Last week, when Bill Deresiewicz came to Yale, many students came away from his Master’s Tea impressed with his argument. But like many who criticize the status quo, he is unable to offer viable solutions to the problems he poses. He complains that Ivy League students are smart, creative and hardworking, yet most of them are career-oriented individuals “with little intellectual curiosity.” In an interview with the Yale Herald, Deresiewicz argued that Yale would admit more interesting people by making the applications process contingent on just standardized tests.
I think this is where he is dangerously misled. As an international student from Turkey, I experienced Deresiewicz’s ideal system firsthand. Unlike most internationals, I went to a public science high school that did not offer preparation for American colleges. Students in Turkey’s public schools know that the only thing that matters is the Student Selection Examination (YGS), the exam that determines which university you will attend and what you will major in. There is no point in joining any clubs or aiming for leadership positions, because they will not play any role in your acceptance.
What is so problematic about a standardized-test-only system? In Turkey, what matters most is not how well you do on the test, but rather how highly you rank nationwide. And this is where the problem lies: It creates a dangerously competitive environment. Instead of attending school, high school seniors just go to test-prep centers where they keep practicing the YGS.
My friends were surprised to hear that I took the exam in the first place. If I knew by March that I got into Yale, then why continue until June to complete such a painful process? The answer was simple: I could not give up. I received the highest scores on my tests and finished the core of my preparation. From then on, I had only two months of review.
At least, that’s what I told myself. I could not admit that I was trying to satisfy everyone else. I could not tell anyone that I just wanted to match my teachers’ expectations. Most importantly, I could not admit to myself that I was addicted to the feeling of accomplishment.
When I received my YGS results, I was ranked fourth in my country. My rank made everyone happy. But I was not excited. I could not understand the purpose of obsessing over a standardized test.
Rather than learning for the sake of learning, we were told to memorize everything. The best students were human textbooks. Education became a race. Rather than stop and think about the implications of a subject, we had to tackle the questions as quickly and efficiently as possible lest we run out of time.
Furthermore, the system created a marketplace for college preparation. There was an ever-growing number of tutors and private centers, which is exactly what Deresiewicz is challenging in the first place. Naturally, the richer students from Istanbul or Ankara had access to the best coaches and resources.
Deresiewicz suggests that a valuable education teaches students the skill of formulating and presenting an argument. But he also adds that the most important value of education is to inculcate in students a lifelong love of knowledge. An unhealthy obsession with standardized tests doesn’t just offer nothing to these objectives. It pushes back against them. I remember my YGS tutor telling me to quit piano lessons. I remember another teacher telling us to “hold on” and not have a “significant other” until the end of the year. I remember the peer pressure that made everyone quit their activities during senior year.
And last year, as a freshman at Yale, I struggled trying to formulate theses and write essays. My education in Turkey had not prepared me for “creating” things. When I cried to my mother, I remember her trying to console me, saying that I would find the real “me,” the person I lost in my high school years, again.
Nur Eken is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.