Ny Essay Advantage
New York, constituent state of the United States of America, one of the 13 original colonies and states. New York is bounded to the west and north by Lake Erie, the Canadian province of Ontario, Lake Ontario, and the Canadian province of Quebec; to the east by the New England states of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; to the southeast by the Atlantic Ocean and New Jersey; and to the south by Pennsylvania. The capital is Albany.
Until the 1960s New York was the country’s leading state in nearly all population, cultural, and economic indexes. Its displacement by California beginning in the middle of that decade was caused by the enormous growth rate that has persisted on the West Coast rather than by a large decline in New York itself. Texas overtook New York as the second most populous state in 2000. Still, New York remains one of the most populous states in the country, and its gross economic product exceeds those of all but a handful of countries throughout the world.
New York is situated across a region of contrast—from the Atlantic shores of Long Island and the skyscrapers of Manhattan through the rivers, mountains, and lakes of upstate New York to the plains of the Great Lakes region. With canals, railroads, and highways, New York is a principal gateway to the west from the Middle Atlantic and New England states and a hub for travel to and from much of the country. The cities of the state—from New York City through Albany, Utica, and Syracuse to Rochester and Buffalo on the Great Lakes—and their suburbs are home to more than four-fifths of all New Yorkers.
Both the New England and the Southern colonies had a great deal more to do with the movement toward revolution and with stabilizing the new country during its early decades than did New York, but, once the state’s growth got under way, it attained a breakneck pace. The state—and New York City in particular—remains the centre of much of the country’s economy and finance, as well as of many formative impulses in American art and culture, and the influence and image of both are major elements in national political life. However, the overwhelming presence of New York City has tended to divide the state socially and politically, causing long-standing problems for both the city and the state. Area 54,555 square miles (141,297 square km). Population (2010) 19,378,102; (2017 est.) 19,849,399.
Although New York state is inextricably linked with New York City in many people’s minds, the state has a wide range of geographic and climatic conditions. During at least a part of the last Ice Age, most of New York was covered by glaciers; the only exceptions were southern Long Island, Staten Island, and the far southwestern corner of the state.
The movement of the glaciers left New York with nine distinct physiographic regions. Each has its own characteristic landforms, with distinctive geologic structures and patterns of erosion. In the northeast the Adirondack upland is characterized by the highest and most rugged mountains in the state, reaching 5,344 feet (1,629 metres) at Mount Marcy and 5,114 feet (1,559 metres) at Algonquin Peak of Mount McIntyre. With the exception of some forestry activities, the region’s main economic value is for recreation. A large part of it has been designated as a wilderness preserve by the state.
The St. Lawrence Lowlands extend northeastward from Lake Ontario to the ocean along the boundary with Canada. Within this area are three subdivisions: a flat to gently rolling strip of land along the St. Lawrence River; a range of hills south and east of the plain; and, farther south and east, a long, narrow plain dotted with lakes.
The Hudson-Mohawk Lowland follows the Hudson River north from New York City to Albany and then turns west along the Mohawk River. The Hudson valley, between the Catskill Mountains on the west and the Taconic Range on the east, is from 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 km) wide; the Mohawk valley reaches widths of 30 miles (50 km). Those routes provided access from New York City and New England into the hinterland of New York. Cutting pathways through the mountains of central and western New York, these rivers became the state’s avenues of commerce, serving first as the basis of the Erie Canal and later as the route of the New York Central Railroad and of the Governor Thomas E. Dewey (New York State) Thruway.
To the east of the Hudson River lies the New England Upland, extending eastward into Massachusetts and Connecticut and southward across the lower Hudson valley into Pennsylvania.
Two small regions complete the geographic picture in southeastern New York. The Atlantic Coastal Plain, which extends from Massachusetts to Florida, takes in Long Island and Staten Island. A small finger of the eastern Piedmont region juts up from New Jersey for some distance along the west bank of the Hudson.
