Can you think of the last time someone you know showed up to take a road test without any previous time behind the wheel?
Have you ever heard of a coach who liked to enter the season without any team practice just to get a baseline for performance?
Would you pay for–or even attend–a concert of musicians trying brand new instruments?
We generally recognize that important tasks, events, and challenges in life both demand and deserve preparation. Commitment, effort, and an enduring respect for the power of incremental improvement underscores the approach every scholar, athlete, and artist brings to their respective crafts.
Somehow, though, despite the notorious influence entrance exams like the SAT and ACT play in college admissions, many students still take the tests cold. Teens who consistently study for every minor test in school somehow forget to study for one major one, while athletes who devote 20+ hours a week to their sports fail to recognize the link between practice and performance. Why?!?
Part of the disconnect may relate to the seemingly general nature of these tests. Rather than assessing deep knowledge of natural science or world history, the SAT & ACT challenge specific reading, writing, and math skills. A high schooler who has been reading, writing, and figuring for his entire academic career might be forgiven for a certain degree of overconfidence in these areas. However, arriving unprepared on test day ignores one essential aspect of these exams:
The SAT & ACT are designed to rank students in the same cohort.
Colleges wouldn’t even care about these tests if they just mirrored the criterion-referenced tests school teachers use to measure how much students know about a given subject. The SAT & ACT are norm-referenced tests that allow college admissions officers to better understand each applicant’s place in the normal distribution of graduating, college-bound seniors in a given year. Thus, every significant component of these exams is designed to challenge a test taker’s place in that ranking.
The short answer to the question is that the SAT & ACT are extremely challenging to the unprepared, relative to their general academic ability. Most students with strong academic foundations will outscore those with less general success in school, but they will find that unfamiliarity with test content, structure, and timing will diminish their best efforts. In other words, nearly every test taker will underperform without preparation.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Some students naturally prepare for these types of exams without every intending to, simply by pursuing a lifelong passion in higher-level reading, writing, and problem solving. The right kind of teen sees these high-stakes exams as little more than pleasing puzzles well-suited to their particular skill sets.
As an analogy–which used to be a big deal on the SAT–ask, “How hard is playing the piano for the unprepared?” Obviously, if you are as unmusical as I am, playing any song more complex than Greensleeves on the piano with or without preparation is impossible. However, someone with nimble fingers, perfect pitch, a strong background in music, and an innate sense of rhythm can start tapping out tunes on a piano within hours or even minutes of discovering one. Even then, though, the path to a musician’s best performance lies at the end of hours, days, and years of deliberate practice.
Tests like the SAT & ACT are designed to challenge even those who prepare for them. Don’t take these exams unprepared!!