Keeping the SAT Drama to a Minimum

As if getting myself into college hadn’t been difficult enough, now I’m embarking on the adventure of navigating my son through the process. I call it an “adventure,” because it truly is nothing less — a roller-coaster ride fraught with sudden turns, unexpected pitfalls, one-mistake-and-you’re-doomed scenarios. I’m sure there’s a spine-tingling reality show possibility here, something between “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Extreme Makeover: How to Survive Getting Your Kid Into College Without Getting Fired and Still Looking Fabulous.” You start with 20 Jewish mothers and see who’s not in therapy by the time acceptance letters arrive.

Luckily, I know plenty of moms who have treaded these waters before — many of my friends have kids who are already in college or at least thoroughly enmeshed in college entrance preparation.

“Are you signing Mickey up for the PSAT next month?” my friend Ginny asked. (Mickey is a high school sophomore).

“He just took a PSAT a few weeks ago,” I said.

“That was the practice PSAT,” Ginny explained.

“There’s a practice, practice PSAT?”

“No, a practice, practice SAT.”

“OK,” I got a pen and paper to draft a quick flowchart. “So, first they take a preliminary test to practice for the Practice-SAT.”

“That’s right! And then they’ll do better on the PSAT, which is important because that one counts.”

“But it’s just practice. What does it count for?”

“I don’t know, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t. Well, it doesn’t now, but it will later.”

“Does he have to take it now?”


“Then when would he take it?”

“In his junior year, right before the SAT. In fact, he probably should wait because he’ll do better on it next year after a year of practice.”

“Practicing what? He already took the practice PSAT. If he doesn’t take the PSAT, what’s he going to practice?” I ripped my flowchart into pieces.

“He’ll take a practice course at school.”

“He will?”

“Or you’ll get him a private SAT tutor.”

“I will?”

“If you want him to get into a good college….”

“Hold on,” I said. I stuffed three Oreos into my mouth and washed them down with cold coffee. My tentative grip on teenager management was about to come loose, sending me plunging into a deep chasm where all my accomplishments as a mother would wither, and my son’s life would unravel, because I couldn’t understand the structure of college entrance exam signups.

Ginny could hear the panic in my voice.

“Julie,” she said, “you’re eating cookies again, aren’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” I mumbled, trying to keep the chocolate crumbs in my mouth.

“Listen,” she said reassuringly, “it’s not that complicated. The kids can pick up the information in the college center at school. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you know what I’m doing as I do it, and you can just copy me….”

That was exactly what I needed — a virtual guidance counselor who could tell me what to do and when to do it. Then I would just cooperate and follow along.

Applying to college was not this complicated 25(ish) years ago. I think I took a PSAT. I know I took the SAT. I took it one time. I did relatively well. I got into UCLA. But times have changed. If I packaged up my high school transcripts and SAT score today, UCLA probably would laugh my application right out of the admissions building.

While everyone agrees that getting into college is more difficult and complex than it was a generation ago, most acknowledge that parents and kids need to step back, set realistic goals and try to relieve some of that SAT trauma and drama.

No one sees more distress over scores than Wendy Gilbertson, a partner with Coast 2 Coast College Admissions, a certified college consulting company.

“Scores are important,” Gilbertson said, “but students have much more to offer than just a test score. Most colleges seek well-rounded kids, and they look at many other factors when considering applicants.”

If a student is concerned about improving his or her score, then a prep course is very helpful.

“But it’s usually best if parents are not overly involved in that process,” Gilbertson said. “Kids will be more motivated if they are accountable to a third party and not to mom or dad.”

Students should be open-minded when considering where they want to submit their applications. Marc Mayerson, an assistant dean at UCLA, explained that a narrow band of elite colleges, including the Ivy Leagues and several UC campuses, are overwhelmed by the number of applications they receive.

“When a college receives 35,000 to 50,000 applications for only 5,000 freshman spots or even much fewer, the admissions staff must weed out applications with gross measures, and those measures often include SAT scores,” he said.

The good news is that there are hundreds of excellent colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad that do not weigh entrance exam scores as heavily as the larger, more well-known schools that many California kids have their hearts set on.

“One of the biggest mistakes high school seniors make is that they convince themselves that only an Ivy League or a particular university is the right school for them,” Mayerson said. “By considering a few more schools, they can alleviate much of the stress and anxiety for themselves and for their parents.”

Feel better? I know I do. But I suggest you keep a few packs of your favorite cookies in the cupboard, just in case.