The Appalachian Highlands, the largest region in New York, comprises about one-half of the state, extending westward from the Hudson valley to the state’s southern and western boundaries. The Catskill Mountains (the peaks of which reach some 2,000 to 4,000 feet [600 to 1,200 metres]), the Finger Lakes Hills area, and the Delaware River basin are located in this region. The Catskills, with their mountains and lakes, are primarily a recreation area. The Finger Lakes region also provides many opportunities for summer and winter sports, and its valleys provide excellent grasslands for dairying. The Delaware basin is a mixed-farming area.
A plateaulike region known as the Erie-Ontario Lowlands lies to the north of the Appalachian Highlands and west of the Mohawk valley and extends along the southern shores of the Great Lakes. It is composed of lake plains bordering the Great Lakes that extend up to 30 miles (50 km) inland from the lakes. Because of the moderating influence of the lakes on the weather, the region has become an important fruit-growing area. Between the lake lowlands and the western reaches of the Adirondacks and north of Oneida Lake lies the Tug Hill Upland, which is one of the least-settled parts of the state because of its poor soil and drainage and its excessive winter snow conditions.
Among New York’s special geographic features are its two major shorelines: some 130 miles (210 km) bordering the Atlantic and 370 miles (600 km) on Lakes Erie and Ontario; in addition, the western shore of Lake Champlain stretches along the northeast corner of the state. The state also has some 8,000 lakes and 9 major rivers. The Hudson and Mohawk rivers have played the most important roles in the state’s history, but the Genesee and Oswego, flowing northward into Lake Ontario, also have been important. The Delaware, Susquehanna, and Allegheny drain the southern and western portions of the state and provide a large part of New York City’s water supply. The East River connects Long Island Sound with New York Bay and separates Long Island and Manhattan. The most dramatic of the waterfalls that dot the state is Niagara Falls, a source of much hydroelectric power as well as one of the major scenic attractions of the Northeast.
New York soils can be grouped into categories based on their parent material. One of the most productive groups is found in regions of lime-rich glacial till. Where drainage is good and the terrain not too steep, these soils are excellent for agriculture. They occur in a broad belt across the state and into the Hudson valley. Another lime-rich soil group is found in areas that were formerly glacial lake beds, such as the Erie-Ontario Lowlands and large parts of the Hudson and St. Lawrence valleys. Soils of this group are fine-textured and are characterized by level topography. Where drainage is not a problem, these soils are quite suitable for agriculture. Alluvial soils, formed from the sediments of glacial meltwater and the floodwaters of present-day streams, are found in many valley bottoms, especially in the Appalachian Highlands and along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. Most of Long Island is also covered by alluvial soils, which often have excellent productive potential. Other soils less suitable for agriculture are derived from lime-poor glacial till, such as those north of the major limestone outcroppings near Lake Ontario, or from material that is too shallow or coarse, such as those in the rugged mountainous areas of the state or in the sandy region west and north of Albany.
The early Dutch settlers found that New York’s climate fell far short of their expectations. Since Manhattan is actually Mediterranean in latitude, these early settlers were rather bewildered to encounter its snowy, freezing winter weather. If Manhattan was uncomfortably cold and wet in the winter months, the rest of the state must have been an even greater disappointment.
Average July temperatures range from 77 °F (25 °C) in New York City to 64 °F (18 °C) at Indian Lake in the Adirondacks; averages in January range from 33 °F (0.5 °C) on Long Island to 14 °F (−10 °C) at Stillwater Reservoir in the Adirondacks. These figures represent the extremes, but there are substantial differences in climate between New York City and upstate Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. A tendency to cloudiness across the state results in few completely clear days.
Precipitation ranges from 32 to 45 inches (810 to 1,140 mm) a year, with the Catskills receiving the greatest amount, while the Erie-Ontario Lowlands receive the least. The region around Syracuse receives an unusual amount of lake-effect snow (an annual average of about 115 inches [2,900 mm]) because of its location near Lake Ontario; the Buffalo area, on Lake Erie, is also renowned for its annual heavy snowfalls (averaging some 95 inches [2,400 mm]).
