Today on social media, I was greeted with an article about how one student chose to become part of MIT’s class of 2018. While I have nothing against major news platforms and don’t want to belittle stories that highlight some of the awesome things that MIT students are working on, I can’t imagine how much it would terrify me if I read this sort of thing before applying to MIT. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed by hearing about the ever-so-exciting lives of your friends offline or online, and that only amplifies when all of a sudden you imagine competing with these people for a spot in a university.
There is a ridiculous amount of pressure from both adults and peers to be the “perfect” student or “perfect” applicant to colleges when perfection doesn’t even exist. The problem with articles that hype the extraordinary things about a small subset of people is that they have the power to make you undervalue your (perhaps less-national-news-worthy) achievements.
My goal is not to scare or put down or invalidate anyone who has pursued summer internships in labs at universities, has been working on college application essays since junior year, took SAT/ACT prep classes and practice exams until their hands cramped, extensively researched colleges since junior high, or came from a family of engineers and businesspeople. I just want to reach out to the applicants who read descriptions of seemingly “perfect” students who have all of those qualifications and more, and feel their heart sink because they don’t feel like they’re good enough. Successful applicants really do come in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, and you can’t discredit yourself solely on a standardized test score number.
Let me tell you how I ended up here.
As a senior in high school, I knew college applications were coming up and that everyone in my high school was expected to apply somewhere. I talked with my dad a little bit and he described his college search process: he picked a couple schools that were affordable and seemed okay academically, wrote a couple essays, applied, was accepted by a few, and went to one. No bells, no whistles, no stress.
So when I met with my school counselor and she expected me to have "a list of no more than 12 schools" ranked by difficulty to get in (‘Reach,’ ‘Comfort,’ and ‘Safety’) with a breakdown of application pieces and statistics for each one, I immediately felt underprepared. I hadn’t thought about which schools to attend; I had never cared about academic reputations or given any really serious thought into what I wanted to study in college, and all of a sudden it was all very REAL.
I chose all my schools (including MIT) on a whim. I picked a variety of in-state and out-of-state schools to give myself the option to leave home if I was feeling brave. I looked into art schools and schools with forensic science programs and Ivy league schools mostly just because I had heard their names before. MIT ended up on my list because I read about the hacks and a couple of admissions blog posts—it seemed like a school with a sense of humor, and I liked that. I probably stumbled across College Confidential at some point and thought the idea of a bunch of competitive people swirling in an eddy of college-induced panic was stupid. I didn’t care about online rankings of “Top 100 Schools in the World” nor debates about Harvard vs. Yale nor application acceptance rates for any school. (Again, I’m not trying to insult you if you do/did participate in the College Confidential community or ravenously devour top school news articles. It just wasn’t my thing, and I really, really want to stress that it’s okay whether it is or isn’t your thing.)
Personally, I was really apathetic towards the college search process. I hoped to get in somewhere, but I really wasn’t concerned where because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had always assumed that I would continue exploring my options throughout college, rather than having to decide beforehand before I’ve even begun to learn about what options exist. Whereas some people in my grade were searching for schools with great reputations for a specific major like computer science, I genuinely didn’t know you could study something called computer science (basic HTML was, in my mind, something I Googled and used to customize my Tumblr theme, not a tiny piece of a huge field of study… boy, was I wrong)
But a fire was sparked when my counselor took a look at my list and, with a dismissive tone, said some spiel along the lines of: “Ceri, you’re going to have to revise your college choices. You have too many ‘Reach’ schools… With your math SAT scores you won’t get into a place like MIT, so you should probably just take it off and make room for another ‘Safety’ school.” All of a sudden, this authority figure who I had very little respect for in the first place was telling me what I could or couldn’t do with my life, and that made me really angry in a defiant-teenager sort of way. If these schools didn’t want me, they would have to say so themselves. A stupid school counselor wasn’t going to make me feel inadequate and stop me from even trying to apply. (Hint: This parallels how a stupid article online should not make you feel inadequate and stop you from even trying to apply. #litanalysis)
So I kept my list the way it was, and began my applications. I wasn’t the “perfect” applicant in any way, shape, or form. Sure, on paper my grades were good, and I had some really great teachers to write my letters of reference. But mostly, I had a lot of luck.
