Monday, December 12, 2011

By the Numbers

As one of the "smart kids", I came to know my numbers and hate them intensely by the time I was in high school. To wit: my PSAT was abysmal because I had the flu and was vomiting into a trash can in the school library between sections. That finished me for the National Merit Scholar competition. My numbers weren't good.

I took the ACT for the first time in December of my junior year...little did I know, because my parents were displeased with my numbers, that this would herald the first of four attempts. I took it every time it was offered but one from December to December, concluding in the middle of my senior year. Statistically, as a faculty member and advisor, I can tell you that the best you should hope for on a standardized test by retaking it is about a two point (ACT) to five percent (SAT) jump. In other words, it doesn't really justify retaking it over and over and over and over and over.

From the point that my scores were returned, because back in those days the tests were hand-scored and it took a month or more to get them back via snail mail, I became the number. To paraphrase an admissions officer's line from "How I Got Into College": "It would be so much easier if they'd just have their (SAT) scores tattooed to their foreheads!" I not only knew my numbers, I knew my friends', as well. We were our numbers- and to some degree, still are.

Not that I was a stranger to this concept; my number, prior to the advent of the PSAT, ACT, SAT, and subject boards (now called the SAT II) in my life, was my Stanford-Binet score, or rather, the lack thereof. I've blogged about that previously- I was literally off the scale, but my folks told me it was a modestly high 165. It's really over 200; they didn't tell me because they didn't want me to be egotistical about it.

What prompted this introspection was that a friend of mine proctored the December seating of the ACT and was shocked by the intensity of the students who were taking it at the crack of dawn. I found myself explaining to her that the bright kids live and die by those numbers; they determine your entire future...what scholarships you get, where you go to school, ultimately the path your life will take the minute you cross the stage to accept your high school diploma.

My number, by the way, is 28, unenhanced, because ACT added a three point curve a couple of years after I took it, so for my sister's class, my 28 was actually a 31. An 'old 28', combined with my previous college grades, high school grades, and activities resume', was enough to buy my undergraduate education. I blew the curve on the Western Civ I CLEP after my freshman year, scoring highest in the country on that test for that seating, securing an A in the course. After that, though, I suffered a nervous breakdown my junior year, which had a deleterious effect on my standardized test-taking.

During my bleak, terrifying junior year of college, while I was still in therapy, I started taking the LSAT and GRE. My first set of scores on both, which I took on consecutive weekends, were not what I wanted and did not reflect my ability. My second LSAT was disrupted by a fire alarm malfunction in the building, so we had to re-take the whole thing over again, and the third...well, let's just say I thought I had nailed the hell out of the writing sample and didn't do as well as I'd thought. The GRE was okay, but still not up to my usual scratch. I was forced to re-take it by my Director of Graduate Studies in history to 'get the numbers up', only to be fully admitted to program three weeks before my scores posted. What a waste of money...

What I'd tell these kids is yes, I know, I understand. I'm sufficiently scarred by my experience that I know what it means to sit awake all night, go to the test at the break of dawn, and throw up all afternoon after it's over. I carry those numbers, along with all of my relevant GPAs, class ranks, and credentials in my head. Wouldn't it be lovely if I didn't feel obligated to do so? There are so many other things I'd rather remember instead, things by which I'd prefer to be haunted...I am more than the sum of the numbers that were used to define me for someone else's convenience.

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