Neither did Faulkner or LBJ, though there are pages of search results lamenting the low scores of each. How did this curious rumor come to be, and what does it imply for today’s test takers? We scoured internet archives back five years to find out.
In 2013, Workman Publishing released an ACT prep book penned by Chris Arp et.al. In this 352-page tome entitled, Up Your Score: ACT, 2014-2015 Edition, the authors take a lighthearted approach to test prep, including such chapter titles as, “The Darkness: A Maelstrom of Fear,” followed by, “The Light: Studying Without Stress.” But it is the chapter entitled “The True Story of the ACT-bot” that seems to have seeded a rumor that is well into its fifth year, with no signs of exhaustion.
In this section, the authors introduce a narrative involving the fictitious ACT-bot: a robot who clawed his way from underground to fight the US military and evaluate the populous on its ability to perform on a standardized test. The authors use this character as an antagonist in the book, and the device works. And, it is clearly fiction. But in the margin, abutting a line about an archeologist being vaporized by the robot, there lies a reference to ACT scores of famous Americans. Among others, it claims William Faulkner scored an 18, Marilyn Monroe: 21; LBJ: 26; and “That guy who narrates the trailers for disaster movies:” 23. Given the jocular tone of the section, the cohort of the list, or even a passing knowledge of history, one would almost certainly conclude that the report was in jest. Almost.
But 5 years ago, the reddit user Fekpol12 posted the above picture of the margin of the book, out of context with the title, “ACT Scores of Famous Americans – John Cena: 36, Steve Jobs: 32, Barack Obama:30, Marilyn Monroe: 21.” And in the era of post truth, a picture of a book’s margin, reposted on Reddit goes as truth.
Shortly thereafter, in February 2015, the image was found by a small but ambitious company named PrepScholar. Marketing themselves as, “the best college admissions consulting service in the world. Founded by Harvard grads….” the company posted on its Facebook page a link to an article explaining what celebrities achieved on their ACTs. This list included Marilyn Monroe and LBJ, and is, to my searches, the first time either had their supposed ACT scores listed, outside of Arp’s farce. The PrepScholar article contained no references, but was not posed as fiction.
In February 2016, Magoosh—who is ranked by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.– published a version of the list. Their list included two from Arp’s joke list: Marilyn Monroe and John Cena—the professional wrestler-cum-actor who Arp listed as scoring a 20 on his first attempt and a perfect 36 on his second.
In November 2017, PrepScholar updated the list, upgrading the content with pictures and some additional ACT scores. And while the author cited the Flickr account from where she got the photo of Marilyn Monroe, she opted not to cite any sources for the test scores.
In November 2018 PrepExpert (the company launched to success by its appearance on SharkTank and subsequent funding by Mark Cuban) decided to make an infographic including three from Arp’s list (LBJ, Monroe, and Faulkner), with each celebrity represented by a stylized artistic portrait. Again, no references were provided, though they did give the memory of Faulkner a postmortem consolation for winning the Nobel Prize in literature despite his supposedly average ACT score: “Novelist William Faulkner scored an 18 on the ACT, not an incredibly impressive score overall. But consider his career – award-winning author, including the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
In February 2019, SupertutorTV repeated the scores of the trio (Monroe, LBJ, Faulkner). While we give them a nod for being the first article in 5 years to cite a source, their source was PrepScholar, who as far as we can tell, sourced their information from Arp’s list.
As recently as September 2019, the rumor lives on, with JumpStart Tutoring regurgitating the Monroe statistic.
But wait—what if Arp got it right? What if his team did investigative research and uncovered the truth? Stranger things have happened.
Never mind the fact that the ACT first debuted in November 1959, when Monroe was pushing 34 and busy receiving a Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot.
Suspend disbelief, and assume that in 1959, Faulkner, who had already received the Nobel Prize in Literature 10 years earlier, grew tired of writing. And ponder a world where, between receiving his two Pulitzer Prizes (1955 and 1963), he had writers block and wanted to sit down for a nice college entrance exam to get the creative juices flowing.
In this world where 30-something actors at the height of their careers take college entrance exams, and where Nobel Laureates take the ACT in their 50s, then certainly presidents would not be left out of the fun.
LBJ would have heard of the new craze sweeping the glitterati and would have had to have taken the exam. Eisenhower, who had tasked Johnson (a senator at the time) with navigating peaceful space exploration, surely would have understood Johnson’s desire to take the ACT. Kennedy would have given Johnson some time to study in between campaign rallies, surely.
That could be. But I reached out to Arp and asked if his section listing scores was fiction or if he had sources. He called me back in less than 12 hours and said cheerfully, “of course it was a joke…the list has Faulkner on it.”
Maybe all the republishing of the list could be forgivable if anyone had ever cited anything, so that the readers could audit the trustworthiness.
Or maybe if Arps book was inaccessible, or if it were challenging to purchase a copy, then we could hand-waive the rumor.
But in 2014, Google Books indexed the 2013 edition of the book and included the section containing “scores” in its free preview. Even those who wanted to cite the list without purchasing the book could have googled, scrolled to page 20 and found that in the margin, under the list of scores is a colorful quote from one of the authors, “I only listen to audiobooks read by Taylor Lautner. If you listen closely enough, you can hear his abs contracting.” Certainly, that would have raised flags enough to not publish the list.
What’s the harm, some might ask? The republication by the major test prep companies was entertaining, and there was no harm done to the deceased. Well, the libel aside (not Arp’s—which was clearly fiction), it does the same harm as the myth that Einstein failed math and was a bad student (Einstein was clearly talented from an early age, only failing an entrance exam which was given in French, not his native tongue). The harm is that it violates reality to the detriment of those who believe it. It produces a sideways narrative wherein things that should be worrisome, are dismissed.
If you do poorly on tests, there is a chance that the education system is failing you and that your learning process requires special attention. A response to failure in math should not be to cite Einstein. A response to dropping out of college should not be a Steve Jobs reference. And a response to bad test scores should not be, “but so did LBJ and he became the president.” Education is not to be taken lightly, and its grading is not to be misrepresented—least of all by education companies that claim expertise in the matter.
All this to say nothing of the Faulkner, Johnson, and Mortenson (real name of Monroe) families, whose star members lackluster “scores” are being reprinted to this day.