Every now and then, I’ll get a plaintive email from a student who has been diligently prepping for the SAT or ACT for months but can’t quite seem to get their test-day scores to match their practice test scores. Often, they’ve worked through my books and don’t seem to have any problem applying the concepts when they take practice exams. When it comes to the real thing, though, they just can’t seem to make everything work.

This is obviously a very frustrating situation: the fact that these students are able to score well when the test doesn’t count suggests that they’re capable of scoring well when it does count – but in some ways, that just makes things worse. The goal seems so close, yet so far away.

Unfortunately, my diagnostic powers in such situations are limited: without a full picture of just what a student is doing when s/he actually takes a test, it’s impossible for me to say exactly what the problem is.

That said, there are a handful of common reasons that official scores remain persistently lower than practice scores. Here are seven things to consider:


1) How fast (or slowly) are you working?  

It is very easy to develop a distorted sense of time when you are in the middle of a high-stakes exam. Minutes can feel like seconds, and hours can feel like minutes. Especially if you’re nervous and the adrenaline is flowing, you may feel as though you’re constantly running out of time and speed up to compensate – even if there is no need to do any such thing. Being excessively confident can also cause you to work too quickly and skip important steps. In that regard, high practice test scores can actually backfire on you.

Even if you’re a naturally fast worker, it’s generally not a good idea to have more than a few minutes left over at the end of a section. Slow down, and think your way carefully through each step; you don’t get extra points for speed.

On the flipside, some students work much more slowly and cautiously on the real test, to the point where they overthink things and get easy questions wrong. Or, they may start to run out of time and have no choice but to guess on too many questions.


2) Are you retaking old practice tests? (be honest!)

The short version: don’t do it.

The slightly longer version: even if you think enough time has passed and you won’t remember anything, trust me – you will. A score from a practice test you’ve already taken is not an accurate indicator of where you really stand.


3) Are you using College Board/ACT tests, or ones written by a different company?

Third-party tests (i.e., ones written by Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton Review) are not interchangeable with the real thing. They may omit concepts that are tested or include concepts that are not tested. As a result, you may obtain very different scores from them than you would from official material. Proceed with caution.

Particularly if you’re taking the SAT, you need to ration your official exams carefully. If you run through all of them quickly, there’s nowhere to get a stash of extras.


4) Are you changing your answers?

While common wisdom holds that you should always check your work, that is not always the best advice. If you’re seconding guessing yourself when you go back and double-check things, you could be changing right answers to wrong ones. I’ve seen students consistently lose points this way.


5) Are you really retaining/applying new knowledge and strategies?

If you take a full-length practice test right after you’ve studied new material, there’s a good chance you’ll remember it well and be motivated to apply it. If the content isn’t as fresh, however, you’ll probably forget some key things – regardless of how well you knew them initially.

Note that this can involve strategies as well as content knowledge, and sometimes issues can be extremely subtle.

Take ACT English: because you are required to blaze through so many questions at high speed, it’s very easy to get tired and lose focus by the time you hit the fourth passage. If, for example, you start trying to answer transition questions without physically crossing the transitional word or phrase already in the passage, you can easily get distracted and lose points unnecessarily. Combine those couple of questions with another few random errors, and you’re down three points on English right there.

So before you take a real test, make a list of the areas that tend to give you the most trouble.

Then, the week or so before the exam, devote a day to reviewing each one. Note the key things you need to remember or have a tendency to overlook.

When you get to the exam, write down those things at the top of your test as soon as you receive it. That way, you’ll have a “cheat sheet” to refer back to as you work.


6) Are you getting distracted?

I’ve seen students go down 50 points in a section because their concentration got thrown off by the kid in front of them kicking his chair or tapping his pencil. Unfortunately, these types of distractions aren’t something you can plan for.

If someone in the room is really being loud, you can obviously ask your proctor to step in, but otherwise you should try to practice in an area with some background noise. While earplugs are not on the list of items explicitly banned by the College Board for the SAT (unlike for AP tests), you should not count on your proctor permitting them. Earplugs with hidden microphones have been involved in past cheating scandals, and your proctor may be unwilling to take the risk.


7) What are you really doing when you take those practice tests?

Remember that during the real test, you will not have access to your phone. No stopping for 30 seconds to text your friend, no posting photos on Snapchat or Instagram, no Facebook, no music, no YouTube. Zero, zip, zilch, nada, for the whole entire test. Hard as it may be, you need to get used to being temporarily phone-less. You’ll have to do it for the real test, like it or not, so it’s best to be prepared.

Moreover, you cannot go to the bathroom in the middle of a section, or take frequent breaks, or pause for a few minutes to beg your dad to let you stay out late on Saturday night.

If you’re not already accustomed to focusing on the test for long periods, your scores are likely to take a hit. If you start to get tired or antsy, close your eyes for ten seconds or so and let yourself reset mentally. This is something that you need to practice too.


8) Are you just recognizing correct answers, or can you actually answer the questions, on your own, for real? 

Students frequently assume that because they’re usually able to recognize correct answers when given a list of options, they really know the material. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Mastering material to the point where you can apply it under pressure, during a high-stakes test, means knowing it to the point where you can come up with the actual answer, or get a pretty good sense of what information the right answer will contain, before you look at the choices. Wrong answers are deliberately written to sound plausible; you cannot assume that you’ll know the right answer when you see it.

NB: This is particularly true if you’re not a native English speaker. While somewhat simplified, the grammar rules that are tested aren’t just made up by the test-writers; they’re how English actually works. If you’re in the habit of saying things like, “I have been studying SAT since six months,” you’re going to have trouble—no matter how much you’ve studied, you haven’t internalized the fact that those grammatical rules correspond to a reality beyond the exam.