What Smart Girls Know About the SAT: How to Beat the Gender Gap

What Smart Girls Know About the SAT: How to Beat the Gender Gap

by Cynthia Johnson

You stand there, looking aimlessly at the dozens of test prep guides on the shelf. And this one caught your eye. Maybe you liked the title. Maybe it was the pink cover.

Excuse the color choice, but we needed to get your attention. We've got an important message: The SAT experience is biased against females. On average, girls do not score as high as boys do on the

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You stand there, looking aimlessly at the dozens of test prep guides on the shelf. And this one caught your eye. Maybe you liked the title. Maybe it was the pink cover.

Excuse the color choice, but we needed to get your attention. We've got an important message: The SAT experience is biased against females. On average, girls do not score as high as boys do on the SAT, though on nearly every other scale, girls show themselves to be as capable -- even more capable -- than boys.

The bias is ingrained in the design of the test, but there are things you can do to even the scales. Things like setting up an all-girl study group, learning to think the way the test makers think, and mastering all-purpose strategies that make the most of your female brain.

That's what this book is all about. That -- and a higher score.

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Chapter 1: Why Do You Need a Girl's Guide to the SAT?

So you want to get ready for the SAT.

You stand there, looking at dozens of test preparation guides. Huge, fat ones striped red and blue. Little ones that promise to boost your score in 24 hours. Workbooks broken down by subject. Three shelves jammed full of books all about one test. It's dizzying. You sigh and let your gaze pass aimlessly over the spines and covers, looking for something that seems like it's right for you. And you pick up this book.

Maybe you liked the title and wanted to hear what smart girls have to say about the SAT. Maybe the bubble-gum pink cover caught your eye. Great.

Excuse the Malibu Barbie color choice. We promise that the cover is the first and last thing about this book that relies on stereotypes. But we needed some way to make this book stand out in the sea of blaring colors on the shelves at the bookstore. We want girls like you to see the pink cover and the "Smart Girls" title, say, "Is this meant for me?" and leaf through the table of contents and this introduction. We want you to get this important message:

You are getting a raw deal from the SAT.

You may have already known this. Girls, as a population, do not score as high as boys do on this very important test. Sure, there are some very low-scoring boys and very high-scoring girls. But on average, girls don't do as well. The so-called "gender gap" has narrowed a bit in recent years, but not by much. In 1987, girls scored 14 points lower on the Verbal section of the SAT and 47 points lower on Math. In 2001, girls scored five points lower on Verbal and 35 points lower on Math.

That's a 40-point difference. Is that a big deal? You bet it is (and we'll tell you just how big a deal in a minute). Does the SAT gender gap show that girls are not as smart as boys? No, no, no! On nearly every other scale, girls show themselves to be as capable as or even more capable than boys. They make better grades in both high school and college. On the whole, teachers and counselors alike agree that girls are generally better students; they have higher goals for themselves and work harder than boys to achieve them.

The problem is, the SAT experience is biased against females. The bias is pretty deeply ingrained in the design of the test, but there are many things you can do to even the scales. That's what this book is all about.

The Unique Help Smart Girls Can Offer You

As you're aware, there are countless materials available to help you prepare for the SAT. The problem is, they don't take into account an understanding of how bias makes itself felt for girls. A large part of prepping for the SAT is the same no matter what sex you are -- everyone needs to build vocabulary and brush up on math -- and those other products can help you with that. But girls also need to know specific strategies to help themselves overcome the gender gap. That's what this book will give you.

Our strategies were developed using a variety of sources. We looked at major studies on gender and the SAT. We read up on the latest research into brain-based, biological differences between the sexes. We surveyed dozens of teachers and guidance counselors. And we gathered stories of individual experiences.

But more than anything else, we relied on the input of Smart Girls -- female students who faced the SAT and scored in the top 25 percent. After all, it makes sense that the best people to help you overcome testing bias are those who overcame it themselves! The SAT has a few pitfalls that hurt girls more than boys. A female perspective is indispensable for girls facing this test. That's why this book was written by a high-scoring female (hello there!) with the input of dozens of high-scoring female students who want to share their insights. Throughout this book, in the "Smart Girls Say" sections, you'll hear what worked for them and what didn't, what you should do to prepare, and what you should make sure to avoid.

At its foundation, What Smart Girls Know about the SAT is about girls sticking together. The core of many of our strategies is the belief that girls don't need to "act male" to earn a high score on the SAT. Girls have special strengths that can serve them well on the test. And by sticking together, girls can give themselves a supportive environment in which to develop those strengths -- so they can go out on test day fully prepared to ace the SAT.

