Everything else

Test Stress

In a couple years, you won’t even remember your standardized-test scores, I promise.

Collage by Ruby A.

Collage by Ruby A.

Seven years after graduating from high school, I’m much happier about the fact that I don’t remember my SAT score than I ever was about the score itself. The same goes for my GPA, my class ranking, my ACT and SAT II scores, and even the colleges that accepted me. I’m sure they were all fine! If I recall correctly, I got the same number of rejections and acceptances—four each, I think?—which served to make my decision 50 percent easier. The whole process is now a distant nightmare, but one thing I remember vividly is the mostly unspoken tension that permeated everything: each lunch period at my regular table, all those snooze-worthy but supposedly so important “information sessions,” and every family dinner (especially the ones with other people’s parents) throughout my junior and senior years of high school. The questions hung over that period like a dark cloud: Who’s applying where? Whose grades are higher? Who hired a tutor and private college counselor? Who’s aiming for the Ivy League? Who has legacy status where?

I can’t recall the answers to any those questions today, which I’m telling you not because I think apathy is cool—I cared so much at the time, even though I wanted to act like I didn’t—but as proof that even things that feel like the most important, life-defining assessments EVER will someday in the not-so-distant future mean absolutely NOTHING to you. Those collections of numbers and figures and rankings might seem like the totality of your self-worth right now, but as your life puzzle starts to take shape and you get some perspective, you will see how small these pieces really are. Those numbers and scores aren’t you, and they don’t define you. Compared with you, they are incredibly boring. They’re just numbers, and you are a human person with real interests and passions. And no one’s life passion is taking tests, nor should it be. Ever.

The numbers I recall even less than my own stats are those of my friends (and rivals!) at the time. When I try to picture the valedictorian of my high school class, I just see Tracy Flick from the movie Election, and if I try harder, nothing. Blank. Nada. I couldn’t pick him or her out of a lineup of one, and it hasn’t even been that long. For four years I thought I was engaged in a cutthroat game against the hundreds of kids around me (and hundreds of thousands of others around the country and the world), like some MMORPG verion of The Hunger Games, when we were really each engaged in an endlessly frustrating solo struggle—more like sudoku, I guess—to figure out the best way forward for ourselves.

OK, yes, technically each person applying to a four-year college is competing for a finite number of spots against a seemingly infinite number of applicants, but it doesn’t actually work like a competition, because there’s no way to really keep score: Test scores are part of the secretive selection process, but there are so many more, and there’s no real science to predicting what’s going to sway an admissions committee. You can’t control or influence other people’s performances or know exactly how a school will decide who to take. It’s like playing Monopoly but you have no idea how much money you or anyone else has and you can’t see anyone else’s pieces on the board and everyone’s playing by different rules. That’s not a game at all.

None of which is to say that the process isn’t important: Academic ambitions can be crucial to future successes. On average, people with a four-year college degree make about one million dollars more over the course of their lives than someone with just a high school diploma—though, oh, big surprise, there are fewer financial benefits for women and minorities than for white men. But the more advanced and professional degrees someone has, in general, the more money they’ll make, so anyone who wants to be a doctor/lawyer/banker/rich person, especially, needs a plan.

For those privileged and crazy enough to wrestle with the college application demons at all–not everyone can or wants to attend, and that’s OK—there’s a lot to figure out: prep courses, study books, college visits, letters of recommendation, UGH. Test culture is out of control; it’s also a business, so there are people whose job it is to make you feel like you need to buy advantages and shortcuts. (The fees for everything can really add up.) While most colleges do look at SATs, ACTs, or international equivalents, other aspects of the application like personal essays and the interview count too. Plus, scores don’t necessarily predict how you’ll do in life—or even in college—anyway. And parents often care about this stuff more than kids, pushing class and status anxieties, family-tradition pressures, or unfulfilled dreams onto students who don’t know yet what they want.

In my house, it was all new: I’m the oldest child of two people without degrees, whose parents, both children of immigrants, never even had a chance to go to college. (My mom attended a university briefly for dance but dropped out, and my dad had to forgo a soccer scholarship to help out at his family’s bakery.) So when it came time for me to figure it out, we were all a bit blind. They did set me up to succeed by always sending me to the best schools possible, including pushing me to apply for a rigorous public high school program. Looking back, it’s clear that my support system was enough to help get me decent enough test scores to get into a good school, and eventually find a job, allowing me to forget the specifics of a miserable process. I was, and am, very fortunate.

