Their knowledge of reality TV shows, that is. One-third of high school students taking the SAT received this question as their prompt for the essay portion of the test.
Reality-television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?
Here's the first problem: There's no option for people who think that reality TV is irrelevant. You're asked to take a position that it's either beneficial or harmful. On what planet watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians would be beneficial, I can't even imagine.
On to the larger point: If your high school junior prefers to spend his time reading, volunteering or (heaven forbid) working so that he can avoid borrowing $24,000 to pay for college, he's likely to be out of luck in answering that question.
Trying to 'Engage' the Students
The College Board's Laurence Bunin recently defended the question in a blog post for The Daily Beast, noting that "Questions raised about the so-called reality-show prompt miss this basic point entirely and confuse the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. Everything a student needs to write a successful essay is included in the prompt itself; one need not have spent any time watching a "reality" television program to write a strong essay."
But he also notes that "Students tell us that they can relate to popular-culture references. Using such references is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students."
So the question is more engaging for students who are interested in mass consumer culture, which makes it, by definition, less engaging for students who aren't -- even though studies show that people who watch less TV are less materialistic (which is better for the environment) and happier.
But it's not surprising. The college admissions race -- and the desire to do as well as possible on a standardized test in order to get into the "best school possible," whatever that even means -- is really all about conformity, even when it's cloaked in the vocabulary of individuality. The SAT obsession is more sophisticated than Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but not necessarily any less vapid.
And you couldn't pick a better symbol of that than an essay question about reality TV.
Zac Bissonnette's Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents was called the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.