Secret of two Sams’ perfect SAT score: Joy in learning


To get a perfect score on the SAT test, most people believe that you have to spend an unusual amount of time studying.

That wasn’t the case for Sam Peterson, the Chaska High School senior who scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT last year. “I bet I spent about 15-20 hours preparing for the SAT,” he said.

What Peterson doesn’t mention is that he loves learning and has been taking Advanced Placement classes and doing a lot of homework since sophomore year.

“I was fairly lazy during 6th and 7th grade, and didn’t start to be as academically motivated as I am now until 8th grade. Since sophomore year I’ve had a lot of AP classes, and those have required me to devote a lot more time to school work,” said Peterson.

It’s the same story for Sam Lindsay-Levine, a St. Paul Central High School graduate who got a perfect score on the SAT back in 2000. (Back then, 1600 was the top score before the test added a written component, which increased the total possible score to 2400.)

Lindsay-Levine enjoyed learning so much he began taking math classes at the University of Minnesota at the age of 12.

Lindsay-Levine is now an engineer in California. In high school, math was his biggest subject. “Certainly the most time I spent was on my math classes, since they became real college-level, U of M classes I was taking along with U of M students” said Lindsay Levine.

Although neither of the two Sams spent a lot of time preparing for the SAT, they both had some preparation. Sam Peterson took the SAT as a seventh grader through the Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “I was curious about how well I could do. It was a fun challenge,” Peterson said

He scored perfectly on the SAT test he took his junior year, which is when students applying to colleges take the SAT and ACT tests.

Lindsay-Levine said he found some of his preparation material dull, but some of the material was also helpful. “I read one book, ‘Up Your Score,’ which was way funnier than the usual bone-dry test preparation books. I checked out a book of sample practice tests from the library, and did about three or four of them, which I would definitely recommend,” Lindsay said.

Besides sharing Sam as a first name and scoring perfectly on the SAT, these two Sams have more things in common. One is they’re both naturally intelligent. “I can remember being identified as extremely gifted from about 1st grade; my elementary and middle school classmates considered me ‘smart’ and in high school I’ve become really intellectually curious; people know that I care a lot about academics,” said Peterson.

Lindsay-Levine thinks that one of the reasons he was really successful on the SAT came from his natural talents. “What the test measures are exactly my areas of strength: logical thinking done very quickly, simple mathematical questions, and a large vocabulary derived from recreational reading,” said Lindsay-Levine.

It is easy to stereotype these two guys as your everyday school nerds – guys who spent a ton of time studying for the SAT exam, and missed out on their social lives. But both Sams describe themselves as very versatile guys.

“I’m a guy with a lot of different interests besides academics. During the school year I run cross county and track and field. During the summer my friends and I go water skiing or sometimes we watch movies,” said Peterson.

Lindsay remembers how much fun he had with some of his friends in high school.
“My friends and I played a lot of board and card games, a hobby that I’ve continued into adulthood. Computer games were big, too: both the usual PC games like Diablo and X-COM, plus a variety of ASCII-based games we wrote ourselves on programmable calculators” said Lindsay in an e-mail.

Peterson is now turning his attention to college. He had his choice of a lot of top schools and decided on Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I think it will be really cool. I was there in November, and I wondered if it would be intimidating but it wasn’t. It just kind of feels like being at home for the first time and not feeling different. It would be cool to be someplace where so many people are like you,” said Peterson.

Lindsay-Levine graduated in 2004 from the California Institute of Technology, where he enjoyed being around students as smart as he was. “Personally, I thought it was great. I was still towards the upper fraction in raw talent, but it was great to be surrounded by other brilliant people, and great to be with the people who made all the rest of us look at them in awe,” said Lindsay-Levine.

He is working as a software engineer at Applied Minds, a think tank in Glendale, California. Peterson does not have a career in mind yet but knows he wants to help people.

“I want to be happy with what I’m doing. I would like to do something where I could help people out, and help improve other peoples’ lives,” said Peterson.

Being a great student in high school is not easy, but going off to a top-notch college and being great is even harder. Despite all the hard work it takes to stay focused, Sam Lindsay-Levine would do it all over again.

“To me, it was all worth it at the time for its own sake. I didn’t study or go to school with the mindset that I was slogging through until it would pay off; I did it because I was interested in what I was learning or for the joy of learning,” said Lindsay-Levine.

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