Many of you took the dreaded AP test; the letters stand for ALWAYS PAINFUL, which neatly captures the full experience. For reasons known only to the evil wizards who dreamed up this test, it is not scored like every other school assignment since Julius Ceasar took Intro to Latin (twice); instead of running from 0 to 100, AP scores range from 1 to 5. To help you fully grasp how this works, here is an example. Please take notes so you don’t get lost.

  • You take the test, which includes two sections. Between the two, your raw score (in this example) could range from 0 to 39.
  • That score is then converted to a base of 100-150, using either alchemy or witchcraft, depending on the test subject.
  • That converted score is then re-converted to a scale of 1-5, with 5 being a “perfect” score and 1 qualifying you to take the test over again at full price. This conversion is more complex than the first one, and is performed on abaci (the plural form of ‘abacus’)  by specially trained monkeys (the plural form of ‘monkey’).

The end result of all this testing voodoo is that you might get 140 out of 150 and receive a “perfect” score of 5. This is what my wife Laura would have gotten. OR you might receive a score of 139, which is virtually the same score, but which would only earn you a final score of 4. This is what Laura’s first husband would have gotten because he was kind of a slacker. Thankfully she has stayed with him despite that.

Also, if you somehow manage to get absolutely nothing right on the test, your score of 0 would convert to a score of 0, then in the final transformation would mysteriously yield a score of 1. I think that’s sort of the AP version of getting a ‘participant’ trophy or something. When it comes to AP tests, there are no losers, except the parents who have to shell out another $90 for you to take it again.

Now that you know all that weird math behind the scores, here’s the really weird part: scores like these play a huge role in the course of people’s lives.

Researchers were interested in whether AP scores play a role in which college major students choose.  As expected, students who do well on an AP test are more likely to major in that field, but here’s where it gets strange: a student who scores 5 is far more likely (not just a little more) to major in that field than a student who scores 4. Remember all that scoring jujitsu? This means that a student who got one more question right is much much more likely to major in that field IF that one item pushed her score from a 4 to a 5. And in case you don’t remember, your choice of major has major (ha!) implications for the rest of your life; if you are like me, the choice of your final major (after the previous four) has a big impact.

It boils down to this: if you take that test and get a 5, you are likely to conclude that you have a knack for it. And major in it. And have a career in it. If by chance, you took that same test, got one less right and scored a 4, your chances of pursuing that field in college and for a career fell dramatically, in some cases up to 30%. It’s a little scary to consider that your entire career path could have been set because you had no idea, “How many pancakes will fit on the roof if you have 4 pencils and 3 bananas?” Only after the test did you realize it was a trick question, since these were blueberry pancakes, meaning the answer was “Ethiopia.”

Here’s why it matters, even though you and I both hope to never take any test, of any kind, anywhere, ever again. The scientists concluded that major life choices were massively impacted by the simple feedback that said to them, in effect, “You are really good at this.” To a 17 year old who is a) overwhelmed with too many options, and b) still not entirely convinced he is actually capable or competent  at anything, that tiny nudge can be a tidal wave of relief.

We lived in a student residence hall for four years, and I was continually amazed as the students who ate dinner around our table told the stories of how they came to be at ACU. Some of the stories involved complex, multi-item analyses of all their options and potential outcomes at different schools. Okay, one of the stories was like that, but many of them were surprisingly dependent on seemingly random events in their lives, like driving past Abilene and just deciding to look around campus, or getting an unexpected letter in the mail from this school they had never heard of. None actually admitted it was because “Abilene” puts us at the top of virtually every alphabetical college list ever produced, but I suspect… When the researchers say that something as simple as doing well or badly on an AP test can impact your whole future, I believe it, since some our students’ paths were shaped by far less than this.

If a teacher or parent or friend or coach or boss has ever looked you straight in the eye and said, “You are really good at this,” or perhaps, “You could become really great at this” you understand what happened there. If a lousy AP test can give someone this kind of boost, what can a compliment mean if it comes from an actual person? Like you. No matter how powerless you may feel, you have the power to speak joy into someone else’s life, and few things feel better than someone’s simple observation that we are good at something. Deep down, most of us share Mark Twain’s perspective: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

Finally, would you believe that making someone else happy like this is going to make you happy as well? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, of course you would.

Most of these posts deal with how to find happiness in your own life, but you have enormous power to bestow the gift of happiness on others. With great power comes great responsibility.

Homework: Tell one person that he or she is good at something, then watch to see what kind of reaction you get.

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