The summer before my junior year of high school, I boarded an airplane for the first time. Three hours later, I was in picture-perfect New England, where I was soon to be surrounded by a diverse and extremely accomplished group of peers. I had been awarded a generous scholarship to attend the Phillips Exeter summer semester – five weeks of classes and sports, with some optional SAT prep mixed in.
I’m from Flint, Mich., and even though I recently transferred to a private, Catholic high school in my city, top tier-education is new to my family. Neither of my parents went to college, and in Rust Belt regions like the middle of Michigan, education is falling behind the rest of the country.
Stanford researchers found, for example, that sixth graders in our town are two to three grade levels behind the national average. They are almost five grade levels behind students in more prosperous counties 30 miles away.
The friends I made at Phillips Exeter were from fancy-sounding towns and seemed to have it all. Most attended prestigious private or highly ranked public schools. They were impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The program we attended costs around $10,000, so they were clearly affluent, but they also came from diverse backgrounds. They had been on exotic vacations and had volunteered for the needy. They were truly interesting people.
So I didn’t understand why so many of them were enrolled in the optional SAT prep section of our summer program. Why would such impressive high achievers spend their summer nights storming through a massive SAT book? Many of them already took weekend SAT prep courses back home. Did they just think it was fun to time one another on practice sets?
Family and friends from home thought it was weird that I went to “school” during my summers, but the kids at Exeter saw summer academic programs as normal and enjoyable. I was happy to be around so many fellow nerds. Still, they approached studying for the SAT with a near-professional intensity that was alien to me.
I realized that they didn’t just want to score exceptionally well on the SAT. They were gunning for a score on the Preliminary SAT exams that would put them in the top percentile of students in the United States and make them National Merit Scholars in the fall.
It was disconcerting. The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete.
If I lost the ZIP-code lottery growing up in tap-water-crisis Flint, my new friends had won the neighborhood Powerball jackpot. They grew up in what the social scientist Charles Murray calls “Super ZIPs,” areas where almost everyone is wealthy, highly educated and connected.
.Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.
As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.
I had opted out of Exeter’s SAT prep. So the following fall, when I posted a so-so SAT score, I went into Super-ZIP-kid mode.
I couldn’t afford a $3,000 40-hour prep course or tutor. But I could take out test prep books at the public library. There were very few checkout stamps on the book jackets, so I kept renewing them. I also took a $99 online program I heard about on NPR and Khan Academy’s free SAT section. On Saturdays, I commuted an hour each way to Ann Arbor for a free test-prep program at the University of Michigan.
My post-prep score saw a solid pop, and that awarded me access to tens of thousands in automatic merit awards to local colleges. I was encouraged to throw my hat in the ring at some more selective universities.
The bottom line is that students like me – from middle- to low-income families, who live in less prosperous areas of the country – tend to stumble upon opportunities by luck (if at all). My summer-school friends knew to compete for generous merit awards.
They understood they had to transform themselves into perfect applicants for a competitive college and employment market that draws students from all over the world.
This past month, I watched many of these friends dazzle their social media followers with acceptance letters from Northwestern, Harvard, Williams and Duke, as well as six-figure Presidential Scholarships to various public universities. Their success was hard-earned and I am proud of them. I only wish that more lower- and middle-income peers knew how to pursue such aggressive strategies.
Dylan Hernandez of Flint, Michigan, will attend the University of Michigan in the fall.