Plant and animal life
More than three-fifths of New York state is forested woodland. Some 150 kinds of trees, including such southern species as the tulip tree (yellow poplar) and sweet gum, are found in the state. Most woodland, however, is dominated by a small number of northern hardwoods, chiefly beeches and sugar maples in association with species of ash, basswood, cherry, birch, red maple, oak, and, occasionally, conifers such as white pine and hemlock. The spruce-fir association found in extensive parts of the Adirondacks and the largely oak-dominated forests in southeastern New York are the major exceptions to the northern hardwood forests.
Small mammals such as deer mice, eastern cottontails, snowshoe hares, woodchucks, gray squirrels, muskrats, and raccoons are common. Larger mammals include white-tailed deer, beavers, and black bears. New York is host to numerous migratory birds. Year-round residents include eastern meadowlarks, American goldfinches, cardinals, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, bluejays, several kinds of woodpeckers and owls, red-tailed hawks, ruffed grouses, mallards, and common house sparrows, introduced to North America from Europe in the early 1850s.
Since the colonial period much of New York’s growth has resulted from immigration, both from other states and from abroad. Before the American Revolution the Dutch, English, Scots, and Germans were the primary settlers; they were followed in the first half of the 19th century by New Englanders spreading across developing parts of upstate New York and into Westchester county and northern Long Island. The influx of European immigrants came first from the northern and central parts of the Continent and later from southern countries.
The primary countries of origin are Italy, parts of the former Soviet Union (notably, Russia and Ukraine), Poland, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Many of today’s New Yorkers either are foreign-born or have parents who were born abroad, and a significant percentage of people are from a great number of other parts of the world besides Europe and Canada. Nearly half of the population is Roman Catholic, and about one-tenth is Jewish.
The nonwhite portion of the population grew significantly during the 20th century. The first large-scale influx of African Americans from the Southern states occurred during World War I, but it was small compared with the migration that occurred during and after World War II. In 1940 only 4.4 percent of the population was nonwhite, but by the beginning of the 21st century the proportion had increased to about one-sixth, concentrated in the state’s metropolitan areas and, within those areas, in the central cities. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many immigrants of African descent came from diverse areas in the Caribbean and Africa, and they represent different religions, linguistic groups, and social backgrounds.
Puerto Ricans are another group that has had a significant impact on the economy and culture of New York since World War II. Economic depression in Puerto Rico led to heavy migration to the continental United States, chiefly to New York, during the 1950s and early ’60s. Later economic recovery resulted in a considerable reduction in migration, the number of entrants being largely offset by the number of returnees to Puerto Rico. Several hundred thousand people of Puerto Rican origin now reside in the state, mostly in New York City. Dominicans and other Latinos have added to the number of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The cultural and social distinctions between various parts of New York state have diminished. Upstate cities, for example, are nearly as varied ethnically as New York City. Certain cultural and social characteristics introduced by early settlers remain visible and, to some degree, still influence lifestyles. During the colonial period and for a number of years after the American Revolution, New England was a major source of migrants to New York, and there are traces of the New England influence, particularly in the architecture and small-town planning of the northern shore of Long Island and in northern Westchester county. The Dutch influence around Albany remains in little more than place-names and street names, plus some preserved or rehabilitated Dutch architecture. German and Scottish settlers have left their mark in the Schoharie valley and parts of the Hudson and Mohawk valleys (German), in Orange and Ulster counties, and in the Cherry Valley area (Scottish).
The distinction between upstate and downstate is normally along political lines—upstate, conservative; downstate, liberal. Political differences are matched by social differences. Downstate is divided between New York City and the suburbs, and within the city differences between the boroughs are important. Although Manhattan has many low-income residents, it is more characterized as a centre for sophisticated lifestyles and liberal politics. In the outer boroughs are relatively stable ethnic neighbourhoods and communities in the process of changing their ethnic or racial makeup; they tend to be more conservative than those in Manhattan but generally are oriented toward the Democratic Party. The suburbs are dominated by white middle- and high-income families living in detached houses, though the income spread in the suburbs has increased, and the inner suburbs are beginning to resemble the city’s outer boroughs.
The rural upstate areas must be distinguished from the upstate cities and their suburbs. Rural New York remains conservative both politically and socially. The city regions vary from relatively sophisticated Rochester, with its heavy concentration of white-collar technical and managerial employees, to the more conservative Syracuse–central New York area. Buffalo, with its emphasis on heavy industry, has a large blue-collar population.
