Are You a Bad Test-Taker?

Tell me, have you ever felt this? This annoying, ego-deflating feeling that you’re simply a “bad test taker”? Have you ever felt that standardized tests just aren’t your thing? Maybe you do decently or even excellently in school. You may even have straight As. And even if you don’t, maybe you feel your GPA just doesn’t seem to match your SAT/ACT score. For whatever reason, the SAT/ACT score feels oddly low for you.

If you’re a parent, maybe none of your students’ teachers have ever mentioned anything about seriously lacking skills in fundamental reading, math, or grammar. So it comes as a shock when you see your students’ PSAT score falls in a disappointingly low percentile. It just doesn’t make sense if your son or daughter has always been an overall diligent and successful student.

When you ask them what happened, they’re just as clueless. Maybe they were having an off day, they didn’t get enough sleep, or the A/C wasn’t working and it was too hot. That kid sitting next to them was punching his calculator keys too hard and making a ruckus. You start brainstorming some other theories: maybe your student let one or two questions stump him/her for too long, which sucked up too much time. There was just that one reading passage that didn’t really make sense.

Who really knows, but come the next test and the results aren’t much different. You throw your hands up in the air and declare, “Well, I guess my song/daughter is just a bad test taker!”

What Does It Mean to Be a “Bad Test Taker”?

But what’s really going on here?

What does it even mean to be a “bad test taker”? A bad test taker is just someone who didn’t score well, but what causes that?

I’ll often ask my students how much time and effort they put into school. Usually, it’s a significant amount, dozens of hours of week because there are a lot of classes and teachers are relentless, just piling on the homework. Then add exams and papers…the list goes on.

Then I’ll inquire how long these students spent studying for the SAT/ACT. Often, they say they haven’t even started. They took the test cold–no prep, not even a single practice test ahead of time to get familiar with the format.

Hmm, could it be that the poor score is because they didn’t study specifically for the SAT/ACT?

But then there are also many students who’ve studied extensively over a long summer boot camp, but they just didn’t get the score they were hoping for.

They can’t seem to understand why their score is so low, so they just start to believe they’re a “bad test taker.” There’s just something about standardized tests that you weren’t built for, right?

Even though these tests seem to test the same things you’re studying in school (math, reading, grammar, science), the SAT/ACT questions just feel…different. There’s something strange about them that they feel like foreign concepts. Maybe a few questions excite you because you think you recognize the concept because you just took a chapter test on it in school, but as you start working through the question, you quickly realize it’s not working out the way you thought it’d go. You get stumped.

Well, after working with thousands of students for over 20,000 hours on the SAT/ACT, let me tell you, these feelings and experiences are absolutely common! There’s nothing wrong with YOU that makes you a bad test taker.

In fact, the real culprit is that the SAT/ACT simply doesn’t align with what you’re being taught in school. Is it any real surprise the SAT/ACT are heavily criticized these days and so many colleges have become test-optional (and not even necessarily due the coronavirus)?

School Doesn’t Prepare You for the SAT/ACT

The truth is, school is NOT preparing students well for the SAT/ACT at all because the SAT/ACT are testing wildly different concepts that only SEEM the same as school concepts.

Math-class math is SOOO different from SAT/ACT math because SAT/ACT math questions were designed with specific shortcuts and patterns that school math doesn’t bother to teach. Some students are savvy enough to sense these patterns on their own from doing enough questions, but most never notice because they were never directly taught to spot these patterns.

English or literature class is even worse because, in school, you’re being trained to interpret and add your own opinions. But the SAT/ACT Reading sections have objective answers that are absolutely NOT up for interpretation or debate. They’re multiple choice questions, so there’s got to be 1 correct answer and 3 wrong choices.

If things were up for discussion, then the SAT/ACT tastemakers would get sued for administering an unfair test. To do well on the SAT/ACT actually requires UNLEARNING the years of interpretation you’ve been doing in your English class! Imagine that — mastering the stuff you learn in class is actually HURTING your SAT/ACT score (which is no fault of yours).

