College Admissions–Looking Good Only On Paper

There’s an article in the NY Times about the increasing numbers of small liberal arts colleges dropping the SAT from their admissions requirements: Students’ Paths To Small Colleges Can Bypass SAT. Call it what you will (I like to call it WASP Guilt), but it’s moving me to confess: in high school I was an under-achieving slacker who got into college because I look good on paper. Many a kid smarter than I am (and possessing both an excellent work ethic and academic drive) didn’t end up in college because the realities of their lives made it hard for them to look as shiny as I did.

I test well. I’m a public school kid, and this theory of mine may be a bunch of crap, but I think 12 years of standardized tests prepared my brain very well for taking the SAT and the ACT. I skated along without having to do much actual work in school because the language spoken in my home was English and my entire family are voracious readers, which meant I was always reading or being read to. So I have that whole “excellent reading comprehension skills” thing going for me. Do you know what your life needs in order for you to be able to read a lot? Time, money, and a fairly low stress level.

Half of the population of the tiny California farming town I grew up in had arrived pretty recently (within a generation) from Mexico. I’m not an idiot, but I’m not a genius either, and I somehow always tested several grades above my actual grade level. Every year at testing time, the adults in charge made a big deal about how damn smart I was. I never corrected them, but I had a sneaking suspicion that I might not be as smart as the tests said I was.

I could see what went down in the classroom: there would be a tiny handful of extremely smart kids in the class. Of that handful, the smart kids who spoke English at home would grasp the material as soon as it was out of the teacher’s mouth. The smart kids who spoke Spanish at home would have the language hurdle to jump over, but then they would be off and running, still faster than the majority of the other students.

By the time I was applying to colleges, I got it that I looked good on paper, but that my test scores weren’t the whole picture. What my 98th percentile test scores didn’t show was that I was a decently (but not supremely) intelligent, English-speaking, total slacker with no work ethic to speak of (proof: my verbal scores rocked through no effort on my part, but my math scores blew hard because math requires studying, which I was too lazy to sit down and do), who came from an educated family which would be funding my college career.

There were several kids who we all knew were not only smarter, they also had more drive, and were generally more interested than I was in expending the energy required to kick some ass in the world. And would they be joining us at university in the fall? Not so much. And why? Because their families had bigger issues than SAT scores and college transcripts to tackle. Those kids didn’t get a lot of recreational reading or SAT prep-course work done because they spent their spare time working to help their parents make ends meet.

Here’s what my fortunate, English-speaking booty was up to. My habit through school was to complete my homework assignment in the five minutes of paper-shuffling before class started. I rarely studied for exams. I ditched the two SAT prep courses my parents paid good money for and spent those two Saturdays wandering aimlessly in the sunshine while those other suckers sat inside and wrote pages of intensely-scribbled (but probably very organized) notes on how to kick the ass of the kid sitting next to you when you go in to take the SAT’s.

I lacked a good work ethic. I was not the spastic over-achiever I am today. Far from it. How did I manage to get into Cal State? I test well. And I look good on paper because of it. My high school transcripts looked good because, since I didn’t have to work to survive, I had the time after school to do four years of swim team and student government.
Honestly, here’s what I think. If any college admissions person worth their salt had spent a day watching me and one of my Spanish-speaking counterparts, I would not have been chosen. I completely screwed up my first semester away at school. Eventually I gave in and saw that even I was going to have to buckle down and study in college.

That’s not the point. The point is that admissions boards are scanning transcripts and SAT scores to decide which kids should get in. I’m telling you (and hopefully them) that I did no more than I absolutely had to, and I sailed on in to a university. If someone had watched me in action or had interviewed me or had looked at my cush life next to that more-deserving-because-she’s-smarter-and-harder-working girl over there, I would have been passed over. Looking good on paper should get you nowhere. The whole picture, the whole package, that’s what should be scanned and weighed.

Posted by Alexa Harrington

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