Beginning in the 20th century, much internal migration took place within the state. Higher- and middle-income whites moved to the suburbs, leaving low-income whites and African Americans within the central cities. Likewise, much economic activity, notably manufacturing and the headquarters of corporations, also moved to the suburbs. This movement of people and economic activity resulted in an urban crisis familiar across the United States: an increasing need for the cities to combat crime and other symptoms of poverty, coupled with the removal of the social and economic resources to do so. Although New York City’s population began rebounding in the late 20th century and the economic strength of the state’s large metropolitan areas generally has been growing, the cities’ poor increasingly have been unable to participate in the prosperity and seem likely to slip still farther behind.
New York state’s economy ranks among the largest in the world and accounts for a significant portion of the gross domestic product of the United States. In addition, since the early 21st century, New York’s economic policy has improved its business climate by encouraging the building of new and expanded corporate facilities and increasing the number of new jobs. However, in many ways New York’s economy is similar to those of the other Northeastern states. The service sector predominates, though manufacturing is also important. Although the economies of other states are growing more rapidly, New York still has great economic strength. The state has, for example, a complex network of nearly every form of transportation. Its resources of electrical power for domestic and commercial use are enormous, including conventional coal- and oil-burning thermal plants, hydroelectricity from the Niagara region, and a large nuclear capability.
State government plays both regulatory and promotional roles in the economy. The Public Service Commission controls the rates charged by public utilities, and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal encourages the development of affordable housing and community preservation programs. The Department of Commerce aids in attracting new economic activity to the state, providing information and assistance to industries seeking to locate there, giving financial support to local communities interested in developing industrial parks, and offering other incentives to encourage the location of more industries within such areas.
New York tends to have somewhat lower unemployment rates during downturns in the national economy than does the rest of the country, but it also recovers less rapidly. This is largely a result of the state’s economic mix and its heavy dependence on nonmanufacturing activities.
Almost one-fourth of New York’s workforce is unionized, about double the national average. Unionization has grown rapidly in the service sector among such government employees as teachers, sanitation workers, police, and firefighters. The nature of labour-management relations varies considerably from industry to industry, with workers in construction and the garment and apparel industries wielding great power. The state legislature frequently devotes attention to the field of labour relations, particularly public-sector employee relations.
Farmland covers nearly one-third of the state’s land area; about three-fifths of New York’s farmland is cropland. Dairying is the most important source of farm income, providing more than one-half of the total. Other important sources of farm income are poultry and eggs, livestock products, fruits, vegetables, and field crops. The state raises a variety of horticultural specialties, including nursery products, crops grown in greenhouses, flower bulbs, and seeds, and it competes with Vermont in the production of maple sugar. The fruit and vegetable farms supply the food-processing industry with such products as apples, cherries, peaches, currants, strawberries, tomatoes, peas, beans, sweet corn, and cabbage. There is also a long-standing winemaking tradition that began commercially in the state in the early 1800s. New York is one of the country’s largest wine producers; particularly well known for their wines are the Hudson valley and Finger Lakes regions.
Manufacturing, services, and taxation
A declining proportion of New York’s workforce is engaged in manufacturing activities. In 1947 more than one-third of the state’s employed population was in manufacturing, but by the early 21st century that proportion had dropped to only about one-tenth of the total. New York’s service and manufacturing economy remains diverse. It includes financial services; printing and publishing; fashion, apparel, and textiles; food processing; optics and imaging instruments; computer hardware and software; biomedical and chemical products; industrial, electric, and electronic machinery and systems; and transportation equipment and distribution services.
There is some economic specialization within different parts of the state. Services and activities related to finance, insurance, and real estate are more concentrated in the New York City metropolitan area than in upstate New York. Buffalo is strong in heavy industry, while Rochester dominates the manufacture of photographic and optical equipment and is primarily responsible for the state’s strong position in instrument production.
