Parent's Guide to Education During Covid-19. Get the guide

A Blog post

Students CAN enjoy SAT/ACT prep
  • Calendar Aug 31, 2021
  • User Vincent Perry
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

...if we change our attitude about standardized testing.

The messages that we constantly get from teachers, counselors, and even test prep companies, is that standardized testing is an annoying and pointless hoop we need to jump through. We’re told that people who are “good test takers” do well on the test, and that you aren’t being tested on anything relevant. Test prep is focussed on “strategies” and “tactics”. Get through the test, and when you’re done, breathe a sigh of relief and never think about it again.

With messages like these, is it any wonder that students dread the test and test prep? Is it any wonder that so many students go through the motions in their test prep? It’s hard to get energized to put your best effort into something that you believe is barely better than pointless.

I LOVE test prep. It is, by far, my favorite work we do. And I’ve got a much more uplifting and inspiring message about test prep:

Test prep is an opportunity to learn valuable skills and lessons that students need to succeed in college and in life. And many of these lessons, they aren’t learning in school. Here are two of them:

Quality matters. Careless mistakes matter.

In our kids’ math classes, teachers often don’t even look at homework assignments. Students quickly learn that as long as they’ve written something down on the page, they’ll get a stamp on the homework and get their points in the gradebook. If they get a problem wrong on the homework, no big deal, the correct answer is in the back of the book. And if they make an arithmetic mistake on the test, they’ll get partial credit for “understanding how to do the problem”. When students miss a question because of a “careless mistake” they don’t tend to take those as seriously, and they give themselves credit for still knowing “how to do the problem”.

In the real world outside of school (and the SAT), no one cares why you made a mistake. There is no partial credit. What they care about is that the job is done correctly. A brilliant student who understands how to do a math problem but makes an algebra error gets the same number of points on a problem as a student who had no clue how to do it. No points for being brilliant. The points go to the students who can execute, over and over again, for 4 hours.

Similarly, re-orienting students to focus their attention on the root causes of the execution mistakes they make is a crucial skill for them that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Instead of, “Oops, I accidentally added those numbers incorrectly. My bad.” students need to think about WHY that mistake happened, and what they need to do differently next time to avoid that mistake. It’s easy to just say “that was a dumb mistake” but there is always ACTION that can be taken to make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again, if we take the time and mentally energy to engage. And if we don’t identify that behavior change, no matter how trivial it seems, we are losing ALL the opportunity to improve.

Caring about quality means:

  • Showing work, neatly and completely, on every problem.
  • Not taking problems, even "easy" ones, for granted.
  • Identifying most common sources of error.

For most students, a focus on execution errors is the simplest way to improve their scores.

“I don’t know” is a FANTASTIC answer

Students learn to be afraid of “I don’t know” in school.

To students, “I don’t know” is being embarrassed when a teacher calls on them, or a bad grade on a test. Students look at their entire job as “to know” and, to them, “I don’t know” is a failure. To them, “I don’t know” means “I need to go talk to someone who does know and have them tell me the thing I need to memorize.”

Here is the problem: No matter how much your son or daughter prepares for the SAT, they are going to see problems that they don’t know how to solve. Their success is going to depend on how comfortable they are in saying, “I don’t know” and diving in and exploring what they do know, asking questions, and trying ideas.

This is especially difficult for more advanced students, since they are used to looking at tests and know how to answer all the questions, because they practiced those problems. It is not at all unusual for a student in calculus to underperform on the math section of the SAT. It is because that student is not used to seeing problems on a test that they don’t know how to solve right off the bat.

“What do I do when I see a problem I don’t know how to solve?” is a crucial skill for students to master. And while teaching creative problem solving is crucial, what is even more important is changing the energy around “I don’t know” from frustration to curiosity. The world is 99.999%+ “I don’t know”s and showing students that they are capable of independent thinking, analysis, synthesis, unlocks their limitless potential. Students that are paralyzed by “I don’t know” will never become the successful problem solvers that they CAN become.

The most successful people in life are the people who bravely and confidently dive into and solve the world’s “I don’t know”s. Showing students that they can bravely and confidently dive into the “I don’t knows” in their SAT prep (and on test day!) is an important step toward producing those brave and confident adults.

Having the right framing when you take on a difficult task, like improving SAT scores, is crucial. Knowing that the work you are doing is going to have a large and lasting positive impact on you is motivating. Motivation is crucial to ensure that students have the energy to push themselves hard in their SAT prep. Improving SAT scores is not a matter of listening to an instructor speak to you two hours per week. It takes consistent sustained effort. Students that find that effort meaningful will exert themselves more consistently than those who believe that the SAT is little more than a bureaucratic hoop to jump through.


Call us at 858.551.2560 or email to discuss how we can help your family get the most our of the test prep process!


Contact Us

Got a question? We'd love to hear from you.
Send us a message and we'll respond as soon as possible.

    Top Arrow