The Beginning of the End

One sentence from my new guidance counselor was all it took.

“Oh, you’ll need a 2350 on the SAT and a 4.3 GPA to get into Caltech.”

I even instinctively knew that those were grossly inflated numbers, a guess that was borne out by investigation — a quick check at Caltech’s website verifies that 2350 would be in the top quartile.

(Just in case you’re wondering, that particular college was chosen under duress for a research project, and I consciously stayed away from colleges that I knew students of in order to get a more balanced view of everything. Don’t read too much into it.)

Doesn’t matter. I still immediately had to prove myself to a person who I barely knew yet.

I thought I was above this.

Some of you might be thinking that my worries are baseless.

Obviously, the math section for me is simply a test of whether I can stay interested enough to keep working and avoid any stupid mistakes. I could plow through half an OMO test in that interval. Yes, it’s a waste of time.

Not so obviously, the multiple-choice writing questions are exactly the same. I have a copy of Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words I read recreationally. I love being technically correct; I nerd-sniped myself into trying to learn the exact definition of passive voice while researching this post.

The critical reading sections are a little more interesting because there is a sprinkling of SAT vocabulary involved. So last week, I combed through SparkNotes’s list of 1000 vocabulary words and compiled 150 or so to study using Anki, and I think that it’s been a successful endeavor. I estimate the marginal benefit of this at maybe 10 points. The marginal cost? Maybe two or three hours. It wouldn’t be worth it, except I’d probably blow those two or three hours on reddit anyway.

Besides, I might need them in college. For instance, to solve a cryptic crossword clue in a really famous puzzlehunt.

So that leaves the essay.

After writing two sample essays back-to-back yesterday, I am even more painfully aware how limited my timed writing ability is. As shamefully obsequious as it may be, I followed up by searching up and reading about everybody’s formulaic recommendations for structuring it. Thesis followed by examples. Three body paragraphs. Don’t waste time on a fancy introduction or a compelling conclusion; get to the meat.

What more could I do? Lots more, it turns out.

I could skim through the SparkNotes summary of every book I can reasonably label as “the quintessential American novel”. I could watch all the Crash Course videos on world history. I could read Al Jazeera from figurative front to figurative back. All for the ability to sound erudite by citing a few colorful examples.

In fact, I could pick those examples right now and practice twisting them to fit the prompt. Word has it that the College Board is starting to work towards more specific prompts that make this harder to do, but the College Board’s efforts are not a very intimidating force, I have to say.

I didn’t quite do any of these, but it’s depressing how close I came.

If it comes to it, am I going to cross the line to reach an example I want?

Although the Dragon type was previously widely considered overpowered, the introduction of the Fairy type in Generation VI dominated it and established a brand new hegemony. Sticking to an old Dragon-heavy strategy even in the face of these new developments would be folly, because Dragon-type moves are completely effectless against Fairy-types. This is an example that demonstrates why it’s always important to be ready to adapt to changes.

In the ground-breaking modern American masterpiece A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Sansa Stark experiences the painful consequences of misplaced loyalty, as her trusted betrothed Joffrey Baratheon beheads her father Eddard Stark in front of her eyes. This would never have happened if she had been more skeptical about other people’s motives, but her passion clouded her judgment. As this example shows, excessively strong emotion can be a dangerous force, even posing a risk to one’s life.

In the days before the SAT I’m taking right now, I frantically crammed on historical facts to use them. Nothing I did could prepare me for the blankness of my mind upon seeing this viscerally personal prompt. Instead, by trying to write a post in the process of preparation with three examples, I ended up on TVTropes. This lesson taught me that sometimes, preparation is not enough to guarantee overcoming obstacles, and can instead lead to unnecessary stress and sleep deprivation instead.

Sorry, I don’t have the guts to write any of this. Or, as they’d say in the critical reading section, “fortitude.”

It’s impossible to predict now if any of this matters, but I am indeed worried. I can’t know whether all my academic achievements are enough. I can’t know whether a below-average SAT score (relatively speaking) will be the deal-breaker for whatever dream school I settle on. I don’t think it’s likely, but I’ve had to deal with more than my share of unlikely things in life so far. Loss aversion, one of the strongest cognitive biases.

I shouldn’t be worried. I told myself I wouldn’t let the stress get to me. I seem to be wrong.

But there’s still time to prove otherwise, right? Just remember those deep breaths and don’t forget your towel.

Wish me luck tomorrow…


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