Over the past few months Shree has been sharing his experience applying to colleges in the U.S. Several of the steps have caused him some stress, but perhaps none so much as when he took the SAT subject tests. A mistake on his answer sheet caused his scores to be delayed, and left him in jeopardy of missing his application deadline.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which designs the exams for the College Board, was nice enough to talk to us about Shree?s story, and give their advice for other test-takers out there on how to avoid finding yourself in this situation. So as you read Shree?s story, pay close attention to the sections in italics ? that?s where you?ll see the ETS/College Board's suggestions.

Standardized test

After spending months preparing for the SAT and the TOEFL, I found preparing for the SAT Subject Tests much easier. I was already, you might say, prepared for preparing for tests. Still, there was something that I was not prepared for ? waiting for two whole months to receive my scores.

Some of the colleges I applied to required SAT Subject Tests, and even for the colleges where SAT Subject Tests were not mandatory, it is always recommended. The subject test measures your readiness for college-level courses and is offered for many subjects, ranging from science to language and literature. In one sitting, you can take as many as three, and as few as none of these tests (you can always cancel a test, even all of them, if you do not feel like you did well on it).

Being a science student, I selected three science subjects ? physics, chemistry, and mathematics level 2. I took the test on November 3, and the results were supposed to be published on November 23.

A results day surprise

On that day, some of my friends from the USEF/Education USA Advising Center gathered at an internet café and looked at each other?s scores one by one. I waited impatiently for my turn, with the slow internet connection adding up to my impatience. Finally, I logged in to my College Board profile and clicked on the link that was supposed to display my test scores. But instead of the test score, all I got was a blank!

I did not have a clue what was going on. I was not alone though; I heard from my friends of three other people at USEF whose scores were not published that day. The next day, I talked to them and it turned out that, like me, they did not know why their test scores were not published.

My plan had been simple. Take the SAT subject tests, send the scores to the college where I was applying early, wait for the decision, if I got rejected (I did), send the test scores to the colleges where I was applying regular decision, and wait for the decisions to come. Instead I found myself stuck in the middle. I could not send my subject test scores to the college where I was applying early decision and I just made it in time for my regular decision schools.

We asked: What might cause a score not to be posted on the release date? ETS/College Board said:

As you can imagine there are any number of test day mistakes that can result in scoring delays and that is why it is so important that everyone follow guidelines. The general rule for score delays is that if the test taker cannot find his or her scores on reporting day, they should get in touch with College Board Customer Cares and check on the status.

Waiting for an answer

The most frustrating days of my life were those days when I waited patiently, checking every day if the scores were out. While my friends worked on their applications, I was stuck making calls to the College Board and colleges explaining my situation and trying to get a resolution. With the early decision deadline already long gone and the regular decision deadlines approaching, most of my applications were at stake.

My friends whose scores had also not been published on the original date eventually did receive their results ? it turned out that they had made some mistake while filling in their personal details. But I still had no news and no idea of what had gone wrong with my test. I was stuck wondering, why me?

I called the College Board many times to get an update, any update at all, about my scores. After about 15 minutes of listening to some utterly boring jazz hold music, I would be connected to an operator. After a further 15 minutes of going through all my personal details, we would get down to business. Each time it was the same conversation:

your profile verification is complete. Is there anything I can help you with
?Yes, my scores are not published yet. I need my scores soon for my early decision college and I would go on for a few minutes explaining the situation.
Instead of a definite answer, I got the same response every time I called. ?We are sorry for the inconvenience. I have forwarded your query to the escalation department. Is there anything else I can help you with
?Yes! When will the scores be published? I REALLY need the scores out soon.?
?You will be contacted should we have any further updates within five business days. Is there anything else I could help you with
(Sigh) ?No. Thank you.?

We asked: Is there anything else he should have done? ETS/College Board said:

I think this case proceeded pretty much as expected. The test taker expected a score on the announced date and when it was not available, he reached out to College Board Customer Cares and this essentially opened/escalated the case. At that point our representatives would have searched his records in the database and discovered no subject test score. This would have necessitated a personal investigation and search for the reason and answer sheet.

An explanation at last

On December 17, 25 days after the score release date, seven days after I got the rejection letter from my early decision college, and 15 days before the deadlines of my regular decision colleges, I got a letter from the College Board. Finally!

And finally I learned the source of the problem. The letter explained that I had not indicated clearly on my answer sheet which tests I took. On top of every page of the answer sheet, there is a checkbox to indicate which subject test the answers below are for. I had missed that particular checkbox on one of my answer sheets.