Syracuse ranks high in the state in the production of primary metals, machinery, and paper and allied products, as well as in educational employment. The Utica-Rome area specializes in machinery and primary metals, while the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area is strong in the production of paper and allied products. Albany, as the state capital, leads in government employment. Binghamton, the site of a forerunner of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), has a concentration of employment in the computer and business-machine field.
New York state residents pay one of the highest per capita tax rates in the United States, a system made possible by the state’s relatively healthy economic base. The state imposes income, sales, business, and excise taxes. Local revenues are derived mainly from property and sales taxes. The broad state base plus the widespread use of local sales taxes allows New York to rely less on local property taxes than do other large or heavily populated states. Since the late 20th century, the size of New York’s government has been reduced through consolidation and privatization, prompting a series of tax cuts designed to make the state more competitive economically.
A great part of New York’s economic advantage is its location on important natural transportation routes and facilities that connect urban centres within and without the state.
The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, tied New York City and its port to Buffalo and the westward-expanding country. The main railroad system followed the route of the canal, with feeder lines that jutted north and south into the remainder of the state. After World War II the limited-access Thruway stretched from New York to the Pennsylvania state line, passing through Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. The basic paths of these main transportation routes are not substantially different from those that were used by the state’s original settlers.
With the completion in 1918 of the New York State Barge Canal System (now called the New York State Canal System), which incorporated the old Erie Canal, New York had the country’s most extensive inland waterway system. The canal system stretches some 520 miles (840 km) and has more than 50 locks. Although it is an important means for moving bulk goods—particularly petroleum products, a major share of the freight hauled—the tonnage it carries annually has dropped considerably.
The railways first challenged the supremacy of the canal as a carrier of goods. Beginning in the mid-19th century with the establishment of the New York Central Railroad, a system was built that tied New York’s major cities to Chicago, Boston, Montreal, and other urban centres. Although the number of passengers carried has declined, the railroads remain important handlers of freight. Much of this freight originates via the facilities of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, still one of the largest and busiest port complexes in the United States, handling about one-tenth of all the country’s imports and a large proportion of all immigrants to the United States.
Central to the highway system are the limited-access highways. The Thruway connects at Albany to the Adirondack Northway, which extends northward to Canada. In central New York a major highway runs from the Pennsylvania state line to Canada, passing through Binghamton, Syracuse, and Watertown. At Syracuse this route intersects with the Thruway, maintaining the city as a transportation hub and accounting in large part for its economic viability. Another limited-access expressway extends across the southern tier of the state. On Long Island a set of east-west highways ties the island to New York City, New England, and upstate New York.
The New York City metropolitan area, with its combination of subways, buses, and railroads, has the most complex commuter system in the country. The vast New York transit system provides intracity passenger transport. Commuter railroads serve suburban Long Island, Westchester county, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Many of these transportation networks were brought under the control of a single agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in 1968.
The three largest airports in the New York City metropolitan area are John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia, and Newark Liberty International, in New Jersey. Other airports providing national and international service are located in Albany, Buffalo, Islip, Rochester, and Syracuse, among others, and the state has a number of regional and county airports.
Taking the SATs is not something to do lightly. Nevertheless, on a frigid Saturday morning not long ago, I found myself filing into a classroom with twenty sleep-deprived teen-agers. One of the girls was carrying two giant SAT review books studded with pink Post-its. I couldn’t decide whether she’d brought them along to do some last-minute studying or to intimidate the competition. We’d been assigned to a chemistry classroom, and its walls were covered with placards offering a variety of emergency-evacuation instructions and motivational sayings.
“If you aim for nowhere, that’s just where you’ll go,” one poster observed.
“Some days you’re the pigeon,” another, written in runny, guano-colored letters, said. “Some days you’re the statue.”
The proctor, who herself seemed oddly nervous, handed around the tests and the answer booklets. After issuing a series of warnings, which she read word for word from a script, she told us that we’d have twenty-five minutes to complete the first section of the exam—the essay question. The last time I took the SATs, there was no essay. Fortunately, though, I’d been warned about this development, along with many others, by Debbie Stier, the author of “The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT” (Harmony). At the age of forty-six, Stier decided to devote herself full time to the test, with the goal of achieving the maximum possible score of 2400. My hopes were modest: I was looking to avoid humiliation. What this meant in numerical terms, I’d resolved to leave unspecified.
