Life throws all kinds of tests at us, the ones we feel ready for as well as the ones we’d rather avoid. Sometimes we can choose our challenges, and sometimes they choose us. More often than we’re willing to admit, the biggest and most fearsome tests turn out to be the ones that change our lives for the better. When Deepak Chopra said, “Obstacles are opportunities in disguise,” he may well have been talking about entrance exams.
Many schools and academic programs in the U.S. and around the world use entrance exams as part of their admissions process, not as barriers to entry so much as screens to ensure that extraordinary opportunities accrue to extraordinary applicants.
My friend and colleague David Blobaum of Summit Prep sought extraordinary opportunities when he was in high school. To reach his goals, he had to pass all kinds of tests of tenacity, intrinsic motivation, and work ethic. He also had to ace the ACT, as he shares in a recent article:
In 2001, I was in 8th grade and looking toward high school. My local high school was decent, but I wanted the best education I could get, so I asked my parents to call local private high schools to ask them to send me profiles of their school. Graduates of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL had the highest average ACT scores compared to those from other local private schools, so I set my sights on attending there. I received a 50% need-based scholarship, but my parents (a hospice chaplain and a teacher assistant for students with special needs) still could not afford to send me there, so I also got a job caddying and paid a quarter of the remaining tuition each year so that I could attend.
My hard work paid off. My rigorous high school studies prepared me well and, without test prep, I scored a 33 on the ACT. That was enough to get me accepted into the University of Chicago, and the rest is, as they say, history.
When David asserts that The SAT and ACT Help the World, he’s not speaking hypothetically or in abstractions. His story is echoed in my own. When I was growing up in NYC decades ago, I was faced with pretty poor options for high school unless I could place into one of the coveted specialized public schools or one of the private or parochial ones. Luckily for me, through hard work, practice, and testing acumen, I earned a spot in a phenomenal Jesuit school, an academic crucible compared to which college felt a bit like kindergarten. That school’s legendary placement test set an exceedingly high bar for entry that matched the standard to follow.
We need standardized tests when and where we need standards. Not everyone in this world is cut out to operate a vehicle on the road, work as a nurse, or attend a prestigious military service academy. David’s persuasive points about how tests like the SAT and ACT reward effort, recognize relative ability, and mitigate risk when allocating scare resources fit into a larger argument about when, how, and why tests are valuable. If a door is closed for a reason, the right test can be the perfect key.