If you want a different score, do something differently

A couple of months ago, I got a phone call from a father who was interested in having me tutor his daughter for Critical Reading. She was solidly in the 600s, he said, but should be scoring in the 700s and could use a couple of new strategies. We chatted for a bit, and then he commented that he was sure that his daughter would do better on the real test — didn’t people always do better on the real thing, with all that adrenaline flowing? “Well, no,” I said. “Not necessarily. Sometimes they do. But just as often they don’t. Usually their scores are pretty much in line with those from their practice tests.”

Apparently he didn’t like that response since I never heard from him again.

I realize that it’s become a clich√© to define insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, but that notwithstanding, the saying does contain a hefty dose of truth — especially when it comes to standardized testing, accent on the “standardized” part.

A standardized test is, by definition, designed to ensure that you’ll score essentially the same on any given administration of it. If the test is easier, you might do a little better — but so will everyone else, and vice-versa if the test is harder. This might sound obvious, but it does bear repeating: unless you do something very differently, your score on the real test will most likely be more or less the same as your practice test scores, give or take 50-100 points.

Sure you might have a really bad day or a really good day, but you probably won’t really kick your scores to a different level. You could go from a 640 CR to a 680 CR or a 600 CR, but it’s a lot less likely that you’ll go from a 580 to a 630 or a 690 to a 730. Those thresholds exist for a reason: if you’re missing particular skills or making certain kinds of careless errors (not going back to the passage, rushing), you’re going to keep hitting a wall until the problems get remedied.

I spend an awful lot of time repeating that these days, and yet no one ever seems to listen. But on the off chance you find yourself at an impasse on the SAT and aren’t sure how to get your score moving, here’s my advice: whatever you do, don’t keep doing the same thing that you’ve been doing. If you don’t ever skip questions, try skipping questions. As a matter of fact, take a practice test on which you skip every single question you’re not sure how to answer. Just see what happens to your score.

On the other hand, if you usually skip lots of questions, try answering a few more than usual. If you don’t ever write things down, write things down; conversely, if you always spend lots of time underlining, only underline a few things. If it backfires, it backfires — that’s what practice tests are for. Just don’t be afraid to experiment. Your score might not skyrocket, but chances are you’ll hit on at least one thing that comes in handy sooner or later.