But in the heat of application season, I felt alone and unprepared, which turned into anger. Intimidated by people with intellectual families and seemingly unlimited money for college visits, I decided that I didn’t care about Harvard or legacies. I acted unconcerned to keep myself sane, and as a defense mechanism: I didn’t want to drive myself crazy with competition, but I also didn’t want to lose–or show that I cared about losing. I may have pushed the exact details of my high school transcript out of my head, but I remember the pain and constant nagging insecurity.

So I wouldn’t dare say “don’t stress.” Grades and test scores are right up there with losing your virginity and picking a profile picture as some of the most worrying parts of being a teenager. By all means, freak out! Throw a book across the room after your third practice test or slam the computer shut after blabbing through your last personal statement of the night. Then eat ice cream from the tub and watch a reality show while dreaming of possible careers like diving for pearls in the Persian Gulf (no diploma required!). Blow off steam however you can–video games, a yoga DVD, binge-reading Rookie–and bitch, bitch, bitch your way through it all with classmates. (Complaining is an ancient art form because it feels amazing.) But try to remember this part: Even though it might not seem like it while examining your dream school’s acceptance rate, your peers are better allies than they are enemies.

When I was going through this process, I couldn’t help resenting two of my closest friends: Kate* for her super-involved and well-educated parents who paid for a summer program meant to boost the odds of her getting into an Ivy, and Will* for his higher grades and test scores. They should have been my confidantes—we could’ve shared coping tips or at least commiserated—but instead I put up a wall, falsely believing we were pitted against one another. (We weren’t even applying to the same schools!) I only felt worse after Kate didn’t get into her top choice (it happens) and Will was forced by his parents to stay close to home instead of pursuing our mutual big-city dreams. At the time, I was too overcome by my own anxieties to recognize theres. Like a lot of high school relationships, ours, as a crew, was never the same.

And yet! In the end, we went to three different schools, had three different sets of experiences, pursued three different career tracks, and were all lucky enough to have an amazing time. Other people I knew took a gap year, ended up hating their “dream school,” transferred three times, or skipped college altogether, regardless of how pristine their original applications were. The post-high school period of self-discovery is going to happen regardless; no perfect score or GPA works like a cheat code, so there’s no use trying to “beat” your classmates at the expense of camaraderie. Personal successes and lasting relationships will stick with you no matter what and should be savored, despite the stress. Energy spent fretting about others could be used to just work a little harder on yourself. Besides, there’s not only one right answer—a dream school is like a crush: if it doesn’t love you back, you eventually get over it and find someone else just as good, if not better for you.

Big test days are good for one thing: You get to skip class. What I do remember is not my scores, but going for pancakes bigger than my face with my friends at the country restaurant Everett’s after we finished filling in our multiple-choice bubbles, our brains still numb and stomachs gnawing, but finally feeling free. The mason jar full of chocolate milk in the company of other zapped kids sticks with me. The school scoreboard, on the other hand, was easy to forget. ♦


  • ninesbadwolf September 19th, 2013 3:09 PM

    This article came at the perfect time. I’m only a junior in high school and there’s already so much pressure when it comes to high school and there’s only so much I can do to keep it all under control.

  • Maggie September 19th, 2013 3:23 PM

    My scores were so bad (like truly abysmally bad, despite taking multiple prep courses) that I could only apply to schools that didn’t require them. But luckily there are a lot of cool places that are test-optional, check them out!


  • Abby September 19th, 2013 4:03 PM

    This is so true you guys, I’m only a sophomore in college and I already don’t remember my SAT scores… I do however remember this friend I had complaining that his 2350 (out of 2400, which makes that a REALLY GOOD SCORE) wasn’t good enough while I stared at him in disgust…. anyway, I digress… honestly though, none of this will matter in a few years. I’m pretty sure no old person in the history of ever has said, “Damn… if only my SAT scores had been higher, my life would have been SO MUCH BETTER!”

