’t make me any less capable than you.”
After my third retake, I didn’t think my score would seriously harm my applications. I kept going because somehow, the results of a four-hour test became inextricably linked to my self-perception. It’s wild how much a few math and English questions can mess with your mind.
Over my four attempts, my superscore went up 190 points. And while that might be something to be proud of, I didn’t become smarter between each retake. I learned a few useless math tricks, discovered “how the SAT tries to trick you,” and paid for tutoring. Impressive, I know. Giving any external force excess power is problematic, but it’s especially true for standardized tests because they’re flawed in so many aspects. Intelligence and college readiness can’t be encapsulated by mere numbers, and it’s unrealistic to think otherwise. So even as far as my haters’ comments might go, they’d be leaning on a fairly feeble measurement.
While I was afraid my acceptances might be attributed to affirmative action, I don’t think fear of such critics is valid reason to abolish the practice. Alienating those who have earned their accolades—implying they don’t belong in spaces because of who they are—is A. counterproductive and B. does nothing to address the structural reasons why positive discrimination exists in the first place. But that’s tea for another time.
How did I overcome my insecurity? I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and felt a black woman’s calculated prose melt into poetry. I watched (more) college reaction videos, many starring black kids with high-as-helicopter scores who were still rejected from their top schools. While the latter is far less profound, both acts fortified the fact that when we’re achieving things, it’s because we’re meant to be; when we’re in a room, it’s for a reason. That we’re brilliant by nature of being, and deserve to take up space.
Thank God I came to these realizations before the final retake. At 6 AM on a Saturday morning, I popped out of bed solely for myself, and leaving the exam room, I was at peace. So I can finally say that as far as college-entrance tests go, never again!
If you’re anticipating your testing journey, I send my love. Get them over with, and never let them define you. To my minority kids, grab every opportunity by the horns. I promise you deserve to—regardless of your score on the SAT, ACT, ABC, or (my personal favorite) the LMNOP.
By Simisola Fagbemi
Visual by Taylor Wang