Banding together with other girls to overcome gender inequality may seem a little outdated to you. These aren't the 1970s, after all, right? No need for protesting? Well, you won't need your marching shoes right this second. But if this book is going to be useful to you, you'll have to take an interest in a few political issues that you might not have paid attention to before. We're talking about women's issues. You may think you haven't experienced gender discrimination and have always received equal treatment. That may be true. If so, you're lucky. But the SAT does discriminate against females. Don't take it lying down. You need a plan of attack to fight back.

Let's Talk About the Old "F-" Word

The first thing we need to do is talk about the old "f-" word. Take a deep breath and say it with me, girls: feminist. Feminist? Feminist. Feminist, feminist, feminist!!

Do you feel uncomfortable? Get over it! A feminist is not a man-eating monster. A feminist is simply someone who believes in the rights of females to receive the same opportunities as males. A feminist is someone who stands up for those rights. It's good to be a feminist. Because in the card game of life, the deck is still stacked against you, and the males doing the dealing (yep, it's males doing the dealing, as you well know) are still keeping the high cards for themselves.

Since the middle of the 1980s, young women have grown increasingly queasy about considering themselves feminists. Many high school and college females reject the label completely. When they think feminist, they think of angry women burning their bras and letting their armpit hair grow wild. They think of women who hate men and never laugh at anything and always snootily correct you when you say "mailman" ("that's postal carrier"). Few girls today want to be associated with such an image. Many even feel that there's no longer a need to struggle for equality between the sexes because it's already been achieved, though that couldn't be further from the truth. But the fact is, if girls like you aren't willing to demand the rights you deserve, no one else will do it for you.

O.K., enough already. We can sense that you are rolling your eyes. Now is not the time for a lecture on why you should be grateful to your bra-burning sisters of the 1970s. Many of the freedoms and cultural policies you take for granted now were bought at the cost of their incinerated undergarments, but for now, let's focus on the present. You've got an important test to prepare for.

Make Way for a New "F-" Word

In reality, the term feminist has become so weighed down with bad images and bad press that it's not much use anymore. It should be retired. We suggest a new term for a new generation of girls facing the challenges of the 21st century: The term is female-active. Being female-active means being active -- not just turning a blind eye toward gender discrimination and bias or complaining about it without doing anything. It also means being active on behalf of females -- that means making the world a better place for girls.

We encourage you to be a female-activist now and in the future. You don't have to go to rallies or join a club or stop shaving your armpit hair. Little actions mean a lot. The first thing you can do is vow to beat the gender gap and ace the SAT. Master it. Tame it. Make it iron your shirts and clean your bathroom. Do not let it be an obstacle keeping yet another girl from getting the chances she deserves.

Thousands of colleges and aid-granting corporations and foundations use SAT scores for determining which applicants get admitted or receive aid. Across the whole student population, this has an enormous snowball effect. Thousands of girls don't get the scholarships and acceptance letters, so they don't get the academic opportunities, so they don't get the job opportunities, so they remain less qualified and less desirable to employers than their male counterparts. And, of course, they earn less money. This sets up a cycle of unfairly lowered expectations for girls.

Why Is There a Gender Gap?

The answer to why there's a gender gap on the SAT is complex. Many factors work against girls to produce this gap. All of them need to be addressed if females are going to get a fair shake in college and beyond.

The Test Is Biased

Several studies demonstrate "bias" on the SAT (National Center for Fair and Open Testing). Let's be clear about this term biased before we go on. By biased, we just mean that the test unfairly favors a particular population (males -- white males, to be specific). It's not that the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company that makes the SAT, set out to create a test that would be unfair to females. In fact, it has spent considerable time and money trying to make the test fair to everyone. It's just that unfortunately, in our view, ETS hasn't yet succeeded.

How can a test favor boys over girls? In several ways, some obvious and some not-so-obvious.

Question Content

Part of the problem has been that, over the years, the SAT had many questions about men and their pursuits, and few about women and female pursuits. Analyses show that girls perform better on questions that involve females, and boys perform better on questions that involve males. It isn't clear exactly why this is so, but researchers have looked at the question-by-question performance of boys and girls on many different SATs and the fact is clear. (Boys also perform better on questions involving war, mechanics, sports, and other typically male interests, while girls perform better on questions involving interpersonal relationships or typically female interests.)

As recently as the mid-1980s, there were twice as many references to men as to women on the SAT, and more pictures of and references to boys than girls. In fact, male animals were even favored above female -- mentioned twice as often. On one SAT, the reading comprehension sections included 42 references to males and just three references to females. Most of the men were famous, and the one famous woman, anthropologist Margaret Mead, was criticized.