On this particular day, the essay question involved progress—does it require struggle and conflict? According to Stier, the key to scoring well on the essay is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” she counsels. Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog.
I considered my options. I wanted to argue against the question’s very premise; who can even really say what progress is? Then I realized that everyone else was already scribbling away, so I ditched that idea and went with the obvious: “No pain, no gain.” I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”—I made something up.
Next there were some vocabulary questions, and then a math section. The girl with the review books was sitting directly behind me. We must have been given different tests, because, whenever I was trying to read, she was clicking away loudly on her calculator. By around the fifth section—grammar for me, more math for her—I was starting to flag. I felt increasingly at a disadvantage, and not just because the last time I reckoned the surface area of a cylinder my fellow test-takers had not yet been born. As the morning wore on, they seemed to be growing perkier, while I was suffering from caffeine deprivation. My sixth section was math, with free-response questions of a sort that also hadn’t existed when I went to high school. One problem involved finding the coördinates of the point where two lines on a graph would intersect. Only one of the lines had been drawn, and I knew that to answer the question I needed to figure out the slope of the second. But I couldn’t, and I had to leave the answer blank. Then I had to leave another answer blank. Soon I came to a reading section, with a long passage about writing and running by Haruki Murakami. Was this passage “analyzing an activity” or “challenging an assumption”? Both seemed valid. Was a phrase in a second reading passage “speculative” or “ironic” or “defensive”? Damned if I knew. By the time I got to the tenth section, I was zonked. That’s when I made a dreaded bubbling error. I started to fill in my responses in the part of the answer booklet reserved for section nine. I went to erase the errant marks, but then I wasn’t sure how many I needed to get rid of. In the confusion, I felt my chances of getting into the college of my choice slip away, which, considering the circumstances, says a lot about the power of the SATs.
Stier, a divorced mother of two who lives in Irvington, New York, decided to take up the SATs for the same reason we all do foolish things: out of love. Her oldest child, Ethan, a B student with modest athletic abilities (yet several minor concussions), was a sophomore in high school. Stier, in her words, was “beginning to feel frantic.” Ethan would soon be applying to college, but what were his chances of getting into a good one?
“A possibility presented itself,” she writes. “Ethan could study for the SAT, earn high scores, and get a scholarship at a decent school.” There was just one hitch: Ethan wasn’t interested in studying for the SAT. He preferred playing Halo. So Stier thought she would model the behavior she was hoping to inspire: “I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.” Initially, she intended to sample a different test-preparation method each month, but her “project” kept growing, or metastasizing, until she determined to take the SAT each of the seven times it was offered in the course of the calendar year. She’d try taking the exams at seven different schools, to see if desk size or classroom configuration had any impact on her results. “Not too far into it I got a teensy bit crazed,” she writes.
Before embarking on her quest, Stier’s only experience with the SAT was the sort that most students have, or at least had: she’d taken the exam just once, in 1982, when she was in high school. As almost anyone Stier’s age will recall, SAT scores then came in two parts—verbal and math—with a maximum combined value of 1600. (The three-part test, with a top score of 2400, was introduced in 2005.) Stier had received a 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math, scores she characterizes as “very bad.” Still, she attended Bennington College and went on to a successful career as a book publicist. That Ethan might try to follow a similar trajectory is precisely what has her concerned.
“The land I would be sending my little tadpole into was a different place,” she writes. No longer, she’s concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community: “The days when you could la-di-dah your way out of Bennington” and into “a guaranteed starter job in the industry—a job, not an internship—were gone.”
Stier’s worries about Ethan are quickly transferred to the exam he’s not worrying about. She signs up for a Kaplan online course, which she ends up hating “every minute of.” She buys a Barnes & Noble’s worth of review books: “Dr. John Chung’s SAT Math,” “A-Plus Notes for Beginning Algebra,” “The New Math SAT Game Plan,” “Kaplan SAT 2400,” “Kaplan SAT Strategies for Super Busy Students,” “Kaplan SAT Strategies, Practice & Review,” “Outsmarting the SAT,” “The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar,” “PWN the SAT: Math Guide,” and the College Board’s “Official SAT Study Guide,” which is known as “The Blue Book.” She Skypes with a tutor named Stacey in Seattle; undertakes a regimen called Cogmed, which is supposed to improve her memory; and meets with a tutor named Erica in New York City. Throughout it all, she frets.