I’m lucky that I had people who inspired me to have such diverse interests—humanities teachers who taught me how to organize my ideas and construct compelling narratives, science teachers who brought in tectonic plate models or a bunch of organisms suspended in formaldehyde to emphasize learning by visualizing and actually doing things. I’m lucky that I had a friend who had a car and wanted to cross-enroll with me so we could take calculus at another high school because my school didn’t offer it. I’m lucky my family is financially stable enough for me to volunteer as a summer camp counselor and play games with kids to teach them curiosity and science, rather than working at a grocery store or fast food restaurant like a lot of people my age. I’m lucky I had a friend who was the president of drama club who roped me into designing and building sets, which led me to befriend our janitor and learn how to use power tools and construct structurally-sound furniture pieces in my free time after school. I’m lucky my friends patiently coaxed me out of my socially anxious shell so I would try new experiences, actually join extracurricular activities, and even hold a couple little leadership positions by senior year. I’m lucky I had a friend crazy enough to want to make a documentary with me about Nazi propaganda filmmakers for a history competition, and another that wanted to write and perform a short play about marine chronometers for the same competition. And I'm lucky we did pretty well in that competition and got to travel to Washington DC and meet kids from all around the United States.
I’m lucky that I remembered all these things about myself and didn’t worry about other people’s college applications. I didn’t read example essays or try and force myself into the mold of a student who has overcome immense hardship to succeed academically. I didn’t overwrite my essays and give them to 10 different people to proofread—I handed them to my dad and asked “Does this sound like me?”
In my essays, I tried to avoid being the 1,000th person who said they would want to travel back in time and speak to Gandhi about social change, and instead wrote about how I wanted to be like Kaylee and explore space with a crew that felt like family. When MIT asked me to describe the world I came from, I told them about how media has played such a huge role in shaping who I am today, how fictional characters have taught me innumerable lessons about friendship and self-sacrifice and everything in between. This wasn’t to ignore my family’s role in raising me, to avoid discussing the fact that I’ve grown up with both Asian and Western cultural influences, or to write something solely to make me seem like a special snowflake. It just felt like the most genuine response I could give, and I like writing stories far more than writing a checklist of facts about myself in essay format.
Rather than spending weeks brainstorming and writing these essays, I generally wrote them and turned them in within a 72 hour time span. One application at a time—check, check, check—until they were done, usually (embarrassingly) close to the due date. I can almost hear my high school counselor, and maybe even more across the nation, yelling at me for my apathy, “You should take the college application process very seriously!” Once the apps were in, though, I stopped worrying. It was out of my control. If anything, I was most concerned about getting into the University of Washington because that’s where I thought I would go, starting the college experience surrounded by a lot of people of my high school.
Long story short, I’m positive I didn’t fit any sort of profile for the ideal applicant to a highly technical school like MIT, yet for some reason they gave my application a second glance. So you shouldn’t have to worry either, because there’s nothing more you can do other than be yourself, be honest, and be grateful for the opportunities you’ve had to push yourself and find passions and learn and grow. (Besides maybe quadruple-checking your essays for spelling and grammar stuff. I could totally write a much less sappy ‘how to college essay’ post if people wanted some advice regarding that.)
I know there are other people on campus like me, with minimal technical background but a mighty curiosity and passions for art or science or building or whatever. Those of us that applied to MIT by chance, got in by some MIT admissions officer believing in us, and chose to commit because of the people we met here. And there are plenty more people completely unlike me, who were lucky or hardworking enough to go to some of the best schools in the nation with rich learning environments and resources, or who put in a lot of time and effort to take college classes or take on intense personal projects and expand their knowledge. But we’re all here now, working and learning and growing both as a community and as individuals.
Promise me you won’t worry about other applicants or what other people say about how impossible your dreams are or application stereotypes. Don’t allow MIT to become an all-consuming dream because people can have just as enriching college experiences elsewhere. Some of my very fondest college memories have been drinking tea and talking with my friend at Brown, believe it or not, since the MIT bubble can become stifling after a while. You will find your community of people, as long as you have the courage to go looking for them.
