“Me Fail English? That’s Unpossible!” And Other College Board Stories
We live in a world of cold and vindictive organizations. The DMV. The IRS. The airport check-in counter when you missed your original flight and your bag is 51 pounds.
If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in need of something from one of these dens of abuse, you suck it up and fill out the forms, wait in the line, go to the desk, go to the other desk, wait in the other line, beg on your hands and feet, and so on until you emerge with your prize. You may be cursing under your breath at the mini-fascists who seem to enjoy wasting your time with red tape and paperwork, but luckily most of these interactions last at most a couple of hours.
For high schoolers, the College Board imposes up to three years and too many hours of standardized testing on its defenseless, college-aspirant subjects. Juniors will recognize the alphabet soup of SAT’s and AP’s, Math IIC and Physics B, all the penciled- in letters, A through E. As a survivor in the battle with the blue acorn, allow me to pass on some wisdom I accrued along the way.
1) Don’t color outside the lines. Yes, yes, you’ve spent the past ten years of your education learning that your creativity is your most valuable trait and that you are your own special lotus flower. While that’s true, and you are, promptly forget this notion during all direct skirmishes with the College Board. In the multiple choice trenches, you will have little temptation to express your creativity (though I hear they appreciate pretty pictures made out of penciled-in dots). However, the essays are fraught with danger. Be fully aware that the AP and SAT graders are working off a rubric. They want a specific structure to essays, especially in the SAT. You get points deducted for not having a distinct introduction, 3 paragraphs, and a conclusion. You get points deducted for not putting a historical or literary allusion here, for not echoing language from your thesis there, et cetera. I don’t know the precise rubric—if I did, I’d have done better on the essay section of the SAT. I do know, however, that my friends who got one-on-one coaching on SAT essay writing did considerably better than me. Even the semi-literate ones. Take that for what you will.
2) The curve is your friend. Almost every AP test I’ve ever taken—my high school career included a masochistic double-digit number—has involved some degree of complete and total panic. I realize that I am somewhat randomly guessing on a good portion on them. I’ve never encountered the material that I’m supposed to spend an hour discussing in essay format. I slept through my alarm and have 15 minutes before my exam to make the commute for which I usually allot 45. (Side note: that actually happened, the day of my AP Biology test senior year. I broke 100 mph on the 405 and skidded into my parking space with a minute and a half to spare. I got a 5 on the test, by the grace of God.) In any case, if you’re anything like me, you will find yourself in that moment of terror. Don’t hit the panic button just yet, Jodie Foster. AP curves are monumentally generous. If you’ve been paying attention in class and manage to stave off hyperventilation, odds are you’ll do better than you expected when scores show up in July.
3) Mess with them, but tread carefully. Although Rule Number 1 is the best policy when dealing with the College Board, sometimes one cannot resist the temptation to add one’s own flourish to the otherwise monotonous regurgitation of facts on AP tests. If you finish a section early, or have no clue how to even approach a free response question, or just can’t stand the crushing boredom and silence of sitting in a room for up to four hours going mono-a-mono with U.S. History, you have two choices. You can check other questions, fortify other essays, and frantically put any equations or factoids that may have some relevance. If there’s nothing left for you to do, however, start having a little fun with your future grader. Here’s a hint: if you cross something in your essay out, they are barred from considering that when calculating your grade. Check Facebook around AP test time, there usually is some meme based on a recent movie that all the cool kids are including in and redacting from their essay. Or use this as a chance to express yourself, you little lotus flower. I recall intricate drawings of elephants around an electric field diagram for my physics exam, and crossed-out love haikus. Your graders, while part of the dark machine that is the college-preparatory complex, are real people too. Their days grading the tests are even longer and more miserable than your days taking them. AP exams are a perfect chance for a little bit of gallows humor.
4) Don’t rack up APs for the sake of it. Seriously. AP courses are simultaneously too expansive and too reductive. Your teachers have to cram a ton of material from a very narrow curriculum. If you have an option between an honors course and an AP course, all things equal, I’d take the honors course. Also, don’t consider taking an insane number of APs as your ticket to a good college. There are easier ways to pad your resume. Yes, colleges care that you are taking a challenging courseload, but feeding the maw of the College Board is not the only way to do that. Also, a lot of colleges, mine included, don’t accept APs for credit, so don’t gorge yourself on them for the sake of it.
5) Win or lose, don’t let it go to your head. That’s what they want you to do. The SAT has almost nothing to do with your intelligence level. It has to do with your ability to take the SAT. Subject tests and AP’s are a little more grounded in reality, but they aren’t perfect measures of your mastery of the discipline either. If you get a score you’re not happy with, remember that Einstein flunked high school math and Jordan got cut from his high school team. Therefore, you are destined to be an astrophysicist with a 48-inch vert. Plus, you can always take it again. Conversely, if you aced your exam, don’t get too excited, hotshot. Standardized scores are only one factor that colleges take into account, not too far ahead of “luck.”
6) That said, it’s a game. Play to win. The College Board is a pain. But if you’ve decided that a top-ranked university is where you’re aiming, and you’re not a stellar athlete, it’s a gatekeeper you are going to have to get past. So study hard in your AP classes. Get the books. If you feel it’ll help you, get some tutoring. The SAT especially is a riddle that can be cracked. The math does not go beyond what you encountered in 8th or 9th grade. The reading and writing stuff is all pretty basic grammar. The writing prompts are pretty facile. But they are all packaged in a weird way, so you need to familiarize yourself with how the College Board thinks. It’s a war of wits and of attrition. So pace yourself, avoid the all-nighters when possible, and make sure you maintain your social life. The battle will be a long one, but you will make it to the other side soon enough—I did.
Sam N. Adams, Harvard-Westlake ’10, Harvard University ’14