Why is it that so many strong students do not get ACT or SAT test scores that are commensurate with their performance at school? Over the years. I have encountered this challenge with many students. Obviously, tutoring for the exams helps – in many cases, dramatically – but let’s understand what’s really going on when this is a frustrating reality for students:
1.Students approach studying for the exam the same way they approach studying for a school test. This can’t work, as the SAT math, for example, is not strictly a math test but an exam covering several areas and levels of APPLIED math concepts, in no particular order.
SOLUTION: Students will come to understand the format of the exam by taking numerous practice tests. They then need to look at their mistakes and figure out where their thinking went ‘wrong’ that led to selecting the incorrect answer or ‘distractor’ and it’s officially labeled. Learning new strategies to read more critically and problem solve more methodically will boost scores even more.
2. Smart students have a tendency to ‘overthink’ a question, causing them to ‘miss’ the correct option. Many times I have to remind a student that they are a lot smarter than the exam and that there are level 1 questions, meant to be easy.
SOLUTION: Same as the above: When students take numerous practice tests, they will have more experience with the obvious correct answer and realize it is not about being tricked – there are truly easy questions on the test.
3. There is a huge difference between a student who learns primarily through intelligent thinking versus memorizing or rote learning, the latter being the primary method of assessing students in school. A student may be intelligent without having the ability to stay in the confines of pure memorization. Similarly, a person may be an excellent rote learner but not super intelligent. FYI: Rote learners tend to struggle more on standardized exams.
SOLUTION: Again, taking a lot of practice exams can help both types of learners. The intelligent, creative thinker who often tends to question authority – who may ask what’s the point of these tests – needs to realize that not doing well on a test that they have the capacity to do well on will limit their chances for success in life. Working with a mentor or tutor can dramatically help a student with this mindset* as the potential is there for a very high score.
The rote learner needs to do a lot of practice testing, but will tend to be more stuck in ‘same scores’ than the other types of students discussed. This type of student will require learning a more efficient way of reading and problem solving.
4. Because students who typically do well in school are told that they are ‘smart’, they may interpret such a compliment as a statement about their innate ability. Translate that into the belief that since their intelligence is fixed – regardless of how much work they do – then on some level they then believe that their intelligence is limited. Consequently, the notion that ‘smart kids don’t need to work hard to get good grades’ becomes a real roadblock to success when they encounter a course or test that they didn’t feel the need to study for and ultimately did poorly on, like the SAT.
SOLUTION: As with the rote and the intelligent, creative learners practice testing along with learning new approaches and strategies will certainly have an impact. Methods to change mindset* – including opening up students to the concept of realizing their ‘unique brilliance’- will maximize score potential.
5 A lot of students – especially females – tend to be overachievers and typically put a lot of undue pressure on themselves. When taking a test like the SAT or ACT, they often think thoughts like, “I can’t mess this up!” This type of emotional thought resides in the same area of the brain as high working or short term memory – where all the test prep strategies recently learned are stored. These thoughts end up competing for the same space in the brain which limits the student’s ability to effectively do the task at hand.
FYI: Students with low working memory – who didn’t study or learn much prior to the test – are usually not affected by the pressure.
Consider this, when girls were told to write their name in 20 seconds, many could not get it done in time! Why? They thought, ‘cursive’ or ‘print’, ‘legible’ or ‘not legible’, ‘big or small letters’. FYI: The boys had no problem writing their name in 20 seconds or less!
SOLUTION: Along with practice testing and learning new strategies, such students greatly benefit from mindset work and relaxation techniques to address the anxiety often associated with test performance.
BOTTOM LINE: To truly maximize test scores, students need to realize that there are tons of tools at their disposal:
- Take numerous practice tests
- Go to the College Boardor ACTwebsites for free resources
- Work with an experienced coach to learn critical reading and problem solving skills as well as proven strategies.
- Learn how to improve the test-taking mindset* – critical to ensuring success and maximizing score improvement. (We show our students how to use meditationand/or the Emotional Freedom Technique.)