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Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

The Valedictorian at Princeton University

The valedictorian at Princeton University almost every year is a student who majored in math, engineering or one of the sciences, not a student who majored in the liberal arts. Why? The answer makes sense if you think about it.

The subject matter of math, engineering and the sciences tends to be more objective, or black and white, than that of the liberal arts. In a math class, for example, every homework, quiz, test and final exam problem will have a single correct answer. All a student needs to do is calculate and record the correct answer for every problem and he/she will receive full credit. If you are a super math genius, you can earn an A+ in every math class, regardless of whether your teachers like you or recognize your brilliance.

Conversely, the subject matter of the liberal arts tends to be more subjective, or gray. In an English class, for example, the professor’s opinion of your written work and class participation is, ultimately, what determines your final grade. Simply being a literary genius who writes well and participates in class will not guarantee an A+ in every English class. So even if you are a genius who works hard and participates thoughtfully and enthusiastically, during your four years in college you will encounter at least one professor who fails to recognize your talent, does not like you, or both. If that professor decides to give you an A- or an A, rather than an A+, your chances of finishing first in your class decrease dramatically.

You now know why Princeton’s valedictorian is usually a student who majored in math, engineering or the sciences. But how will knowing this help you prepare and do well on the SAT?

First, remember that the math section is objective. Each multiple choice question has exactly one correct answer and exactly four incorrect answers. This means that with proper preparation, you can train yourself to maximize your math score by (a) getting every problem you answer right and (b) leaving the rest blank. In other words, it is possible to know the difference between when you have arrived at the correct answer and when you have failed to truly understand the problem.

Second, remember that both the critical reading section and the writing section are subjective. Some questions will have two plausible answer choices. This means that even with proper preparation, you may, on any given question, find yourself torn between two answer choices that both seem to work. Trust me, regardless of which one you pick, you will be in good company because a bunch of other really smart kids will pick the same one as you. Get used to the idea that within every critical reading section and every writing section, there will be a handful of problems that force you to choose between two that seem to work. Thus, you should not be surprised when it happens. Just follow your gut, answer, and move on to the next question. The good news is that there is what I call wiggle room in both the critical reading section and the writing section. This means that you do not have to get every question right in either section in order to score an 800 in that section.

To summarize: When preparing for the math section of the SAT, train yourself to know the difference between when you truly understand a problem and when you do not. Remember, the math section is very objective. There is one right answer for each problem. Answer every one you truly understand and leave the rest blank.

When preparing for the critical reading section of the SAT, get comfortable with the idea that you will have to make some tough choices. Take comfort, however, in the fact that there is wiggle room because other brilliant minds will be making tough decisions too.

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