The MuchSmarter Blog

If Your Teenager is a Good Student but a "Bad Test-Taker," Here's What You Can Do to Help

Steve Schecter
July 23, 2020

Does your teenager get really good grades in most or all of their courses, and then get scores they don’t even recognize when they take a practice SAT or ACT (or the real thing!)?

Are they struggling to understand why they can be so good in one area and so bad in another?

Are they frustrated because they don’t know how to approach the whole experience of standardized testing?

Are they anxious because they fear that their struggles with the SAT or ACT will prevent them from getting into the kind of college they would love to attend? 

Well, they are not alone. And you can help them get what they want from the SAT or ACT.

Why So Many Good Students Struggle on Standardized Tests

It turns out many, many students (way more than you’d think) excel in school but struggle on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT.  

Seems strange, doesn’t it?

This is not what the test-maker intended. These tests–the SAT, ACT and others–are supposed to show what kind of student your teenager is  and how well they'll do in their future studies. 

Then why is it that, every year, we meet wonderful students who struggle at first with standardized tests?   

We had, for example, an A+ student named Hannah who did not appear particularly strong on the SAT.   

The difference between her grades and her initial SAT practice tests made her doubt her ability.  Other A+ students she knew seemed to breeze through the SAT and ACT.  Why was she having trouble?  Is it possible she was not as smart as they were?  Maybe she was not smart enough to achieve the lofty goals she had set for herself.

The difference also caused her anxiety.  She began to think, “what if the SAT is the only thing standing between me and the school I want to attend?”  The added pressure made it even harder for her to do well.  

First, we helped her understand why her results on SAT/ACT practices were so different from her results in school.  

They’re two different games.

There actually is a really good explanation:

Performing in academic coursework and performing on the SAT/ACT are two different games.  

Think of it this way: We know that Serena Williams is a great tennis champion. But if she entered a table tennis tournament with no practice beforehand, would we expect her to automatically win it? We don’t know. Tennis and table tennis are two different games. The ball, the field, the paddle are all smaller. The physics are different. She would probably need some practice to get used to playing this new game before she was ready to dominate.

So we helped Hannah see that she needn’t get down on herself because her SAT/ACT performance was not initially as strong as her academic performance. She didn’t have to jump to the conclusion that she was “no good at standardized tests.” 

She just needed to recognize that the SAT/ACT was a different game from the one she’d been playing and then, to decide what she would do to make this SAT/ACT game her own.   

She also needed to give herself time to get good at this new game.

It did take time, but when Hannah was done with standardized testing, she had an SAT/ACT score that was comparable to her A+ performance in school.   And soon after that, she found herself accepted, early decision, to her first-choice Ivy League school.   

Here's How You Can Help

So, if you have a teenager who excels in school but lags on standardized tests, here's how you can help:

First, help them reject the label “No good at standardized tests”.  Those kinds of labels are inaccurate, and can stand in the way of their becoming good at standardized tests.

Next, help them clearly see that the SAT/ACT is a different game from the ones they’ve been playing and begin to consider what they need to do to get good at this new game.

Finally, give them time to succeed.  Mastering a game of skill takes time, and we don’t always know in advance exactly how much time.  If your teenager  were taking up tennis or golf or a musical instrument you would not expect mastery in a few weeks.  Help them respect the process of mastering a game of skill and then go ahead and master their SAT or ACT game!

Until next time! 


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