I know I’m posting this a day late, after some of the “omigod I got my scores back” hysteria has subsided, but please forgive me: I’m recovering from several weeks of what can only be described as book-formatting hell (columns are a dangerous, dangerous thing when it comes to Word), and frankly I could barely stand to look at my computer yesterday.

So if you are by chance scouring the Internet looking for some advice about what to do for your less-than-stellar SAT scores, here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts.

A couple of months back, when Debbie Stier was giving a talk about Perfect Score Project at Bronxville High School, I suggested she open her segue into the SAT-prep part of her talk with three big questions, which I’m going to pose to you now:

1) Where are you and why?

2) Where do you want to be?

3) What are you realistically willing to do to get there?

I ask these questions because it’s very tempting to assume your score was a quirk of fate, or of the curve, or of the fact that you didn’t get quite as much sleep as you should have, or of the kid who sat in front of you tapping his pencil incessantly and making it just impossible for you to concentrate the way you obviously would have been able to otherwise… Scores don’t usually go way up on the real test; if anything, they tend to go down because you’re under so much pressure.

When you’re convinced that your score just had to be the result of some seemingly minor external factor — especially if that score was a lot lower than the ones you’ve been getting on practice tests — the natural reaction is to jump to take the test again as soon as possible because you just want to get it over with and never have to look at another prep book again, and hey, maybe you’ll luck and get an easier test and your score will go way up and then you’ll just be done. I call these “rebound tests,” and unfortunately, scores on them tend to be almost identical to the scores on the original test.

Now, to be clear, if you did genuinely happen to be ill or in need of a root canal (I do actually know of a kid that happened to), then yes, by all means, sign up for the next SAT so that you can get see what your score is like when you’re healthy and lucid. But absent some sort of serious mitigating factor, it’s well worth your while to stop, take stock, and figure out what you need to work on before plunging back in to the real thing. Unless there are one or two superficial thing consistently holding you back (e.g. timing problems on CR but zero comprehension issues), there might not be a quick fix. This is especially true if you’re trying to break through a major barrier (high 500s to 600+, high 600s to 700+, etc.). Those “walls” exist for a reason, and usually if you want to get past them, something substantial has to change. Otherwise you just end up beating your head against them.

Think of it this way: although you may not find the thought of being stuck in SAT-prep land for another six months particularly appealing, you’ve still actually got some time. True, if you want to apply early, you should be done be October, but still… that’s a pretty long while. Even if you’ve got big gaps, you can go some way toward plugging them.

This is, however, where question #3 above comes into play. I can’t count the number of times parents have told me earnestly, “But my child really wants do well on the SAT,” as if merely wanting to do well were enough. I can’t say I’ve ever worked with anyone who didn’t want to do well. That’s not the point. The point is that you have to be willing to sit down and struggle, maybe for longer than you’d like, and perhaps admit that you don’t know everything after all. It also means that you might have to devote more of your summer than you’d like to studying: if you just can’t do it, that’s perfectly fine, but you probably shouldn’t expect your scores to skyrocket in October. Again, it’s about being realistic and knowing just how much you can honestly handle.

I’ve worked with a handful of kids who had major lightbulb moments after just a session or two: they suddenly “got” what it was the test was trying to do, and they saw the logic behind it. But then they went and the worked on their own. A lot. And not because anyone was forcing them to. They brought a wonderful sense of curiosity and enthusiasm because they saw studying for the test as an opportunity to actually learn something that went way beyond the SAT (one of them turned into a huge Oliver Sacks fan and wrote his essay for Columbia, where Sacks teaches, about him).

So before you rush to take the test again as soon as possible, think about what you actually need to accomplish between where you are now and where you hope to be. Then ask yourself what specific steps, if any, you’re actually willing to take to get there.