“There was anxiety everywhere,” she writes of the run-up to her first SAT of the year. “My anxiety level was soaring,” she observes of the approach to the second. “I started to panic,” she says, recalling the weeks leading up to the third.
Somewhere between the fourth SAT and the fifth, Stier’s project very nearly collapses, along with her family life. It’s summer, when no SATs are offered, and Stier decides this would be a good time for her and Ethan and Ethan’s younger sister, Daisy, to work together on their math skills. She brings the kids to a local tutoring center so they can all take a diagnostic exam. Apparently, the two teen-agers have not been consulted about this plan, because they react with fury. Stier, in turn, is enraged by their behavior. Harsh words are exchanged. That night, the kids decamp to their father’s house. Some days later, they reappear, but bad feelings linger.
“Ironically,” Stier observes, “it was now time for Ethan to begin studying for the SAT in earnest, and we were barely speaking.” Bowed but not broken, she returns to the tutoring center alone. There she learns from Jennifer, the preternaturally patient woman who runs the place, that she has tested at a third-grade level. Stier requests extra practice sheets so she can quickly work her way up to high-school math. Instead, she gets bogged down on long division.
“ ‘How long till the polynomials?’ I’d always ask Jennifer,” she recalls. “ ‘Not for a long time,’ Jennifer would say.”
The SATs were administered for the first time on June 23, 1926. Intelligence testing was a new but rapidly expanding enterprise; during the First World War, the United States Army had given I.Q. tests to nearly two million soldiers to determine who was officer material. (Walter Lippmann dismissed these tests as “quackery in a field where quacks breed like rabbits.”) The SAT’s inventor, a Princeton professor named Carl Campbell Brigham, had worked on the Army’s I.Q. test, and the civilian exam he came up with was a first cousin to the military’s. It contained some questions on math and some on identifying shapes. Mostly, though, it focussed on vocabulary. Brigham intended the test to be administered to students who had already been admitted to college, for the purposes of guidance and counselling. Later, he argued that it was foolish to believe, as he once had, that the test measured “native intelligence.” Rather, he wrote, scores were an index of a person’s “schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else.”
By this point, though, the test had already been adopted for a new purpose. In 1933, James Bryant Conant, a chemist, became the president of Harvard. Conant, the product of a middle-class family, was dismayed by what he saw as the clubbiness of the school’s student body and set out to attract fresh talent. In particular, he wanted to recruit bright young men from public schools in the Midwest, few of whom traditionally applied to Harvard. Conant’s plan was to offer scholarships to ten such students each year. To select them, he decided to employ the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann observes in his book “The Big Test” (1999), this was one of those small decisions “from which great consequences later flow.” Not long after Harvard started using the SAT, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale followed suit. More and more colleges adopted the test until, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half a million kids a year were taking it.
In the early decades of the test, scores were revealed only to schools, not to students. This made it difficult to assess the claim made by the College Board, the exam’s administrator, that studying for the SATs would serve no purpose. Still, a brash young high-school tutor named Stanley Kaplan concluded, based on the feedback he was getting from his pupils, that the claim was a crock. Kaplan began offering SAT prep classes out of his Brooklyn basement. Accusations that he was a fraud and a “snake oil salesman” failed to deter his clientele; the students just kept on coming. In the nineteen-seventies, Kaplan expanded his operations into cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami; this is when the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate his claims. The commission found that Kaplan was right: tutoring did boost scores, if not by as much as his testing service advertised. The College Board implicitly conceded the point in 1994, when it changed the meaning of the SAT’s central “A”; instead of “aptitude” it came to stand for “assessment.” Then the board took the even more radical step of erasing the meaning of the name altogether. Today, the letters “SAT” stand for nothing more (or less) than the SATs. As the Lord put it to Moses, “I am that I am.”
