I didn’t think I’d care so much about applying for early admission. After all, a huge factor involved in my decision to apply to Muhlenberg was being able to do so without SAT scores. Yet now that I am about to graduate, I feel frustrated with the knowledge that SAT optional was the only way I got into college. During high school, the idea of getting into college always stressed me out because of the selection process. While standardized test scores are not the only thing that is evaluated, it sure felt like the pressure of getting into a college was dependent on how well I did on a test. The idea of having a score matter so much (even partially) upset me because it’s hard to take a test where you get measured against everyone else, especially because the way I learn and process information is different from other people. The reason why taking the test was so hard for me was that deep in my gut taking the SAT in a different manner made me feel unqualified to get into college. All I wanted was to be able to take the test like everyone else.
I was born more than three months early and I ended up with a brain injury that resulted in weakness on my left side and certain cognitive challenges. As a result, it takes me a little more time to process concepts and information. That means it takes longer to write down or choose my answers because of the time it takes me to comprehend what I am reading and to formulate an answer. All my life I hated that I needed extra time to take tests in school because I personally wanted to be able to work and do things at the same pace as everyone else, whether schoolwork or even physical activity (which can also be a challenge). The extra time often left me frustrated because it just left more time to feel anxious about getting the answers right and anxiety is not a good ingredient to good test taking. When I tried to focus on the questions at hand, all I could think about was how everyone else would probably do so much better and get into the types of schools that I could only wish I had the score for. I actually longed to be able to apply to a school that required SATs. Muhlenberg was the best choice because they are a school that is test optional, and also offered but it offered a religious Jewish life on campus that was really important to me. Plus I wanted to leave Manhattan but not go too far from home and Muhlenberg is only two hours away. So my options were few.
My parents were happy that with certain accommodations at Muhlenberg I could thrive in a regular school environment. They were happy to see me succeed in any way possible because they’d seen me at my worst when I was born and were unsure if I was going to be able to function in a regular school environment with a lot of kids who were both physically and mentally faster than I was. When it came to my own accomplishments, my parents always taught me that all they ever expected of me was to try my best. But in some ways that feels like a lot of pressure. In turn, I held myself up to a high standard believing that I could be measured like everyone else because that’s all I’ve ever wanted; I never wanted my peers to see me as different. So no matter how much time I spent studying for the SAT it’s not like it makes a difference because the way I was learning to study wasn’t the same way in which everyone else learned to study. I took the test and when I received my scores, I was right; they didn’t turn out as I had wanted.
The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT (Scholastic Achievement test), was assembled in the year 1900 and included a board of 12 presidents, one for each of the leading universities at the time. The College Board redesigned the test over the years and says they always take into account issues of fairness and cost as well as the changing in the test taking population when creating their test. The first iteration of the test dates to World War I, when Harvard psychologist Robert Yerkes administered intelligence tests for the U.S Army. Carl Brigham, a psychologist at Princeton, worked with Yerkes administering those intelligence exams and then adapted it as a college entrance exam, called the SAT, in 1926. The College Board thought that Brigham’s test would do a better job determining which students to accept. But, in fact, the SAT reveals much more about a person’s racial background than how hard they’ve worked, or whether they will succeed in college. While Brigham initially developed the test for the army, some question his true intentions. According to Nicholas Lemann, author of the book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Brigham used the test to highlight his views that non-whites were intellectually inferior, although by the time he passed away he had renounced eugenics. Lemann also reports that in 2019 that a group sued the University of California for discrimination unless they stop using the SAT and ACT entirely.
To apply to Muhlenberg, I sent in an English class essay instead of the SAT and I was accepted based on the essay, my high school grades, and an in-person interview on campus. I don’t know why but to this day that still bothers me even though I know it should not. Maybe it’s because it separates me from everyone else, because it’s not the norm. I hate the idea that even years after going through the process I am still angry. It was just this silly need to measure myself up to everyone else, instead of clearly recognizing that even if I had to do things differently I was (and am) more than capable. I still go back-and-forth; on the one hand I am happy that I wasn’t defined by a test score but I also just feel really angry that I couldn’t go through the process like everyone else in my high school. Sometimes it is nice to be different. Oftentimes it is also nice just to be like everyone else.
