I Took the SAT 7 Times to Help My Son Get Into College

A mother describes the genesis of her "perfect score project."

“Tell your mother,” she said, guiding my 12-year-old son, Ethan, into the conference room. Her hand rested gently on his shoulder, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”  This was the school psychologist, and she’d just finished a round of psychological testing on my son, a legal requirement if Ethan’s status as a student with a disability was to be maintained in the coming school year.

Ethan’s disability is what I’d describe as a mild case of garden-variety ADHD, the kind without the behavior problems. Ethan’s an easy-going kid: he’s happy-go-lucky but disorganized, and was in need a lot of “re-focusing” during those early years in school. (To my mind, ADHD is what we used to call “boys.” Now we have treatment for the condition and legally-required “accommodations” at school.)

There were a handful of school administrators sitting around the table, gathered there on a spring morning for the annual review of Ethan’s 504 Plan. Ethan scanned the adult-filled room sheepishly, then looked down at his shoes. Finally he looked at me and spoke.

“Mom,” he said, “I’m fine with B’s.”

The room was silent—for a moment—and then the door opened and Ethan’s math teacher bounced in with a spring in his step, like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.

“Ethan’s the classic under-achiever,” he announced, as if to say no big deal, just reporting an observation for the record.

“I’m fine with B’s” and “Ethan’s a classic underachiever”: I was the only person in the room experiencing a disconnect. Everyone else seemed to think underachievement was fine if you were getting B’s. Or maybe not even B’s; later on I talked to a family who got the same line about their son, another ADHD underachiever, who was getting Cs. And these were high-school Cs, which count.

After the math teacher’s report, the conversation returned to me and how I might learn to accept my 12-year-old son’s expectations for himself.

When I got to my car, I cried.

Which brings me to the story of how I came to take the SAT seven times in one year. By the end of Ethan’s sophomore year, heading into the all-important junior year, I had a son with a B average, taking non-Honors courses and not excelling in extracurriculars (though he is a very good piano player).

I had seen more studying going on during those first two years of high school, but there was a lot of convalescing, too, not to mention the socializing and the video games. Ethan was a “normal” kid who got B’s and C’s, not one of the stressed-out strivers you read about.

In fact, he was just like me when I was in high school. And while it was true that I’d had a successful career despite my average grades and scores, the world was different now. When I graduated from college, in 1989, unemployment had been falling sharply for six years straight, and the world was brimming with opportunity. Twenty years later, the land I would be sending my little tadpole into was a different place. At summer’s end, two years out from the Great Recession, millions were out of work and the news was filled with worry that we were heading into a double-dip recession or, worse, that we were already in one. That August, the economy created no new jobs at all. (The August zero was eventually revised upward to 104,000, still well below the number needed to absorb all the new high school and college graduates looking for their first jobs.) The days when you could la-di-dah your way out of Bennington, into the Radcliffe publishing course, as I did, and from there to a guaranteed starter job in the industry—a job, not an internship—were gone.

In truth, I was only subliminally aware of how bad things were. I was keeping my head down, avoiding the news. Not intentionally—my conscious thought was that I was too overwhelmed by work and family to read the paper, and I was. But looking back I see myself hunkered down. Which was probably just as well.

So I didn’t know the numbers, not then, but I could feel them. I could feel that I would be sending two children into a hard world. The older of those children, Ethan, was a boy who was “happy getting B’s” and had gotten an awful lot of them.

And I didn’t have two nickels saved for college.  Budgeting is not my forte—though I am a master worrier, and a warrior—and I needed a plan for Ethan to go to college: how to get in and how to pay for it. But judging from everything I read, “B” students didn’t seem to attract a lot of merit aid. There was nothing we could do about that now; by the end of sophomore year, a student’s GPA is pretty much locked in. Was I supposed to call the colleges and let them know about my son’s concussions and mono? Of course not, but doors had been closed.

I was beginning to feel frantic, which is why I started poking around the SAT. The test seemed to offer a last-ditch effort to turn things around.

Somewhere in that search, I read an article about SAT scores and merit aid. “High scores = money.” That was the gist.

A possibility presented itself. Ethan could study for the SAT, earn high scores, and get a scholarship at a decent school somewhere.

Of course, most of the people I knew in my small town hated the idea that I planned to train my son to get top SAT scores, but what choice did I have, really? I feared for my son’s future. The fact that I had managed to succeed despite mediocre grades was irrelevant. Those were kinder, gentler times.

So I cooked up a plan that took on a life of its own: I decided to take the SAT, too. I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.

My original idea was to try out 12 different methods of test prep the year before Ethan would be taking his first SAT. But as I saw how vast and complicated the realm of SAT prep appeared to be, I kept adding layers to the idea. What was at first simply the notion of taking an official SAT at school with the kids mushroomed into a vow to take the test every time it was offered in 2011. And I’d try out different locations for each test, which turned out to be a total of five. (I didn’t anticipate the issue of test centers booking up early and ended up having to repeat a few.) I wanted to see if the location played any role in the test experience, so I choose schools ranging from an elite private school in the suburbs to an urban public school in the Bronx.

I did not expect Ethan to pull off a perfect SAT score (though I wouldn’t have discouraged him from trying had he wanted to do so of his own accord). I found that by putting the pressure on myself, not on him, I was able to hold the bar reasonably high without having to nag or push (too much). I was “modeling” the behavior that I was hoping to cultivate in my son. In the end Ethan came up with his own number, which we both agreed was the right one.

This post is adapted from Debbie Stier's The Perfect Score Project.