One highly controversial move on the part of ETS happened in the 1970s. It seems there was a time when girls had a small advantage over boys on SAT Verbal (between two and 10 points). ETS decided to make the Verbal section more gender neutral and added questions it felt would help even out the score. In fact, the move shifted the score advantage to boys. And while girls have always scored lower than boys on the Math section, ETS didn't seem to think that problem needed fixing. Weird, huh? (American Association of University Women, How Schools Shortchange Girls).

ETS has safeguards that are supposed to eliminate bias, but it isn't always possible to predict in advance which questions will unfairly penalize girls.

Question Type

Another consideration in SAT bias is that girls don't do as well as boys on multiple-choice questions. This doesn't mean that their academic skills are any weaker. On the contrary. Girls' math skills are just as strong as boys', and their language skills are stronger (Gurian). They just have trouble with multiple-choice. And here's a newsflash for you: the SAT is almost entirely made up of multiple-choice questions. Yikes.

Test Design

The SAT is a timed test. Studies show that the gender gap narrows considerably when girls are allowed to take the SAT untimed. (Rosser, The SAT Gender Gap) Girls, evidently, do not respond well to time pressure.

The College Board Position on SAT Bias:

ETS and the College Board both contend that the SAT itself is not biased and does not discriminate against females. When we were conducting research for this book, we asked the College Board directly for its official explanation as to why females score lower than males on both sections of the SAT. A spokesperson told us that research shows that when you compare students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, the SAT Verbal score gap virtually disappears. However, he admitted, the math gap persists no matter how you look at the data. He also explained that since several other standardized tests also show a male/female score gap in math, it was fair to say that the source of the math score difference was not the design or content of the SAT itself, but sociological or genetic factors that make boys better at standardized math tests.

Our Position on the College Board Position on SAT Bias:

Sociological and biological differences between males and females do have an effect on SAT scores. However, we believe that the design of the SAT puts girls at an unfair disadvantage. Girls enjoy a significant advantage over boys in other measures of writing and reading ability. The fact that they still lag behind boys on the SAT Verbal section -- even by only a few points -- indicates the test may not fairly reflect female academic strengths. SAT scores do not accurately predict girls' college performance in English or math courses, nor do they reflect girls' high school performance in English or math. This means that the SAT does not do the main job it is supposed to do: provide colleges with a reliable system for judging applicants.

Test Validity

Colleges use the SAT because it is supposed to be a predictor of first-year grades. It does a fairly good job overall, but if you break down performance by gender, you can see that the SAT underpredicts girls' college grades. Girls get better grades than do boys in high school and college, yet they don't score as well on the SAT. So the SAT isn't a fair predictor of their performance.

This is really the bottom line. Experts may disagree all they like about the reasons girls don't score as high as boys. The fact remains that a test like the SAT should do what it claims to do. In this case, it should predict college performance. It doesn't do that for 54 percent of the people taking it (girls, that's you!), so it's the test that's fundamentally flawed and unfair.

Girls and Boys Have Different Biological Strengths

You don't have to be a brain expert to know that boys and girls are wired differently. Before we get carried away with all the amazing differences, let's be clear about one thing: All of our brains are pretty much the same. It's not as though males and females are from different planets, no matter what popular self-help books may say; it's actually the basic sameness of our brains that makes the differences so interesting and significant.

There's a lot of scientific research behind what we're about to explain, so to avoid getting bogged down in technical terms, we're going to simplify what is really a complicated set of facts. If you are interested in finding out more, check out some of the references listed at the end of this book. The book Brain Sex in particular is chock full of stuff that will surprise you (about brains, girls, not sex!). And we'll say it now and say it again throughout this book: We are speaking in generalizations about girls and boys as whole populations. There are always many individual exceptions.

Brain Structures and Functions

You may already have some sense of this first biological fact: The female brain matures faster than the male brain. Girls tend to have better verbal skills and better vocabularies, and they learn to read earlier than boys do. Girls' senses work better, too. They can hear better, smell better, and take in more sensory input through touch. Girls have a bigger corpus callosum than boys (that's the big bundle of nerves that connects the right side of the brain to the left side). The bigger corpus callosum allows for a better exchange of information between the sides of the brain. Girls are better at controlling impulses and are less likely to take risks (Moir, Brain Sex).

