The MuchSmarter Blog

Hannah: "Great in School, Bad at Standardized Tests"

Steve Schecter
April 3, 2020

Hannah was an outstanding student--good enough that, as she thought about college, she could imagine getting into some of the most competitive schools in the country.  

Only one thing barred her path:  she was, by her own account, “bad at standardized tests.”

In truth, she wasn’t really “bad” at standardized tests.  It’s just that her standardized test results over the years had not been nearly as outstanding as you would expect given her stellar performance in school. 

But Hannah saw the difference and concluded that she was bad on standardized tests.  

She took that train of thought a little further.  Some of the other outstanding students she knew were breezing through the whole standardized test game, getting very high SAT or ACT scores with little practice.  So she began to think, “Maybe I’m not as smart as so-and-so.  Maybe I’m not truly smart.  Maybe I do well in school only because I work so hard.”

Then her thinking became even more worrisome:  “What if I can’t get a good SAT or ACT score and this is the one thing that prevents me from getting into the college I want”. 

So this whole standardized test experience threatened to become one of self-doubt and anxiety for Hannah. 

She needed a way to get past this “bad on standardized tests” label that she had adopted for herself. She had to learn to let go of the idea that she was “bad on standardized tests.” We helped her see that mastering standardized tests was just a different game from the game of mastering academic subjects--and that she simply had not learned this new game yet!!

Think about it: just because Serena Williams is a great tennis player does not automatically mean that she would immediately become a great ping-pong player if she switched to that game, right? Sure, she has great hand-eye coordination, but ping-pong would still be a new game for her, and she would probably need some time to adjust before she got as good as she is at tennis.  

Similarly, Hannah would need to give herself time to succeed in her new game of standardized tests. And that is exactly what she did. 

She let go of the idea that she was somehow “less smart” because she needed time to master the SAT or ACT.   She began to practice each week. She made steady improvements, and about 15 months later, Hannah had an ACT score that matched her A+ performance in her high school classes.  

Is 15 months a long time to spend practicing for the SAT and ACT?  Not from Hannah’s point of view! After all, her final 99th percentile ACT score removed the one obstacle she had in the way of admission to the school of her dreams, and three months later, she was admitted to an Ivy League it's probably a good bet that she considers the time she gave herself to master the SAT/ACT game as time well spent! 

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