The Blithering Idiot’s Guide to Retaking the SAT…at Age 35

If you’ve ever considered doing something stupid like retaking the SAT when you didn’t have to, put down that No. 2 pencil and heed the hard lessons this writer learned.

SATsTravis RathboneOne thing has been gnawing at me recently: Am I dumber than I was in high school 18 years ago? I figured there was only one way to find out—take the SAT one more time, cold. With no preparation of any sort—just the way I did it then. I went to the College Board website and printed out a sample test, and then sat down and sweated over its three overarching sections: writing, math, and reading. If you’ve ever considered doing something stupid like retaking the SAT when you didn’t have to, put down that No. 2 pencil and heed the hard lessons I learned.

No One Likes to Be Yelled At

One reason the SAT is so reviled is the way the test itself is written. Everything is an order. Or worse, a dire warning: “Do as you’re told or your life will be destroyed!!!” Just look at these bullet points from the essay introduction:

  • Off-topic essays, blank essays, and essays written in ink will receive a score of zero.
  • If your essay does not reflect your original and individual work, your test scores may be canceled.

I hadn’t even started, and I was getting bawled out. Would it kill them to add a bit of levity to the copy? Perhaps some gentle reassurance? “Look, we know this is stressful for you. Just hang with us and you’ll get to go to Dairy Queen afterward.”

The Essay Is Hard

You get 25 minutes to write your essay, and the fact that it comes first is a real kick in the gut. The topic in the sample test I took was, “Do people accomplish more when they are allowed to do things in their own way?” The essay I ended up writing used South Park as one of its biggest support points. I wasn’t trying to sound like a high schooler. It was all I could pull out of my brain. No actual works of literature or events in world history. So that was unpleasant.

Did I Say Hard? I Meant It Hurts!

If you’re like me, you work on a computer like a normal human being. So it might come as a surprise to find just how painful it is to write in longhand for long stretches of time. Yes, it’s not as bad as digging trenches in the Amazon, but still—it’s agony. Your neck gets sore from staring down. You get that weird dent in your middle finger and thumb from pressing the pencil too hard. Everything around you starts to smell like old pencil shavings. This is why I hated blue book exams in high school and college. It was hard labor. Every time I finished a blue book exam in school, I felt as if I had just hauled a cord of firewood.

The Math Section Hurts Almost as Much as the Essay

Given that most of us haven’t had to take a test in quite a while, it’s easy to forget just how daunting a math question can be. For example:

If x and y are positive integers, which of the following is equivalent to (2x)3y–(2x)y ?

A.     (2x)2y
B.     2y(x3–xy)
C.     (2x)y [(2x)2y–1]
D.     (2x)y (4xy–1)
E.     (2x)y [(2x)3–1]

I mean seriously. My mind exploded when I looked at this. You may as well have asked me to climb Everest using a fork. It took me five minutes just to try to understand the question. Once I had figured it out, time was up.

Me No Make Numbers Good

Because we haven’t had to do math in aeons, the mental strain it takes to dig through the piles of mildew in one’s brain to retrieve the information needed to solve any given equation is brutal. How do you divide fractions again? Don’t you flip the top number and the bottom number or something? And what’s the top number called? The ruminator? The kilometer?

CalculatorTravis RathboneGood Equipment Is Essential

Don’t skimp on pencils. One time I skipped over the question without skipping over the affiliated line on my answer sheet, which meant I had to erase the answers and move them all forward. Only I had a crappy eraser, which failed to erase my mark and instead smeared graphite all over my sheet.

Reading Comprehension? Better Stock Up on NoDoz

In the verbal sections, all of the questions involved choosing the right word for a sentence (piece of cake) and reading comprehension (guhhhhhhhh).
Reading comprehension is every bit as horrible as you remember. You get a few paragraphs of bone-dry text about a random subject, and then you have to answer questions about what the text means. In some cases, you’ll have to compare two bone-dry passages. It all reads like it was written by George Will.

The Secret Behind a Successful Test Is …

At the end of each verbal section is this command: “STOP. If you finish before the time is called, you may check your work in this section only. Do not turn to any other section in the test.”

Since I was simulating the experience of taking the test for real, I never went back to check my answers, because I never went back to check when I was a student. Instead, I did the same thing I did back when I had free test time as a kid: I stared out the window and thought about girls.

These small moments you get during the testing process—times when you’ve finished early and you have a little oasis in which to set your mind free—that’s all that matters, really. Because the SAT is less a test of your brainpower than it is a test of your endurance. If you’re taking it cold, and you haven’t been inside a classroom for 14 years, forget it, you aren’t physically prepared for it. Your back starts to kill after 30 minutes, and your brain can’t handle being assaulted with so many questions in such a short time frame.


The essay is graded on a scale of one to six, with six indicating “complete mastery” of writing and one indicating that you will probably end up writing a ransom note at some point in your life. I sent my essay to a teacher with the Princeton Review. He gave the essay a four, explaining the grade thusly:

This essay successfully addresses the assignment and develops a complete response to the question with specific and generally relevant examples. Nevertheless, the essay would have been much better had it not relied on self-conscious, awkward transitions and wince-inducing colloquialisms (I’d written, “People are often at their most creative and efficient when working within sensible boundaries,” and then added the offending … “This isn’t to say there should be a man with a cattle prod hanging over you”).

As for the rest of the test, I scored 200 points better on the verbal section than I had back in 1993. I was 20 points worse on the math section. This makes sense, at least for me. You never stop reading, particularly in the Internet age. Granted, everything I read is written in LOLCATS language, but still. If you read and write every day as I do, you’ll stay relatively sharp.

I took my final score and adjusted it proportionally (the highest score you can get today is 2400, as opposed to 1600 when I took it). I’d improved by roughly 190 points. (I got 2140 this time.) I’m smarter than I was when I was 17, and that’s a relief, because I was a moron.

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