For information on test schedules and other things to keep you up at night, go to

E-tickets and a Tanach

This year, back-to-school shopping for my son, Zack, includes the requisite binders, notebooks and

new pair of sneakers. It also includes two sets of extra-long sheets, a Tanach and a plane ticket to the East Coast.

For this year, on Aug. 26, Zack is traveling from Southern California to the northwest corner of Massachusetts to spend the next four years at Williams College. My husband, Larry, and son, Jeremy, 13, are accompanying him to school, helping him move into the dorm. "You mean we’re leaving him there?" Jeremy asks, incredulous.

Yes, we’ve all been so enmeshed in the process — choosing potential colleges; taking SAT I, SAT II and AP tests; waiting for the acceptance letters; making a final decision — that none of us has processed its significance.

The fact that Zack will never return home as a permanent resident; that our family will be altered in ways we cannot fathom; and that, despite his insistence that he’s not going to Williams to get away from us, Zack may elect to remain on the East Coast.

After 18 years of child-rearing — from changing diapers to enforcing curfews, from making thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to carpooling thousands of miles — I expected to be rejoicing at this partial glimpse of an empty nest. The fact that I sobbed through Zack’s entire high school graduation is a good indication I was mistaken.

The hard reality is that Zack, who seemingly just entered kindergarten, is an adult. He can legally vote, be drafted, serve on a jury and buy a lottery ticket. He can even marry. The hard reality is that, for the most part, his personality, values and habits are set. There is little more that Larry and I can do.

But I don’t worry about what kind of kid I’m sending out into the world. I’m confident that Zack, even though he doesn’t know the purpose of a clothes hamper or the concept of gracious capitulation, is affable and adaptable, motivated and moral. But, and maybe this is a post-Sept. 11 phenomenon, I do worry about what kind of world I’m sending him into.

And while I hope that Zack takes advantage of the many diverse cultural, political and social opportunities that Williams College and life on the East Coast offer, I also hope that he will continue to actively participate in Jewish life, to anchor him in these disturbing times and provide him with a caring and familiar community. Williams, for a rural liberal-arts college, has "a thriving Jewish life," according to the college’s president, Morton Schapiro.

With the Jewish population remaining steady at slightly more than 10 percent, Williams supports a large Jewish Religious Center, built in 1990, and an active Jewish Association, which sponsors Shabbat dinners and services, lectures, and cultural and social events. It also sponsors the popular hamentaschen/latke debate, held every Purim and attended by non-Jewish as well as Jewish students and staff. "The Jews now are much more committed than the Jews who used to come to Williams," Schapiro says.

But what happens to those committed Jews during their four years at college? Will Zack take a vacation from Judaism, I wonder. Will he explore Buddhism? Or Wicca?

"I don’t think so," he says emphatically.

"America’s Jewish Freshman," a recently released UCLA study sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the largest research project ever to examine the religious, political and personal beliefs of college-aged Jews.

Among other findings, the study found that Jewish college freshmen attend fewer religious services and feel less spiritual than their non-Jewish peers.

But it profiles those 18-year-olds who are entering their first year of college, and, according to Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel, there are no broad-based, longitudinal studies that address what happens during those four years at college. But, as Rubin reassuringly says, "The most important indicator of Jewish identity is whether or not the parents take Judaism seriously. If they do, eventually the children do as well."

And 13 years of Jewish day school, other studies show, certainly can’t hurt. Nevertheless, I’m taking no chances. I’m sending Zack back to school with his tallit and a new Tanach. "And a compass," Zack reminds me. The compass is his idea, evolving from a "Leaving Home" ceremony he created for his Jewish studies class this past year at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. A ritual that, sadly, Judaism does not yet provide at his critical juncture.

In Zack’s ceremony, the young adult renews the brit, or covenant between the Jewish people and God.

The parents then present the young adult with a special compass that always points East, toward Jerusalem, and recite the following blessing, which he composed: "As you go out into the world, remember that you are a Jew. You have special obligations, mitzvot, that others cannot always understand. There is a lot of evil out there; there are things that will make you ask very challenging questions. At times you may find yourself lost. When that happens, reach for you compass. It is always pointing towards the East, symbolic of the path to Jerusalem."

Unfortunately, such a compass has not yet been invented. But Larry and I have improvised, presenting Zack with a normal compass that will always indicate which direction is East. It will also show him which direction is West, where his family and close friends live. And where, at the end of four years, we hope he will return.