The premise of Stier’s “project” makes Kaplan look like a piker. Her high-school SAT scores put her below the national average among test-takers in 1982. Three decades later, she’s proposing to loft herself into the upper reaches of the ninety-ninth percentile. (Stier can never quite figure out why there isn’t a hundredth percentile.) Out of the more than one and a half million students who now take the SATs each year, fewer than five hundred will earn a “perfect” score. These are, Stier concedes, daunting statistics, and at one point she considers scaling back to “The Higher Score Project.” But she rejects this idea after Daisy and Ethan accuse her of setting the bar too low.
Since Kaplan set up shop, test-prep tutoring has come out of the basement. It’s now a billion-dollar industry whose primary product is heartache: college admission is, after all, a zero-sum game.
What might be called the Institute for Advanced Study of tutoring services is a Manhattan-based operation called Advantage Testing. Advantage’s tutors hold Ph.D.s from Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, and its rates can run as high as seven hundred and ninety-five dollars for fifty minutes. (A friend of mine who has worked for Advantage told me the tutors there get paid according to an algorithm based, in part, on how many points their pupils’ scores increase. My friend’s own personal best was an eight-hundred-and-twenty-point jump.) During her yearlong quest, Stier is repeatedly advised to go to Advantage—“Everyone uses them,” a real-estate mogul she knows tells her—but she balks at the price. Finally, with less than three weeks to go, she decides she’s got to try it. “By that point, I would have considered refinancing my home,” she writes. Advantage, however, will not assign her a tutor on such short notice. After considerable noodging, the president of the company, Arun Alagappan, agrees to meet with her. He tells her that the whole premise of her project—sampling a different method of test prep each month—is misguided; successful preparation requires a sustained approach. This critique only makes her that much more desperate to sample Advantage’s method. At last, Alagappan relents, and Stier spends the last two weeks of her project camped out in Advantage’s office. She comes to feel so at home there that when other students arrive for their sessions she buzzes them in.
What does all this “struggle and conflict” accomplish? The first scores Stier receives as an “adult tester” show that four years of college and twenty-plus in the publishing industry have considerably boosted her sentence-completion skills; before any prep, she scores a 610 on the writing section and a 680 on critical reading. At first, it seems that her math score—a 510—has also improved, but this turns out to be an artifact of the curve. Thanks to a generalized decline in scores, the College Board in 1995 “recentered” the exam. As a result, Stier’s original 480 in math has been pushed up by thirty points, so officially her new number and her old one are equivalent.
In subsequent SATs, Stier continues to make progress. By her third exam, she’s lifted her scores to a 700 on the writing section, a 690 in reading, and a 530 in math. Her scores keep on climbing until, on her fifth exam, she does reach perfection, or a least a third of it—an 800 on the writing section. On that test, she gets a 740 in reading and a 560 in math. This turns out to be Stier’s peak. All of her scores drop in the sixth exam, and two of them drop again in the seventh. She ends the project on a note of frustration. She’s spent an entire year bisecting angles and factoring quadratics; still, her final math score, 530, is, by her own account, mediocre. “Oooofff,” she says of it.
The morning I took the SATs, none of the other test-takers paid much attention to me. Probably this was because they were preoccupied with the exam, but it may have been because adults are to teen-agers just too weird to bother about. The only person to comment on the oddity of the situation was one of the security guards posted by the bathrooms, who cheered me on. “You go, Mom!” he called out during one of the breaks.
As an adult, I found the test more difficult than I had as a teen and, at the same time, more disappointing. Many of the questions were tricky; some were genuinely hard. But, even at its most challenging, the exercise struck me as superficial. Critical thinking was never called for, let alone curiosity or imagination. Ironically—or was it defensively?—this was most apparent to me while I was blathering on about the Manhattan Project. A study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score. When, at Advantage Testing, Stier is shown essays that have received top marks, she is horrified. They are, she writes, “terrible.”
Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. It’s not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students’ scores to boost the school’s ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills—and really only those skills—necessary for the SATs. ♦