I owe my career to the SAT
Now 80% of colleges are making their decisions without it
Sing, America, of our troubled relationship with meritocracy. Sing of a nation without aristocrats, and yet in which you can find aristocrats summering on Martha’s Vineyard, flying in private planes to Davos, or staying in air-conditioned trailers at hidden encampments at Burning Man. Sing, America, of the system into which we are thrown at an early age, wherein those with the advantages of money and connections do better than those without.
This isn’t the start of a political screed. At least, that’s not my intention. Unfairness is a fact of the world, which has never been fair, in any age. Certainly, our age is fairer than most. But there is an inherent inequity to parentage, to health, to luck and station. To see this, just go look at how competitive preschool admissions are in New York City. The elites of America aren’t wrapped up in a status game over their four-year-olds because they’re dumb; they’re wrapped up in a status game because success in America is often literally determined from that age. Phillips Exeter, the most elite high school in the US, doesn’t just accept anyone; they want resumes for the entering 9th graders—which means parents must begin crafting applications shortly after their child starts walking.
Yet the promise of America is being able to escape the gravity well of your upbringing. And it saddens me to see one particular avenue for this is closing. For a long time I’ve been watching headlines like these ones accumulate:
This year, it’s official that the vast majority, more than 80% of colleges, won’t require standardized tests. Their original reasoning for dropping them was Covid, but it appears they’ve seized on the opportunity and kept the change. Already 85 schools—including big names like the University of California—don’t even let you submit standardized test scores at all. For the majority that do make score submission an option, it seems scores count internally less and less:
“An overwhelming majority of undergraduate admissions offices now make selection decisions without relying on ACT/SAT results,” said FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder. . . “These schools recognize that standardized test scores do not measure academic ‘merit.’ What they do assess quite accurately is family wealth, but that should not be the criteria for getting into college.”
Feder added, “De-emphasizing standardized exam scores is a model that all of U.S. education—from K-12 through graduate schools—should follow.”
I struggle with this reasoning. Not with understanding that standardized test scores correlate to family wealth, I’m sure they do. But compared to what? For on the one side there is the litany of activities, academic successes, and school pedigrees that make up the bulk of a good college application, and the massive amounts of wealth and parental involvement that implies from essentially diapers onwards, and, on the other side, there’s a $20 Kaplan SAT prep book and getting your butt in a chair to go through example problems. Even if both high school pedigree and the SAT correlate to wealth, one is clearly causally related (money pays for private schools, which are the main pipelines to elite colleges), while the other is more obscure.
Certainly, colleges have their own reasoning for abandoning standardized tests, particularly concerns about the diversity of their student bodies. But, even if all their reasoning is granted, and their cause is just, it’s just another way of saying that the more opaque the admissions process the better institutions can jigger the results to achieve whatever outcome looks best for them. Do I trust them to not abuse this power? Not really, no.
This nation-wide change being officially enshrined this year troubles me in particular because it’s now no longer possible to get a middling high school GPA at a public school, get a top-notch SAT score, get to choose between a couple good colleges, and then have a successful career afterward. Which is how my life went. Of course, no one can really know the true counterfactuals, but it’s likely that the SAT is why I have a career as a scientist and author at all.
There is an unavoidable problem for me here, one I’m acutely aware of as I write this. Saying I owe my career to the SAT implies that fact matters, or is news-worthy, which in turn implicitly means I’m brandishing around things like my dumb “Forbes 30 Under 30” label (actually an awkward ego fest), or my published books, or academic positions, or the scientific hypotheses I’m known for (like causal emergence or the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis). It’s uncomfortable. I don’t feel very successful: I wish I had followed through on more ideas, I wish my first novel had done better, I wish I made more money and so had to rely on being very careful with money less, I wish I had managed to secure additional funding for my scientific research, or received some out-of-the-blue offer for a tenured position at a really prestigious place like Harvard. I even wish I had solved the mystery of consciousness instead of just running into the exact same epistemic wall everyone else has since history began. And at a personal level I can be a real moron sometimes.
But I won’t wallow in false humility and pretend that, on paper, I can’t be judged “successful” (air quotes are important here)—as what I personally view as faults are extremely privileged problems to have. So I’m going to nauseously use myself as an example, even though I think real success in life happens in private based on your relationships with the ones you love, rather than anything that shows up on a resume. (If this sounds like I’m just mouthing platitudes to ward off criticism, I’m not, I really believe that, and I’m willing to fight anyone who says that’s not what’s truly important.)
With all those caveats aside, it is indeed true my childhood was different from most others who make their living solely by thinking, writing, and researching—especially at the level of freedom I enjoy. As a rule only occasionally broken, I’ve found others in similar positions to be usually either independently wealthy or from very successful or connected families (even if they don’t notice or think this). They did not have to bite and claw their way in, they did not have to learn the mannerisms of the elite and eschew the habits of their class. While my mother went to college, my father never graduated, and, after separating from my mother, has lived in a trailer park for decades. I doubt almost anyone in my position in public life even knows anyone who lives in a real trailer park, let alone their father.