Rebecca also struggled with test taking and had studied for the standardized test since August. I had known her for what felt like forever. Her demeanor and personality always felt like you were drinking hot chocolate. Equal parts sweet, and relaxing. Though she was a few years younger, Rebecca’s ability to connect with everyone no matter the age was amazing, always has something to say that related to whoever she is around. She was that person I always loved talking to about my interests because we liked the same things. In that same way, she was always willing to offer up a recommendation for something new to either read or watch in case I needed one because of our similar tastes. In a few months she would sit down in a room like so many other students and take the test that would dictate her future. Her grade just had a meeting about college, and she and her parents would meet with her guidance counselor to have that important discussion. It was early in the process but the looming feeling of taking the test felt like a heavy weight on her shoulders. It was made even worse by the pressure from her classmates who constantly talked about their scores. She just wanted them to stop. We both attended a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in the Bronx that made for a challenging high school experience. Rebecca had to wake up early, get to school by 8 a.m. so she could say morning prayers with her classmates and then had to juggle both taking secular and Judiac studies. Her school day didn’t end until after 5 p.m. I understood how she felt juggling two different workloads plus studying for a test that would be a big determining factor in where she ended up going to college.
In 2018, over two million students took the SAT. Fast forward to the pandemic that is currently disrupting all normal activity and closing high schools and college campuses across the country, and standardized test scores suddenly seem less important. The University of California announced that they wouldn’t require the test scores for the incoming fall class of 2020. Other schools such as Harvard, Princeston, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania have followed suit. Test optional schools present students with a great opportunity. It allows them to supplement their scores with a piece of writing they have done during their time in high school and to show college admissions who they are as a student in a way that is different from standardized tests. This allows the process to go beyond the test scores and focus on the individual themselves. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) publicizes schools that opt-out of SATs for college admissions as they believe “test scores do not equal merit.”
A study done by the the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), found that there is a benefit to colleges adopting a test optional policy. “A one-size-fits all approach for the use of standardized tests in undergraduate admission does not reflect the realities facing our nation’s many and varied colleges and universities,” say the study authors. “These institutions differ greatly in size, selectivity and mission. At some, standardized tests are important predictors of students’ academic success, while at others, they add little compared to high school grades.” Test optional schools may be helpful and beneficial to many high school students, but for those who want to attend a school with a strong Jewish community, test optional isn’t always an option.
“It is fairly universal for juniors at Jewish day schools to spend many hours preparing for standardized tests,” explained Michael Courtney, the head of college guidance counseling at SAR, the school in the Bronx that both Rebecca and I went to. “There are many test optional colleges, but very few that have a robust Modern Orthodox Jewish life; hence, students cannot avoid standardized testing unless they are 100 percent certain that they will solely apply to these few campuses that are test optional.” Cari Cohen, another college guidance counselor at SAR says that she is all for the test-optional approach but she is realistic in making Judaism a critical part of one’s decision for students who come from day schools like SAR.
Prioritizing a Jewish life on college campuses is a key thing for students who want to cultivate the same sense of Jewish community at college to continue their religious growth away from home. Modern Orthodox students look for kosher food, a place where they are able to practice their Judaism as well as have access to services on the Sabbath, a day of rest observed from sundown Friday till Saturday without electronics. “I chose Muhlenberg as a Modern Orthodox Jewish student because it was practically the only small school with a decently sized Modern Orthodox community,” said Jess Hader ‘20. “I needed a small school because I don’t prefer large social environments so my options were already very limited. Muhlenberg’s Modern Orthodox community has greatly evolved over my four years, especially since there was a different Hillel Rabbi every year. There’s all the necessary resources and enough people to make living in this community great, it depends on what everyone does with them.”
“Many of the test optional schools do not have big Orthodox communities, which may be a drawback for many of our students,” says Cohen. “However, every year things change and hopefully more test optional schools will continue to open.” But for now, high school students in Modern Orthodox schools will still need to take the tests.
So as more schools emerge giving high students the test optional choice for admissions because of the pandemic,this could open up lots of options not just for students who are modern orthodox looking for a robust Jewish community, and those like me who struggle to take the test.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board made a decision that if high schools remain closed they will allow high school students to take the SAT from home. It is interesting that between an increase in test optional schools and this new online version of the test, the SAT has clearly evolved from its inception in 1926.