On the other hand, parts of the right hemisphere of the brain are more developed in boys. As a result, they tend to be better at tasks requiring abstract thought, deductive reasoning, and spatial skills. Boys rely more on the right side of their brains, while girls rely more on the left, but girls use more of their brains than boys, and use their brains more often. In fact, one researcher at the University of Pennsylvania used brain scans to show that the female brain at rest is as active as the male brain in action! (Gurian)

When faced with various tasks, girls and boys use their brains differently. Girls tend to have a more complex reaction to emotional situations and use the higher-reasoning parts of their brain to sort through sensory information. Boys use more primitive parts of their brain (the limbic system and brain stem) to process emotional information. The male brain can't process as many pieces of information simultaneously as the female brain can, so male brains filter out much of the information and become very task-oriented. This helps them make quick decisions and stay focused on their goals. The problem is, the information they filter out is often important, and they fail to pick up on subtleties.

Hormonal Soup

Differences in brain structure and functioning are interesting, but hormonal levels also play a big part in explaining male and female behavior. Hormones are chemicals in the body that effect our growth, development, metabolism, reproductive ability, and other functions. Boys and girls have the same set of hormones, but in very different amounts.

Testosterone is the main male hormone. It makes boys more aggressive and competitive than girls. (It's also necessary for the development of adult male features like a deep voice, facial hair, and large muscles.) Higher levels of testosterone bring higher levels of aggression.

Females are dominated by estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are "bonding" hormones. (They're also necessary for the development of adult female features, like breasts and wider hips.) They make girls interested in interpersonal relationships. Individuals may have these hormones in varying amounts. That is, some boys are pumped full of testosterone and are very aggressive and ambitious, while other boys have less testosterone and are more sensitive and low-key. Some girls have more testosterone and may be competitive and muscular. Hormone levels rise and fall depending on the time of day or the situation. Girls (don't we all know) have to contend with a menstrual cycle that causes hormones to dip and peak at certain times of the month. Boys have hormone surges several times a day. Girls' testosterone levels surge when they are competing, but not as high as a boys' level.

Biology and the SAT

What does all this mean in terms of your performance on the SAT? Despite the female's superior senses and more active brain, boys seem to have an advantage. They enjoy and are more suited to deductive reasoning and abstract thought. Girls like to learn from examples and physical objects: to be able to see and touch and hear things in order to understand them. You can't see, hear, or touch an algebra problem in a test booklet. So the male set of skills helps them on the SAT.

Males are also more likely to take risks and approach tasks aggressively. This also helps them do well on the SAT. As we will explain later, guessing and risk-taking help boost your score. Ironically, a girl's ability to take in and process more information can work against her on the SAT. She may spend too long thinking through all the angles of a question, when, in reality, a quick decision is called for. A boy's quick decision-making and goal orientation are well suited for timed standardized tests.

Does it seem like you are at a hopeless disadvantage? Not in the least. You have absolutely everything you need to do well on this test. Your female brain is more mature and more evolved than the male brain. Plus, you have internal resources you may not even know about. We're going to help you unlock the secrets of that beautiful brain of yours and direct your female strengths toward acing the SAT.

Girls Are Set Up to Underperform

For some reason, many girls lose confidence in their academic abilities somewhere around eighth grade. This loss of confidence has terrible consequences. If you think less of your abilities, you require less of yourself, set lower goals, and try fewer things. A loss of confidence sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you aren't good at math, you tend to stop developing your math skills, and it's only a matter of time before you lag behind.

A recent government study shows that far fewer girls than boys report liking science and math. Not surprisingly, fewer girls than boys believe they are good at math. In fourth grade, 70 percent of girls reported liking math. But by 12th grade, that number was only 48 percent. Similarly, 61 percent of fourth-grade girls felt they were good at math, but by 12th grade, only 47 percent felt that way.

Contrast this with boys: Fifty-six percent of 12th grade boys said they liked math and 59 percent said they were good at it (National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in Educational Equity for Girls and Women). What's weird about this is that girls are not actually weaker in math and science. They perform just as well in high school math and science courses as boys do, and they take pretty much the same kinds of classes. Researchers concluded this was a crisis of attitude.

What does all this mean? It means that there must be some pressure or force that leads girls to doubt themselves. And though the origin of this force remains mysterious, here are a few possibilities:

Parents and Teachers Reinforcing Stereotypes

We have all heard the stereotype that girls are weak at math. This is simply not the case. But people have come to accept this as true, and the cycle of expectations lets girls off the hook in math. Mothers may have been told by their own mothers that math is a boy's thing, so they think their own daughters will be weak at math. They excuse it. They even support it in some way, because "weakness" in math is kind of like a bond between them. "Oh, Stacey's like me. She's not good with numbers," they may say. Teachers may also look indulgently on a girl who resists math, letting her slide while giving a boy more encouragement.