Life works in crazy ways so, please, don’t panic. ♥
Disclaimer: we're not going to tell you how to cheat on the SAT. We do not advocate cheating by any means!
What we will tell you about are some high profile cheating scandals that have occurred in the recent past. While these cheating scandals involved flagrant violations of ETS rules and regulations, we'll also reveal some little known things that can raise red flags around your scores and jeopardize your chances of college admission. But first, the scandals...
The redesigned SAT has only just started and already there’s talk of a cheating scandal! New SAT material was apparently leaked in China by test prep centers competing for clients and profits. Through a combination of student interviews, online discussion forums, and leaks of entire chunks of the test, managers and teachers at “cram schools” obtained real test material from the new SAT.
A second way that people in the prep industry learned about the test was in online discussion forums, like College Confidential. Students, and perhaps non-student test-takers, shared detailed information about their tests online. Savvy test prep tutors took this insight and reconstructed test material that, in the end, looked extremely similar to the real SAT.
Finally, and the details of this are a little sketchy, SAT tutors appear to have obtained leaked sections of the SAT. As reported by Reuters, there were documents circulating that contained entire sections of March 2016’s SAT. Soon after the SAT was given, test prep companies in China advertised test booklets that contained questions very similar to, if not the same as, those on the real SAT.
At this point, the new SAT hasn’t yet been administered abroad (the international test dates are the same as U.S. ones except for March). It’s unclear whether student scores will be withheld or even canceled, as they have been in past years. It would be a shame for students to suffer the consequences of unethical practices among test prep companies. For now, unfortunately, it seems that competition in the industry means that this kind of cheating will only continue.
As you’ll read below, China, as well as South Korea, has been under scrutiny for this same practice in past years. Students in both countries who studied at certain test prep centers saw some SAT questions before they took the test.
This shadowy figure is clearly on his way to a predetermined meeting spot with a backpack full of top-secret SAT material.
Security is extremely high around the SAT, so when foul play occurs, like in January 2015’s test administration in China and May 2013’s test administration in South Korea, it becomes pretty big news. Scores from the test were withheld not just for all students who tested in China, but also for all Chinese students (with a home address in China) who tested outside of their country. And for students in South Korea? All their scores were cancelled.
Here's what happened in our understanding: the College Board administers new tests only within the United States. Internationally, it used a random previously administered test (for example, any of the 60 tests given in the last 10 years). At various points, most notably May 2013, October 2014, and January 2015, ETS suspected that testing organizations illegally purchased SAT tests and questions that had already been given in the U.S. and distributed them to students.
Many students recognized questions on their SAT as ones they’d already seen and answered before. Some even went so far as to obtain an entire answer set via text. When they got to the testing center, they texted their tutors a question on the test. The tutor then quickly texted them back a complete set of answers!
As I briefly mentioned above, I suspect the College Board recycles previously used SATs to avoid another method of cheating - if everyone around the world took the exact same SAT test, then the time zones would create another vulnerability. Someone in the United States could tell someone in Australia the test questions and answers (or vice versa). So the College Board concentrates the best tests in the United States, where most test-takers are, and gives international students less reliable tests from the past.Unfortunately, this practice means that some students gain knowledge of their test before they even take it, while others get their scores canceled despite approaching the test with honesty. While the two cases mentioned above were the most widespread, there have been several others over the years in East Asia that led to investigations, score cancellations, and even legal indictments of test prep company managers and teachers!
New York: Students Hired Others to Take Test for Them
Perhaps the biggest SAT cheating scandal to hit the U.S. came out of Long Island, New York in 2011. High school students hired others (mostly college students)to take the SAT for them with fake IDs. They paid students up to $3,600 to take the test in their stead.
This is understandably tempting - what if you could get a perfect scorer to take your SAT for you? How much would you pay for that?
When the cheating was discovered, these students faced charges of scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records. While none ultimately faced jail time, their names are public, so they will be forever linked to this highly conspicuous scandal and cheating on the SAT.
South Korea: Test Centers Obtained and Distributed Advanced Copy
While you read above that ETS canceled SAT scores in South Korea for the May 2013 administration, you may also be interested to learn that it wasn't the first time! In 2007, ETS canceled all the scores for students who took the SAT in South Korea.
