097: High Stakes
🤔 Loyalty 🧠 Love & Standardized Tests 🖼 Failure (S&B 043) 👉 Raise Your Voice
Was talking to a friend about the idea of loyalty: a sense of duty or devotion to a person, institution, or idea. It made me wonder what these readers might think:
What does loyalty mean to you? Who or what are you loyal to?
🧠 A Love Letter to Standardized Tests
I loved standardized tests. I know that makes me sound like some movie trope: "we'll make the Asian kid weirdly obsessed with the SATs" but that's just part of who I am.
I was a decent student, but my high school and college GPA's hovered around 3.5, nowhere near a straight A student. I often half-assed my homework, procrastinated on studying for exams, and struggled with problem sets. Every teacher was idiosyncratic, they looked for different things, you needed to show your work, and there were just so many opportunities to make mistakes and lower your grade. Past exams were hard to come by and answer keys even more rare.
By comparison, standardized tests were simple. Multiple choice questions all the way. Always a right answer. Questions couldn't deviate far from a specific format. No need to show your work. And there were tons and tons of practice questions, and with answers and explanations!
I remember one summer, checking out a bunch of SAT test books from the library and just cranking through the sections. I could get immediate feedback on my work and see what my projected score would have been, and figure out how to do better next time. When you make the same mistake 2 times in a row, your brain usually figures it out by the third time.
I even splurged for a $18 book from Kaplan on advanced techniques for getting that elusive 1600—things like whether to pick your second answer or your first instinct, how the test makers try to trick you, and statistical probabilities on when to guess or leave an answer blank.
My Chinese parents had gotten into college thanks to standardized tests. After the Cultural Revolution, where my dad spent 10 years away from school and working in rural farmlands, all of sudden every person aged 17-25 was taking a test to get into college, my dad scored at the top of his province, allowing him to attend the top college in our region.They knew nothing about the SAT except that it was important that I do well. They did not know about the college application process in America, except that I should get into a good school. They set the expectations and gave me encouragement, and I figured out the rest.
In many ways, studying for standardized tests was like training in gymnastics. You got to practice in a safe, controlled environment, correcting your errors, refining your technique, maybe with the help of a coach (or the back of the book). But then you had to step up to the plate and deliver under pressure.The night before a standardized test was like the night before a meet:
- Have a simple, safe dinner
- Keep your evening uneventful
- Go to bed early
- Pack Gatorade, granola bars, and assorted equipment
- Get to the competition / test facility ahead of time
- Rise to the occasion
During the test it felt like my mind was working at 2x speed. I would finish the section faster than in practice, leaving me time to go back and review my answers, something I rarely did with homework or other assignments. Many years later, I've learned that this has a bit to do with my ADHD. That the squirt of dopamine that comes from working under some pressure and stress makes our brains work better.
It was exciting to think that nearly every high schooler would eventually sit down and take the same exam that I was taking. I imagined a sea of students across the country, sweating it out on the same geometry problems and reading comprehension quizzes. That no matter what kind of school we went to and what kind of teachers we had, at the test site we were alone. No notes. No caculator. No help. Everyone had to endure the same challenge.
I never did get that perfect score: one math mistake left me with a 1580, but I was proud of it and I think it made up for my only decent grades and middling SAT II's and AP test scores. I redeemed myself in college with a 34 MCAT with the helpf of an online course and 740 GMAT with just practice questions. I never ended up applying to med school and got rejected from the one business school I applied to (the HBS 2+2 program).
So while I had a strong overall testing record, I was nothing compared to my college teammate Peter, verifiable standardized testing god. His public high school in Texas paid students for every AP test they took and he took eight, including a number of subjects where the school didn't even have a class for it and he just studied on his own. Reader, this man got perfect 5's on all of these tests and made a cool $1,600 in the process. No fancy tutors or special programs.
There's a debate raging on the merits of standardized testing. Elite public high schools like Stuyvesant in NYC and Lowell in SF have been exploring removing standardized tests from admission on the basis of equity, while MIT has reinstated its SAT / ACT requirement on the basis of better assessing student readiness. There's far too much to that discussion that we have space for in this edition, but I wanted to share my story if only to offer another perspective to the mix.
For me, standardized tests offered me a chance to work hard and truly apply myself academically and intellectually. While it might have seemed like a pointless exercise to some, that argument can be made to most of school coursework, extracurriculars, and youth sports. I relished the challenge and I'm proud of what I acheived. May we all have experiences that push us and reward our effort.
🖼 Failure (S&B 043)
👉 Raise Your Voice
My wife Amanda has new artwork called "Raise Your Voice" showing at the Museum of the City of New York. Click through to get a peek.
More Resources and Fun Stuff
- Book Notes: Summaries / quotes from great books I've read
- Scotch & Bean: a webcomic about work, friendship, and wellness
- Birthday Lessons: Ideas, questions, and principles I've picked up over the years
- Career Spotlight: A deep dive into my journey as an athlete, PM, founder, and creator.
Jason Shen | Cultivating Resilience Newsletter
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