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15 Things You Don’t Know About the SAT

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On June 23, it will be 90 years since the College Board tortured, er, tested the first group of high school students with the SAT. In honor of those stressed out teens who likely memorized endless vocabulary words they’ll never use, here are a few tidbits about one of the most widely used college admissions tests. Study up!

1. THE EXAM WAS HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY AN ARMY IQ TEST.

During World War I, future Princeton University professor Carl Brigham worked under Harvard University's Robert Yerkes to administer IQ tests to about 2 million army recruits. (The goal of the testing was to help choose officer candidates and build up statistical evidence about IQ testing.) Years later, in the early 1920s, Brigham, author of A Study of American Intelligence, administered his own version of the exam to freshmen at his alma mater. He was then tapped by the College Board to head a committee that would create a test for all incoming college students. In 1926, that exam was administered to high school kids for the first time.

2. THE SAT WAS ORIGINALLY USED AS A SCHOLARSHIP TEST FOR ALL IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS.

In 1934, Harvard president James Conant tasked two of his assistants with figuring out a way to select which public school students should be awarded a scholarship to the prestigious university. They landed on the SAT. The next year, the test was made a requirement for all Harvard scholarship hopefuls. And by 1939, the rest of the Ivies had followed suit.

3. MORE THAN HALF OF THE INITIAL TEST TAKERS WERE MEN.

Sixty percent of the 8040 candidates who took the 1926 exam were male. A quarter of those men applied to Yale University. In contrast, many of the female test takers were interested in attending Smith College.

4. THE FIRST TEST LOOKED A LOT DIFFERENT THAN IT DOES TODAY ...

Just a brief 97 minutes long, the first exam had 315 questions divided amongst nine sub-tests—definitions, arithmetical problems, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and paragraph reading. A sample question: "A man spent one-eighth of his spare change for a package of cigarettes, three times as much for a meal, and then had eighty cents left. How much money did he have at first?"

5. ... AND SINCE THEN IT'S COME A LONG WAY.

In addition to changes in format (an essay portion was added in 2005, but in 2016, they made that section optional) and scoring (point totals increased to 2400 in 2005, then back to 1600 in 2016), the name of the test has changed four times. While the moniker previously stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," the current version isn’t actually an acronym—it doesn’t stand for anything!

6. SOME VERSIONS OF THE EXAM ARE REUSED.

According to The Washington Post, seven tests are given each year. Four of them are made public afterward, but the other three could be used again. A spokesperson for the Educational Testing Service, which writes and administers the exam for the College Board, told the newspaper that it takes 18 months and roughly $350,000 to create an all-new test.

7. TEST SCORES WERE INCREASED IN 1995.

Between 1941 and 1994, the students taking the test expanded from just 10,000 students (40 percent from private schools) to 1.2 million (82 percent from public schools) which caused the scores to dip. So in 1995, the College Board decided to “recenter” them. By recalibrating the scoring, they made it easier for students to earn higher marks. (And harder for them to argue that they were smarter than their parents.)

8. THE TEST WAS ONCE CANCELED FOR AN ENTIRE COUNTRY.

When the Educational Testing Service discovered in 2013 that tutoring companies in South Korea had allegedly obtained and distributed a copy of the exam, they canceled the scheduled May 4 test date.

9. ONE MAN TOOK IT MORE THAN A DOZEN TIMES.

In 2011 Long Island, New York native Sam Eshaghoff was arrested for taking the test for desperate high school students. The Emory University college student admitted he sat for the exam at least 15 times in three years and pocketed up to $2500 each time. (He also consistently scored in the 97th percentile or higher.) He was arraigned on charges of scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records and ultimately sentenced to tutor underprivileged youth . . . for the SAT.

10. YOU WERE PENALIZED FOR GUESSING.

Up until 2016, testers earned one point for each question answered correctly, but lost a quarter of a point for getting an answer wrong. That meant, in some cases, it was better to skip a question (receiving zero points) than take a stab at it and risk losing points. The guessing penalty was eliminated with the 2016 version of the exam.

11. THERE'S A FAKE SECTION.

Another change with the 2016 version: a revamped experimental section. In the previous versions, one of the 10 sections of the exam didn’t actually count towards the final score. Unfortunately, there was no way to know which section you could skip. When the 2016 tests were first announced, there was no mention of an experimental section, so it was assumed that was dropped from the test. But the College Board later clarified that the students who opted out of the essay may still be given experimental questions. The College Board has been deliberately vague about what form this is currently taking, but there are still questions that don’t matter for many students.

12. STUDYING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE COULD GIVE YOU A SCORE BOOST.

Data from the 2011 tests showed that students who took more than four years of a language scored 180 points higher on the 2400-point exam. Those who studied Chinese, Latin, and Korean did the best.

13. THERE'S AN ENTIRE GENRE OF BOOKS DEVOTED TO UPPING STUDENTS' VERBAL SCORES...

Tomes like Test of Time, which investigates what would happen if Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn manuscript was swapped with a college student's laptop, and 2004’s Vampire Dreams were written to showcase upwards of 1000 vocabulary words commonly used on the exam.

14. . . . AND A PLAY ABOUT TAKING THE EXAM.

None of the Above, about a bratty, privileged teen and her SAT tutor, debuted off-Broadway in 2003. Newsroom actress Alison Pill played the lead.

15. YOU DON'T HAVE TO TAKE IT TO GO TO COLLEGE.

There are more than 850 colleges and universities that do not require all or many applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores before admissions decisions are made—and that number is growing. The list includes selective institutions such as Wake Forest University and American University.

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Paradise Found Around, YouTube
A Very Special History of The More You Know
Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?

 
 

The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.

 
 

In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.

 
 

Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

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Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium
TruTV

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

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