It might seem sometimes that fleeting anxieties, like getting a date for prom, can overly dominate the lives of high-school juniors.
About this time every year, however, they get a wake-up call in the form of a that famous test: the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. This test has proven to be a big deal, like whether or not a student gets into the Ivy League, receives some lucrative scholarship, or, in the case of some athletes, able to play college sports.
Students often hear the phrase “make or break you” when it comes to the SAT. It doesn’t help that four hard years of keeping a high grade point average and doing extra-curricular activities can be ruined in mere hours.
And now on top of it all, this year the test is new.
Students at South Lakes High School, who have been forced to be part of the group of guinea pigs across the nation to take the test for the first time, have been less than ambivalent about the experiment.
“I think it sucked,” said Andrew Layton, a junior at South Lakes, referring to fact that the SAT changed its format the year he had to take it.
Bryan Fernandez, also a junior at South Lakes, said, “It was just bad luck, that’s it.”
Layton and Fernandez took the new SAT in March, when the new test was first offered.
EACH YEAR an estimated 1.4 million college hopefuls take the test, but this year’s cohort, including the juniors at South Lakes, have had to play catch up to become familiar with the new format.
The biggest change in the new SAT is the addition of a writing section, which includes a 25-minute essay scored on a six-point scale. In the math section, more questions are included from third-year college preparatory math. In the verbal section — renamed to critical reading, the analogy questions, which were particularly detested by students, were eliminated. Also test time was extended by nearly an hour, from three hours to just under four hours long.
“There’s been some anxiety about the [new test],” said Marie Assir, career center specialist at South Lakes. Assir has organized an after-school workshop to help students prepare for the test. Along with taking several practice exams, the workshop includes lessons on the new essay component and weekly e-mails that provide online links to short practice sessions.
“I personally think it’s a better test because of the writing component,” said Assir. “It emphasizes that students will need to write when they get to college.”
YET THE TEST is pressure enough, regardless of the changes.
“They’re intimidated, that basically sums it up,” said Nida Shajee, a 16-year-old junior at South Lakes, referring to her friends’ feelings about taking the new test.
Several students have problems with the essay component. “The essay was nerve racking,” said Krystel Ly, a junior at South Lakes. “We had to write the first thing that came into our heads because we didn’t have time,” Ly said.
“From what I heard, the essay question was a little too broad to answer and the questions were long and difficult,” said Chris Girardi, a junior at South Lakes who has yet to take the test, but has heard accounts from friends.
“The hard part was the writing, the new part,” said Fernandez, who took the test in March. Fernandez plans to take the test again, but not until next year. “I got to study,” he said.
“The only hard part was the essay – it was brutal,” said Layton, who took the test in March.
Many students have formed opinions about the new format based on their personal strengths and weaknesses. “I like the math better because it’s one of my strong areas,” said Shajee.
Brian Walsh, a junior at South Lakes, thinks the new test is really unfair. “I felt like they put in things I wasn’t good at and took out stuff I was good at,” said Walsh, who plans to take the test in May and has been taking after-school preparatory courses at both South Lakes and Herndon high schools.
“There are a lot of questions about how the scores will be considered,” said Assir. She said that students ask how colleges will weight the essay component — a hard question to answer since colleges haven’t had a chance to do it yet.
In her view about the new test, Sara Sadiq-Ali, a junior at South Lakes, said, “I’m in between [about the new test] because I heard the colleges wouldn’t be as strict in considering the scores.” Sadiq-Ali, 16, said that the new test is better, but thinks it’s too long, an attitude echoed by several students.
“You’re in [the test site] for an easy four and a half hours,” said Layton, who also complained that the test starts way too early in the morning at 7:45 a.m.
“I know, why can’t they have it later in the day,” said Walsh.
College preparatory companies, like Kaplan and Princeton Review, have had a sizeable spike in enrollment last year as students have turned to them to take the guesswork out of the exam’s new features. According to Princeton Review, retail SAT course enrollment for the March SAT in company-owned sites was up more than 60 percent.
“Everyone is trying to take [the preparatory courses],” said Felipe Hoyos, a junior at South Lakes who took the test in March and plans to try it again in June.
Sadiq-Ali is taking a preparatory course offered at the Reston Community Center. “I hope the class will improve my score,” she said.
Girardi, 17, plans to take the test this summer. “I know I have to study for it and do my best,” Girardi said. “That’s what it comes down to.”