What it means that MIT won’t give up the SAT

My son is friends with a girl who grew up in the foster care system. Her mother left when she was a toddler. Then her dad died of a drug overdose. In front of her. We have known her only a short time, since a family adopted her at age 15.

She was at our apartment when Z was taking a practice SAT math test. She had not heard of the SAT. She said her sister did not take it. But the friend didn’t want to sit around while Z took it, so she joined him.

I told her she should just take it for fun. Then I set the timer.

The two of them went to Starbucks while I scored the tests. Z didn’t even finish half the questions. I will have to get him extra time because of his brain injury. But his friend got 100%. I double checked. I couldn’t believe it.

I called them to tell her. She said, “Okay. Thanks for letting me know. See you back at the apartment.”

I prepared a bit to say to her when she got back. But she didn’t believe me that most kids don’t get a perfect score. Z confirmed that it’s true. She brushed us off

For about a month I took time when she was with Z to explain to her the ramifications of getting a perfect score as a Black, high school sophomore coming out of foster care. She didn’t believe me that people want kids like her at their college. It seemed preposterous to her.

But after that, it seemed like a burden to her. The mental shift for her was huge. I finally dropped the topic when she told me, “What I really want right now is me and my sister stay together with the new family.”

Of course: She can’t think about college when she is worried about having a home.

I’ve read about how the SAT is a great equalizer and that’s why MIT reinstated it after COVID. It was hard to see the test as an equalizer when I have been hiring so many tutors. But now I appreciate that MIT requires the SAT. Of course they can tell when it’s useful. It never occurred to me there are girls like my son’s friend – her extreme brilliance matched by her extreme fears.

The knowledge that she exist is hard to hold. I want it to be hard for you, too.

8 replies
  1. Sarah Fowler Wolfe
    Sarah Fowler Wolfe says:

    If she hasn’t already read it, I would give her Becoming by Michelle Obama. Wait a smidge until it wouldn’t be too pushy. But there’s a lot in there about smart poor kids, taking opportunity, etc. But home is absolutely most important for her right now, no question.

  2. me
    me says:


    I think kids who grow up to wealthy, connected parents will always have a structural advantage applying to college. The SAT has this too, but I think actually much less than most of the factors that go into college admission. I think even if you get a lot of tutoring and practice and so forth still only get about a 100 point boost. Which makes a difference but a kid that’s just really smart is still gonna crush your typical upper middle class kid.

    I think it’s also not surprising that it’s MIT who took this stand. Of a lot of the top schools, they’re one of the ones that has generally prioritized getting the most talented kids in over the most connected. (Caltech too, but they’re tiny.)

    I hope your son’s friend takes the SAT and applies to a bunch of colleges. Maybe the right way to frame it to her is “You can try to apply, if you don’t get in, you’re back where you started, no big deal.” Specifically try to make it low pressure not high pressure. This is probably a healthier attitude to have as a kid in the midst of the college admission process anyway.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      MIT doesn’t always choose the brightest. They pick people they think fit their culture. Test scores help but in the end, they pick students who appeal to them. I’m not speculating about this.

      • Penelope
        Penelope says:

        Every college does this. There’s no other way to build a community. And there’s no actual measurement of “brightest,” of course. The brightest of us know this. HAHAHAHAH


  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Most people I know who grew up poor and smart, like I did, would tell you the same thing: they wouldn’t have gone where they did without standardized tests. Without standardized tests, I would have been entirely at the mercy of my teachers’ assumptions about me – broken home, from the rural South, must be stupid. My scores got me out of that trap.

    I don’t believe colleges for a minute when they say getting rid of standardized tests makes entrance more fair. They’re just trying to pick the groups they want. Rich parents are going to figure out how to game any system they set up – their kids are always going to get in. Who do they want next in line? It’s not smart poor kids. So out with the tests.

    This girl is only 15, just a sophomore. She’s got some time to get used to the idea of going to college (and a year for her is like a decade for you). The most important thing you could tell her next is that the best colleges in the country might not just accept her but give her a full scholarship, because she probably doesn’t know that either. After that you could help her look at colleges that actually know how to support a kid like her – e.g. Amherst more so than Harvard.

    As much of a culture shock as it is for you that she doesn’t know how rare it is to ace the math section, it’s just as much of a culture shock to her to think about going to college.

  4. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Super smart, talented and strong people are all over the world in every race and economic level. The fact that everyone is so shocked is the real story. Because of her extremely difficult life, not much was expected. Never underestimate anyone’s abilities.

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I read an essay on Rob Henderson’s substack that made me think of this post.


    He included this information:

    Three percent of kids in the foster system graduate from college.

    Compare this with 38% of Americans overall.
    Compare this with 26% of Black Americans.
    Compare this with 21% of Hispanic Americans.
    Compare this with 11% of kids from families in the bottom income quintile.
    Compare this with 44% of gay women and 52% of gay men
    Again: Three percent of foster kids graduate from college. Three.


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