06 September 2011

It’s not about how much you stress

Given the amount of weight admissions officers give to standardized test scores, I realize that everyone not applying only to test-optional schools is therefore entitled to a reasonable amount of stress over them. Yes, they count for a lot, and having to deal with them can be exhausting and overwhelming when piled on top of everything else the average high school junior or senior is trying to accomplish. What concerns me, though, is the tendency to confuse worrying (and talking) compulsively about the SAT with getting a good score on it.

If I may play armchair psychologist for a moment, I think that all that talking serves a distinct purpose, namely that it creates the illusion of control. If you can expound upon every last thing that could possibly be on the test (and, of course, the distribution of “hard” and “easy” tests throughout the year), then you can beat it. And thus the more you expound on it, the better you’re likely to do.

Only it doesn’t quite work that way.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter how much time you spend worrying about the SAT; there is absolutely no correlation between thinking about all the awful things that could happen if you don’t get a good score and actually getting a good score. Stressing and/or talking about it endlessly will not make your — or your child’s — score miraculously go up. If anything, it’ll have the opposite effect. Carefully identifying weak points and then working consistently and meticulously to remedy them will.

Besides, one of the things the SAT tests is the ability to think flexibly under pressure — to recognize when the inverse of a rule rather than the rule itself is being tested, and to quickly apply formulas and strategies that aren’t obviously called for (this is as much true for Critical Reading and Writing as it is for Math). While the vast majority of the concepts tested on the SAT are highly predictable, the specific ways in which those concepts are tested cannot always be anticipated.

Despite its flaws, one of the things that the College Board is truly brilliant at is including just enough unpredictable questions to make it incredibly difficult to get a perfect score. This might involve combining two concepts that aren’t typically tested in a single question, or including passage-based question that actually require you to know the meaning of a word — not just figure it out from context. The whole point is that you *can’t* really study for these things, and stressing out about them will make it harder, not easier, to approach them methodically when you encounter them on the test.

Incidentally, most of my really high-scoring students, including ones who didn’t start out scoring anywhere near so high, did not 1) spend significant amounts of time freaking out about the SAT, or 2) constantly listen to their parents work themselves into a frenzy about how competitive things were and how therefore anything less than an 800 was unacceptable. Sure, they grumbled a bit about having to take practice tests and occasionally flubbed an easy question because they over-thought it, but they simply put in the time, did the work, listened to what I said (!), and that was that. They took the test, did well, got into excellent colleges, and moved on with their lives, all without making themselves half-crazy in the process. Easier said than done? Naturally. But something to keep in mind as you witness the nervous breakdowns around you.

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