  • belovedsnail September 19th, 2013 4:28 PM

    Someone asked me the other day what my GRE scores were, and I was so happy to truthfully say I didn’t remember!

    I couldn’t agree more about all that stuff not being important, even though it seems like life and death at the time. I work for a marketing firm that creates materials for colleges, universities and independent schools, and I think the people who work in these schools must be the only ones who care about that stuff past age 22. Guess what? Those people are paying me, college grad of a private liberal arts college no one has heard of, who was accepted to grad school but didn’t go because I decided a master’s in literature wasn’t worth $80k, to do something they can’t/don’t want to do.

    This is an interesting book about college admissions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gatekeepers

  • artobsessed September 19th, 2013 4:42 PM

    i broke down in my dorm room yesterday because of this exact issue. thanks, rooks!

  • Chloe22 September 19th, 2013 5:11 PM

    Does art school require standardized test scores? And if some of them do, how can I tell if they don’t?

    • bibliovore September 20th, 2013 1:29 PM

      Most do require them, but a lot of them don’t weigh them as much. They are definitely more interested in your portfolio.

      Just check out the websites of the schools you are interested in, or go on something like collegeboard where they can filter schools for you.

  • liv w September 19th, 2013 5:13 PM

    needed this right now, thanks rookie!!

  • Ella W September 19th, 2013 5:21 PM

    I am so busy with school and homework and everything that this is the first Rookie article I’ve read for a week.. Ugh. I really need to have a binge-read of Rookie soon, otherwise I might just lose the will to live..


  • MeBeKi September 19th, 2013 5:39 PM

    Every time I picked up my practice test book to study, visions of human suffering would flash before my eyes, and I just went to sleep instead. MEMORIES.


  • Emma September 19th, 2013 5:48 PM

    Awesome article, yo! Also, just FYI, the description says “you test scores” instead of “your test scores.”

  • thelilacparadox September 19th, 2013 5:57 PM

    I wish I had read this when I was applying to college. Those scores are ridiculous and don’t define you. In fact, numbers don’t define you in any way. Not your age, your height, your weight, your grades… nothing about you in numbers measures your self-worth. Nothing.


  • Haleyhaley2w September 19th, 2013 6:10 PM

    i love this! I think it’s so relevant to anyone who’s been to school ever (which is everyone). I’m constantly stressed at school

  • o-girl September 19th, 2013 6:13 PM

    ahh thank you rookie, cuz it’s kind of the same at my hyper competitive nyc school for applying to high schools

  • Adele K September 19th, 2013 7:30 PM

    Thank you, Rookie! This is exactly what has been on my mind for the past few weeks. I’m glad that I can find the reassurance that I desperately need through you guys.

  • Emmie September 19th, 2013 7:34 PM

    I mistakenly wrote “inquery” instead of “inquiry” in a cover letter, so I feel you, Anaheed! (it turned out fine for me, thankfully!)

  • Alepisaurus September 19th, 2013 8:40 PM

    I really needed to hear this

  • CelianotCecelia September 19th, 2013 9:06 PM

    Read this mid-stress for a huge math test…THANK YOU ROOKIE!

  • Atomic September 19th, 2013 9:50 PM

    Oh, lord. You know, I’ve never commented on one of these things. Not once! I’ve been reading Rookie for about a year, and never once commented. It happens, I guess.

    Anyway, thank you. Sincerely. I am right smack dab in the middle of that– a Senior, with lists and lists of things to do and… god, it all feels so big. I’m glad that, no matter what happens, I will be able to forget this in a few years.

  • Ariella95 September 19th, 2013 11:09 PM

    I wish I had read this last year, when I let my parents hire a private tutor at a cost of about 600 dollars (this was one of the cheaper ones, believe it or not) and spent hours of my life working on practice ACT tests before raising my score by 2 points. Which made absolutely no difference in acceptances/ scholarships. Sigh

  • cryingflowers September 20th, 2013 1:11 AM

    Fucking thankyou.

  • emilyray September 20th, 2013 2:17 AM

    THANK YOU. I love this and it’s yet another perfectly timed article by Rookie. By the way, the second sentence says “evens the colleges” instead of “even the colleges”.

