Serious, measurable improvement is never easy. Starting in one place, then grinding and striving and hustling to a markedly better one demands tremendous effort, commitment, and practice, especially when others are trying to beat you to that goal. Worst of all, no amount of hustle ensures that desired outcome. As famous home-run hitter Alex Rodriguez commented, “Enjoy your sweat, because hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but without it you don’t have a chance.”
Nonetheless, we do expect to see results in proportion to our efforts, especially when it comes to test prep. Students who prepare for tests like the SAT and ACT through self-study, group classes, or tutoring often feel much better positioned for success on test day. Unfortunately, even the most prepared student can fall short of her potential on the big day. These setbacks occur far more often than you might expect. When they do, consider three reasons why and two ways to respond:
Sometimes, failure deserves to be laid at the feet of the coach. Often, what we consider preparation doesn’t include a teacher or tutor at all. That means you prepped on your own, perhaps with an online program like Khan Academy or through a prep book, which makes you the coach. But more sophisticated prep involves instructors, in which case you want to consider the credentials, methodology, and commitment of your teacher or tutor:
- Was the teacher qualified, trained, and managed sufficiently?
- Was the curriculum effective?
- Did the program afford opportunities to make and learn from mistakes?
- Did the program include practice tests and test review sessions?
- Did the teacher show a personal interest in your success?
- Had many others seen improvement using the same program?
- Did you do enough prep to realistically reach your goals?
2. Internal Factors
High stakes standardized tests inspire levels of dread and stress unmatched in most other endeavors; the test anxiety struggle is real. To excel under that kind of pressure, you need to bring your best if you want to score your best:
- Did you feel excessively anxious?
- Were you insufficiently interested?
- Did you feel prepared in the moment?
- Were you well-rested and well-fed?
- Did you bring everything you needed?
- Did you execute the strategies you practiced on every question and section?
3. External Factors
The true value of tests like the SAT and ACT depend on their highly standardized design. These exams must be administered the exact same way every place and every time they are administered. Any distraction or deviation from expectations can impact personal performance:
- Was the testing location quiet, clean, and pleasant?
- Was the temperature within an acceptable range?
- Was check-in smooth and orderly?
- Did the proctor run the test professionally?
- Were any of the other test takers excessively distracting?
- Did anything out of the ordinary occur?
High stakes testing feels very much like a sport or performance, where the interaction of preparation, internal factors, and external factors often appear more evident. For example, the aforementioned A-Rod performed at an extremely high level over a long and often controversial career. He blasted 696 home runs and accounted for over 3,000 hits, over 2,000 runs scored, and over 2,000 RBIs. Yet, this hitting phenom only batted a career .295 average, which means that more than 7 of every 10 turns at bat resulted in an out. Even the greatest hitters strike out–a lot–just as even the most well-prepared test takers sometimes earn lower than expected scores.
So how can you respond when your score does not improve? Basically, you can either accept it or improve it. I strongly encourage the latter. The test makers offer test dates all year long for the same reasons baseball players get more than one turn at bat in a game. Students who turn out a sub-par performance can and should shake it off and take another shot:
- If preparation was insufficient, escalate: move to a class, to a tutor, or to a better tutor.
- If your internal game was insufficient, continue to develop the focus, competence, and confidence needed to reach your goals.
- If the test environment was insufficient, develop greater resilience to bounce back from chaos and distractions.
Every single day, people who worked really, really hard towards their goals fail to achieve them. Some tragically give up, while others respect the work they’ve already invested and redouble their efforts to meet or even exceed their targets. Don’t let a bad day dash your hopes or shake your confidence. Step back up to the plate and swing for the fences!