Connecting Math and Science with "Male" Pursuits

In many people's minds, math and science seem to be connected with traditionally male jobs in engineering, architecture, and business. When people think "scientist," they still usually imagine a man in a white lab coat. Math and science, then, have become "male." Engineering and architecture schools are still mostly male, and a girl interested in these fields faces the prospect of being seen as a freak -- a solitary girl in a male domain (Imaginary Lines).

Pressure to Be Feminine

Starting at about age 13, girls really, really want to be attractive. There is intense pressure from peers and the media for them to live up to an unrealistic ideal of feminine beauty. As a result, girls spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to conform.

It's natural for girls to want to be pretty and have guys like them. Nothing wrong with that. But for some reason, our society has taught us that being super-smart -- especially in math and science -- is not feminine.

You have probably seen this in action. You may have shut yourself up a few times in class because you didn't want to seem too "smart" in front of some guy. And the girls with the reputations for being "brains" at your school don't get many dates, right? Oh, people may like them and hang out with them, but even if these girls are very pretty, guys are put off by them. So it seems in many cases, girls are forced to choose between being smart and being attractive. Faced with such intense pressure to be attractive, it's no surprise girls start to hide their brains at puberty.

Luckily, many girls find that the bozos in high school who didn't find them attractive aren't around anymore in college, and that smart guys in college actually like smart girls. Unfortunately, years of pretending to be less intelligent than you actually are can set you back.

What Can You Do About This Problem?

Become female-active! In the past couple of decades, women's issues have been pushed to the side. We hope you see now that the struggle for equality that started back in Susan B. Anthony's time is not yet over. Women have come a long, long way from the days of corsets and smelling salts, but there's plenty more to do.

Appreciate Those Who Have Gone Before You

A long line of courageous women helped give you the opportunities you have today. In 1919, women still couldn't vote, even after 70 years of trying. (Yep, the first women's rights convention actually took place in 1848!) Fortunately, our great-great-grandmothers refused to put up with this ridiculous state of affairs, and eventually, in 1920, the 19th Amendment -- giving women the right to vote -- was signed into law.

Then, in the 1940s, thousands of women took on factory work and other traditionally male jobs while the men were overseas fighting in World War II. Proving themselves capable of doing things no one thought they could, women had more job opportunities after the war than ever before. Yes, your great-grandmother and others like her were brave enough to break down gender barriers.

And then again, in 1960, there were almost twice as many male college graduates as female. Today, there are actually more women graduating college than men. Thank your grandmoms and moms for bucking the trend and cracking the books.

Celebrate How Much Females Are Already Achieving

Female high school seniors have higher educational goals than males. They're more likely to go to college. And females currently earn more than half of all bachelor's and master's degrees. As of this book's printing, there are 14 female senators and 62 Congressional representatives. Five states have female governors. And in contrast to 1982, when working women earned 62 cents for every dollar earned by a man, women today earn 75 cents to the male dollar -- not equal, but better!

Don't Let Anything Stand Between You and Your Dreams!

We have so many amazing role models, past and present, to show us that no obstacle can stand in the way of a determined female. These women had to work hard to fulfill their dreams, but they did it. If you set high goals for yourself, no doubt you'll have to work hard, too. In fact, you will probably have to work even harder than guys with similar goals. That's not fair, it's true, but there it is.


Helen Magill is the first woman to receive a Ph.D. at an American school (Boston University, in case you're interested).

1903 and again in 1913

Frenchwoman Marie Curie wins Nobel Prizes (one in physics and one in chemistry) for her research into the atom and radioactivity, and the development of X-ray technology. She was the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes (and people think girls aren't good at science!).


Jeannette Rankin is the first woman elected to Congress (from Montana -- guess those Westerners were openminded).


Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman to serve as governor of a state (it was Wyoming -- again with the Westerners!) and the first woman to direct the U.S. Mint.


Beryl Markham is the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean the hard way -- against the wind, from London to North America.


Shirley Chisholm becomes the first black woman elected to Congress.


Sandra Day O'Connor is the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.


Sally Ride is the first American woman in outer space.

And if you're looking for a more current, nongovernmental model of talent and courage, look no further than Oprah Winfrey. She's a self-made gazillionaire, a gifted actress, a generous philanthropist, and a nice person. Think about the obstacles she had to overcome to get where she is today!

Let's just make a pact right now. We females will deal with this unfairness step by step. Your first step is to read this book, prepare carefully for the SAT, and get the score you truly deserve. Your next step will be to go out and pursue every possible educational opportunity and learning experience available to you. After that, armed with a solid education and a lot of determination, you can kick down whatever door may stand in your way and shout:

"Watch out, World. The Smart Girls are coming. And we mean business!"

Copyright © 2003 by Kaplan Publishing

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