Most high schools don’t even teach grammar anymore or just barely. I can’t tell you how atrocious most students’ writing samples are. They’re filled with comma splice errors, misused colons and semicolons, and faulty modifiers. Yet, the SAT/ACT test specific punctuation, grammar, and rhetorical concepts.

And that ACT Science section? It barely deserves to be called science! It’s more just reading complicated charts and graphs with some logical reasoning thrown in. But the amount of actual science knowledge you need to know? You’ve already pretty much learned it all before high school. So that Krebs cycle or photosynthesis stuff you’re learning in biology? No need.

How to Master the SAT/ACT’s Specific Patterns, Traps, and Concepts

You’re only a bad test taker because you haven’t earned a solid score yet, but you’re NOT a bad test taker because there’s something inherently wrong with your brain that makes it impossible to do well on standardized tests.

The reason you aren’t scoring well (yet) is that you haven’t been prepared for these tests in the right way. Doing well in school will NOT naturally translate into doing well on the SAT/ACT.

These tests were designed to test concepts in a very specific way that requires close analysis and dissection (which I’ve done over the past decade) to recognize the traps, patterns, and subtleties.

No one taught you the right logical approach to read the SAT/ACT passages. Hint: if you’re simply reading the passage straight through, then answering the questions, you’re going to have a bad time. If you’re scanning the questions ahead of time, just so you’ll know where to pay attention when you read the story, you’re also wasting your time. There’s a better approach, but it only works specifically for the SAT/ACT!

If you’re setting up algebraic equations on the SAT/ACT math and going through the steps one by one like you learned in math class, then you’re going to find yourself spending double the time you actually need because you completely missed the shortcut. In fact, you don’t even need algebraic equations the vast majority of the time. You can just turn those x variables into any number you like (say, 100) just because you feel like it! Just try doing that in math class; your teacher would be shocked and probably deduct points for not showing your work properly. But that’s exactly what you need to do to ace the SAT/ACT Math.

You need to understand the test’s peculiarities and unique framework. You need to know the test’s specific concept distribution, so you’re focusing your time and effort on the concepts that are tested more frequently first! Most of all, to ace the SAT/ACT, you need to study for the SAT/ACT specifically.

Many families ask me if they should read The New York TimesThe Economist, or classic English novels to improve SAT/ACT Reading skills. But my answer is NO! Indirect practice for the SAT/ACT doesn’t work! Instead, just dive into actual SAT/ACT questions and learn from those; why study something that isn’t the actual test itself?

If no one has ever shown the SAT/ACT specific patterns, traps, and concepts, then you aren’t a bad test taker, just an inexperienced one. But once you’re shown the light and you’re familiar with the test’s intricacies, it’ll all fall into place.

The problem is most school teachers and even most SAT/ACT tutors (who are usually just hired because they’re good at math or English in general but aren’t specific experts in the SAT/ACT’s unique question styles/concepts) don’t know the test patterns well enough. So they just demonstrate unwieldy and overly complicated processes to solve a question in 15 steps when it could have been done in 3. Or they use brute force to drill students endlessly without any targeted strategy. That’s a surefire way to burn yourself out, feel discouraged, and waste time!

There’s no such thing as an inherently bad test taker, only test takers who haven’t yet learned the SAT/ACT’s specific content and strategies.

You just need a few things:

  1. Motivation to succeed
  2. Content knowledge (academic concepts) specifically tested on the SAT/ACT
  3. Knowledge of how frequently each specific concept is tested
  4. Strategic approaches for each section to apply the academic facts you’ve learned
  5. Mastery of test logistics: timing/pacing, test format familiarity, guessing/skipping strategy, and test anxiety management

These are all SAT/ACT specific skills that can be easily learned with a laser-targeted system. You just need to be taught the RIGHT things.

Remember, test confidence comes from competence! You can begin to learn them by browsing this blog for my assortment of free SAT/ACT articles (as well as college admission guides).

If you’re ready to shed this depressing label of a “bad test taker” and crush the SAT/ACT, then go ahead send me an email ([email protected]) so we can figure out a personalized strategy for you.

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