All 68 tutoring centers in Seoul were investigated, and ten educators were even barred from leaving the country until the investigation concluded. ETS suspected that tutoring centers illegally obtained a copy of the SAT and distributed it to students in advance of test day.
SAT cheating cases are actually relatively rare - only about 2,000 tests are investigated out of the 3 million administered each year. Most of these investigations are concerned with individual cases of suspected test day cheating, such as a student copying from another's exam. Let's take a look at what else could prompt an investigation or cancellation of your test scores by ETS.
New Ways the College Board Is Cracking Down on Cheating
In February 2017, the College Board announced that they will begin taking new measures to help combat cheating both in the United States and abroad. Some of the main new measures announced include:
- Giving the names of people and test prep companies suspected of cheating to law enforcement and federal agencies in the US and abroad.
- Reducing the number of times the SAT is given overseas each year. (The SAT will now be offered four times a year overseas, in October, December, March, and May.)
- Reducing the number of questions reused on different tests.
- Prohibiting people from taking the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or AP Exams if the College Board has concluded they were guilty of prior cheating.
- Making it easier for proctors and test takers to anonymously report suspected cheating.
These new actions likely won't eliminate cheating, but they should help make it even harder to cheat on the SAT and get away with it. In particular, reducing the number of SAT questions used on multiple exams should significantly reduce the number of test-takers who go into the exam already knowing some of the questions and use that knowledge to inflate their scores.
What Can Get Your Scores Withheld or Canceled
Not all cheating on the SAT involves high tech, international, back-door deals - the traditional signs of cheating are more common and could result in cancellation of your scores. Looking at anyone else's paper, talking during the test, flipping ahead through the test booklet, or continuing to work or fill in ovals on the bubble sheet after time has been called is strictly prohibited. Test proctors are on the lookout for this type of behavior and could report it if they feel something is off.
Make sure you're aware of all the rules of the SAT, especially if you have a hard time absorbing instructions on test day or if English isn't your first language. Familiarizing yourself with the instructions well in advance will allow you to focus all your energy on taking the test itself.
Another thing that could prompt an investigation into your scores is huge fluctuations between test administrations. If you jump ahead a huge number of points, or score highly in one section and much lower in a similar section, it is possible that College Board could withhold your scores. In this case, they will give you a chance to defend your scores - perhaps you took an intensive SAT prep course after your first testing and can provide a testimonial from your teacher - but this process could get long, frustrating, and is not guaranteed to have a happy ending.
This situation is quite rare, but what you can do to prevent it is to 1) make sure you understand the instructions before test day and 2) try your best on every test administration, rather than treating one as a throw-away or practice run.
To reiterate, be careful not to
- look at anyone else's test,
- talk to your neighbor once the test has started,
- scroll through or flip around your test booklet,
- or keep working after time has been called.
If ETS suspects cheating on the SAT, what exactly happens next?
Consequences of Cheating
While students in the Long Island scandal faced serious charges, the most common consequence of cheating on the SAT is that College Board will cancel your scores. If they have already been sent to your colleges as part of your application, then College Board will notify these colleges that your scores no longer count.
Usually College Board won't specify the reason for the cancellation, although they do have the authority to tell third parties what happened. More often, their reason will be more general. But since score cancellation is very rare, this could raise a huge red flag to colleges. While you'll be allowed to retake the SAT, you may not have time to retake it and get your scores in in time for your college deadlines.
The SAT is a rite of passage that many students, both American and international, share on their path to high school graduation and college. Approaching the SAT with honesty and integrity is the best memory you can have of this near universal academic landmark.
What to Learn From These Scandals
Don't cheat - prep instead! Nothing will improve your SAT scores like practicing with high quality materials and becoming comfortable with the content and format of the test. Check out our free E-Book for 5 vital strategies you need to know that will get you a 240 point increase or more.
Since College Board and your test procters take fairness and security extremely seriously, make sure you're following all instructions and regulations, including what to the bring to the SAT and what to leave at home.
Finally, try to keep perspective throughout the test prep and college application process, which can cause both a lot of excitement and a lot of stress. Ultimately, if you move through the process with awareness and integrity, you are likely to end up in the college that's the best possible fit for you.
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