  • ashowly September 20th, 2013 2:40 AM

    Thank you so much Rookie! My parents (although they should realise) don’t realise how true this is. I am so done with school, and with only 3 weeks left before I start my exams, I have been picking up more and more and more work to do. Lists are stuck up and mantra’s posted in every corner of my room and piles of books and papers strewn across the floor.
    I am so happy I get to say goodbye to all of this soon.

    Thank you for reminding me of something I really needed to hear <3

  • Lemons September 20th, 2013 8:03 AM

    I definitely think there is FAR too much pressure in high school. Grades are important more for yourself, than anything else. I always felt really proud of myself when I managed to get a top mark.

    I do know that you should always try your best, because occasionally sometimes grades open doors for you, or get you noticed. It is SO important to remember that there are other ways to do that, so don’t kill yourself or stress like crazay. Do the best you can, and don’t worry…be happy :)


  • julalondon September 20th, 2013 8:48 AM

    You guys, THIS IS SO TRUE. I’m in my third year of college now and nobody cares about my grades from high School or whatever anymore!!!

  • InSmithereens September 20th, 2013 9:00 AM

    Yes to all of this… I’m 21 and just had to write a CV and spent half an hour trying to remember all of my (allegedly) super- important exam scores. Once you get past your first year of university all past scores are really meaningless (and after the first month of university nobody compared grades).

  • mariasnow September 20th, 2013 2:06 PM

    When I graduated, my guidance counselor said, “I didn’t think you were going to make it,” as he handed me my diploma. Instead of going to college, I moved to England, got married, got separated, got a job as a bank teller and gradually realized that I would lose my mind if I didn’t find more creative work. All this time I had a secret blog (you have to have a password) and wrote about my day almost every single day (learning by doing, writing is an important skill). I went to my local Ivy Tech, got my Fine Arts associate degree and the more A’s I got on my transcript, the more letters I started to receive from colleges. Columbia and some Ivy League schools shocked me to death. I thought they were a joke.

    I decided that I’d go with a small arts school that has a partnership with an Ivy and my stepdad cried tears of joy (my mom said, “isn’t there somewhere around here?”). The schools I’ve visited and communicated with could not care less about my SAT score. They don’t even want to know in fact (near perfect on verbal, crashing failure in math). My actual college transcript (and my portfolio) speaks for itself.

    In high school I had personal stuff going on that really got in the way of my success but it’s never too late to sort yourself out (with help if necessary) and get on the path to your dreams. When I started going to Ivy Tech, I was just putting one foot in front of the other because I needed to start something. I’m now actually super-intimidated by the Ivy League school even though I love it.

  • spudzine September 20th, 2013 4:59 PM

    I really needed to hear this. Ever since junior year started the pressure has been so much higher than before, so this was a really nice article at a really crucial time. Thanks again, Rookie.


  • GlitterKitty September 20th, 2013 8:40 PM

    I’m so glad we don’t have to write SATs in Canada (although I guess you do if you’re planning on going to the US). It sounds absolutely awful. But then again, that means universities have to look at other things which means you have to find other ways to stand out. I’ve been nagged by my guidance counsellor since GRADE 9 about doing things to put on applications. It’s ridiculous. I really don’t agree with the idea of doing things just to put them on your applications. If you really like debate club do it, but I find a lot of the “academic” sort of extra curriculars at my school are just filled with kids trying to do anything they can to get into universities and get scholarships. It’s just insane and way way way too much pressure.

  • SWIZZLEFAIRY22 September 20th, 2013 10:20 PM

    Also, if you transfer from some community colleges some universities don’t require test scores such as the SAT and ACT. Joe, you should totally write more articles!

  • monalisa September 21st, 2013 6:05 AM

    this article was very refreshing. thankyou for writing it. i need my friends to see this.

  • thebrownette September 23rd, 2013 9:57 AM

    Thank you thank you THANK YOU. I’m taking the SATs Oct. 5th and stressing out. My math scores “need” raising IMO, but my friends think I’m insane. Problem is, I have a particular school in mind. I couldn’t care less about “prestige,” but I seem to fit right in there, and their SAT scores are quite a bit higher than mine…and I lack a “hook.” So, we’ll see. Luckily, I like a lot of other schools as well…

  • makingofmay September 25th, 2013 7:03 PM

    I really needed this right now. Great article, thanks Rookie xx