To remedy the situation I had to send a letter to the College Board confirming which test I had taken. If my letter was not received within 45 days of when the College Board sent their notification (it was issued on December 4 and it took almost 2 weeks to reach me), my scores would be cancelled.

I sent the letter by courier on December 18, and finally on January 1, exactly on January the first, I got my scores.

We asked: How can this mistake even happen? ETS/College Board said: 

SAT Subject test takers are presented with a list of subjects to check off at the top of their SAT Subject Answer Sheet. The scripts read by the testing room supervisor instruct the test taker to bubble the correct test found at the top. Specifically, the proctor says, turn to page (whatever) of your answer sheet. Fill in the circle of the test you are about to take

If test takers fail to bubble their subject(s), the student?s answer sheet will fail to score properly and require manual intervention/investigation, which delays the student?s ability to receive their score by the published score release window. The investigation process includes sending a letter to the test taker and allows 45 days for a response. The 45 day limit should accommodate most international deliveries. If a response is not received, the exam is not scored and the registration is cancelled.

It is not a common occurrence for test takers to omit gridding the Subject exam they?ve taken. For FY12, approximately .41% of the overall SAT Subject registration volume omitted gridding of the subject they took.

Even though this is not a common occurrence, it is still an unfortunate delay for students waiting for their scores and so, for the 2013-14 testing year the Subject Answer Sheet will include a new warning note for test takers stating ?PLEASE MAKE SURE to fill in the correct test name above and fields 7-9 below completely and correctly. If they are not correct, there is a chance we won?t be able to score your test!?

More challenges, and finally a resolution

Although the scores were out, my entire application was still at risk.

January 1 was the application deadline for most of the colleges I was applying to, so even if I sent the scores right away I?d be up against the deadline.

On top of that, I had to wait even a few more days until I could pay to send the scores. A credit card, an international one, is required to make payments to the College Board, and I did not have that. Out of hundreds of banks in Nepal only one bank, the Nabil Bank, provides credit card services to students. Going to the bank was the only option and the bank was closed for holiday, so I had to wait some more days to send the scores.

I tried calling the colleges to explain my situation, but all of them were closed for the holidays, so they didn?t respond to phone calls or emails. I also sent an email to the admissions office of each college explaining my situation.

Eventually Nabil Bank paid the College Board, and we paid Nabil Bank, with a bit extra of course. On January 4, I sent the scores.

A couple of weeks after I sent the scores, they were received by my regular decision schools ? it can take several weeks for colleges to receive and process scores once they?re sent. Even though I missed the deadline for sending the score by a couple of days, finally everything was back on track.

Could I have prevented all this?

Being an international student, and knowing that means it takes longer to communicate with the College Board and with schools, I should have taken the tests farther in advance of the deadline, so there was enough time to correct any error. Applying to some colleges where the test scores are optional could have been another way to make sure that an error wouldn?t put all my applications at stake; but then again, you should only apply to a college if it fits you and not just as insurance against making a mistake on your test form.

Most importantly, I should have double-checked each and every one of those tiny checkboxes, which can easily be overlooked under the pressure and stress of the test. It was not that I had not been warned on this one; the proctor did tell me, before every test, to fill out the details correctly and verify them. Maybe it was nerves that made me miss a checkbox; whatever it was, it was a simple yet costly error that tortured me for two months.

Taking into account the number of students that take the exam, and the barrier that exists in international communication ? the long wait periods for the mail and problems that persist in international calls?College Board did the best they could, and I did the worst. Being frustrated sure did not help me, nor the College Board, speed anything up. I admit that it was my mistake, but communicating via paper took lot of time, and patience. A fax or an email reply would have really expedited the process.

My advice for all the test takers out there: be wary while filling in each and every checkbox there is, otherwise you could end up very frustrated.

We asked: What?s the best way to avoid problems like this? ETS/College Board said:

College Board and ETS recommend that students pay close attention to:

- the instructions read aloud to them by supervisors ? every field in the answer sheet serves an important purpose requiring the proper attention in order to be correctly completed
- recording their answers in the proper corresponding section of their answer sheets when taking an SAT exam (i.e. section 2 answers go in the area marked section 2 in the answer sheet)
- using a number 2 pencil (taking care to avoid mechanical pencils) and properly and completely bubble in each response on their answer sheet in order to ensure their responses are properly picked up by scoring scanners
- fully and completely erasing any misgrids in order to ensure that only the proper responses are picked up by scoring scanners