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SAT Aces Enjoy Their 2400 Points of Fame

Times Staff Writer

Chris Scullin isn’t so cocky as to think he plays a perfect guitar solo or has perfect form on the running track. But there was no denying those SAT scores: 800 points on math, 800 points on critical reading, 800 points on writing.

A perfect 2400.

“I was just staring at the screen, thinking, ‘No, this can’t be right,’ ” said Chris, 17, a Loyola High School junior from Beverly Hills who retrieved his scores from the Internet earlier this month. “When I realized what I was looking at, I sprinted down the hall to my parents’ room and woke them up. I think it was the fastest 100-yard dash of my life.”

Of the 304,000 U.S. high school students who took the college entrance exam in March, Chris is part of an elite group of 107 -- 24 from California -- who scored at the pinnacle of the new longer and, some say, more grueling test.

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After countless hours of tutoring and practice tests, Chris and some of the other California students who nailed the SAT are basking, albeit humbly, in their accomplishment and enjoying knowing they have an edge in the intense competition for college admission. Quick to downplay their feat, however, the students echo university officials and testing experts who point out the limits of what the score means.

“It’s extremely rare and a terrific accomplishment. They did extremely well,” said Brian O’Reilly, an executive director at College Board, the New York company that owns the SAT. “But it also means they got extremely lucky. If these kids took the exam again, it is unlikely they would ace it again.”

With various versions of the exam using different questions, O’Reilly said, the students were fortunate to have avoided a geometry question they couldn’t solve or a vocabulary word they didn’t know.

Students agreed, saying they had expected to falter at least once or twice.

“I kept waiting for the problem that would stump me, the one that I just couldn’t get through,” Chris said. “But it never came.”

Although proud of their accomplishment, several students said their mastery of the exam hinted at only a small part of who they are.

“School has always been important, but I have other things going on,” said Chris, who refused to take a summer-long SAT prep course with some classmates. “I have a girlfriend who I spend a lot of time with. And my friends are really important to me.”

The March exam was particularly daunting, with the unveiling of a writing section that for the first time required students to write a persuasive essay and answer grammar questions. Several of the perfect scorers said instructors in preparation classes had drilled them on the essay format the College Board expected.

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“It was not like writing an essay for English class,” said Christine Bui, 16, one of two juniors at University High School in Irvine to score 2400. “We knew they were looking for five paragraphs and three examples from literature or history. You just sort of spit it out.”

The revamped test also made perfection a feat of physical endurance. The new section tacked a fourth hour onto the exam, making it a marathon that several students said tested their ability to remain focused.

In an exit survey of 2,000 test-takers conducted by the Kaplan test preparation company, 87% of students said it was the longest exam they had ever taken, with many complaining they had to go the bathroom or got hungry.

In all, the test included the essay and 170 questions: 54 math, 67 critical reading and 49 writing.

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“Every question, they are trying to trap you into making a mistake,” Christine said. “My brain was fried by the end. I felt dazed.”

The soft-spoken SAT wiz said she looked forward to the dying down of all the hoopla. She politely accepts compliments about her score, but beams when talking about the classical music group she sings in or her job as a nurse assistant at a local hospital.

That 107 students turned in flawless exams after the first of several testing dates this year exceeded predictions by O’Reilly, who had estimated it would take a year to reach 100 perfect scores.

O’Reilly said he expected the number of perfect scores to decline on future tests. He and test-prep experts agreed that the March testing date attracted a particularly ambitious, smart and well-prepared group of students, 90% of them juniors eager to get a jump on the college application process.

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Among them is Elliot Min, 16, one of four students from San Marino High School who scored 2400. Before acing the March exam, he took the old SAT in January -- the last time that version was offered. He earned the top score on that test as well: 1600.

Both Elliot and Christine, who scored 1590 in January, said they took the new exam to be eligible to apply to the University of California, which is not accepting the 1600-point test after this year.

Several students expressed relief that their top scores would aid them as they prepared to apply to Ivy League and other top-tier universities. Chris Scullin, for example, said he believed his scores would help bring into reach such schools as Harvard and a selective business program at the University of Pennsylvania that he had previously considered long shots.

William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard University, acknowledged that an applicant with a perfect score would impress his staff, but he cautioned students about placing too much emphasis on a 2400.

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“It’s a great start, but it is not a magic number,” he said. “We have to look at what that student has accomplished day to day throughout [high school]. To determine someone is truly extraordinary academically, it really does go beyond a test score.”

Fitzsimmons said Harvard admissions officers consider students’ socioeconomic backgrounds when evaluating SAT results. Many students who score well, he said, had the advantage of expensive tutors or classes.

Several founders of California’s 2400-club harbored no illusions that their scores would, on their own, guarantee admission to their schools of choice.

“It’s just a test. Academically it’s important, but personally it’s not,” said Elliot, who holds his hip-hop dancing skills in higher regard than his test score. “Ten years from now, I’m not going to look back and say to people, ‘Hey I got a perfect score!’ ”

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