The Perfect SAT Score and the Quest for the Right College

Yesterday, we got some amazing news: Neil scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT test he took earlier this month. I’ve got to hand it to him, he’s always been smart, but he really sweated the SAT, running himself through practice test after practice test, andĀ  even mastering the devilish essay which gets the best of so many other bright kids who are great at math and reading. Our entire family is overjoyed at his accomplishment, and there’s a real sense that it might open doors for him.

As impressive as a test number might seem, anyone who knows him knows it doesn’t sum up what he’s really about. I started homeschooling him after fourth grade when a teacher nixed his desire to do a book report on Brian Green’s book on string theory. After I started homeschooling him, he fell in love with Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and became fascinated with cellular automata (when he was 10). During his first year of homeschooling, he was beyond thrilled to encounter one of his heroes, Bill Gosper, who became his mentor. Over the years, Neil got into developing algorithms for solving mechanical puzzles, particularly sliding block puzzles, as well as 3D printing with a MakerBot he saved up for and constructed himself on our kitchen table over a period of days. He set a world record for calculating the continued fractions of Pi when he was 13. Thanks to his mathematics blog, he managed to snag an invitation to the Gathering 4 Gardner conference which he’s now attended three times, twice as a presenter.This gave him an amazing chance to meet his other heroes and like-minded academics who share their love of recreational math with him. He’s kept up his mathematics blog, and contributed to The New York Times‘ Wordplay column. But math isn’t his entire life: he’s also studied literature, history and foreign language, works part time as a production assistant, and he’s working towards becoming an Eagle Scout.

Neil wants to go to college. It’s where he can meet and hang out with other kids like him, and drop in to run ideas past a professor or grad student. The problem is that college is obscenely expensive these days, and despite all the repeated assurances of financial aid, it’s all meaninglessĀ  until my husband and I fill in several intimidating forms and get a resultant bill, which we will cringingly compare with our household finances.

As every parent knows, finding the right college for all that money is really hard and unfortunately the countless similar-looking glossy brochures aren’t really helping much. It must be equally difficult for the college admissions officers, who are under pressure to both sell their school’s brand but are tasked with deciding which candidates fit from among tens of thousands of hopeful applicants.

With so many thousands applying, it’s impossible to know students as anything but a score to identify the candidates who are capable of handling the school’s curriculum. This is complicated by the fact that the hard-working kids with good scores often apply to dozens of top universities, instead of focusing on the one or two that they most want to attend.

So I’m left with a feeling of hopeful irony. It may just be that this particular number is one which allows someone at a college to take a pause and really look at him as an individual. From there, we can hope they can make a pitch for why their college would offer a great opportunity for him specifically and whether he would be a great fit for their campus.


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