Perfectionism is the worst enemy of the SAT.
But wait, I hear you say, isn’t the goal to study and memorize, and to practice and perfect as much as possible before sitting for the test? Isn’t that the whole point of signing up for a prep course, to not waste any time? To be 100% ready before ever reaching for your pencils?
Most students come to me laboring under the mistaken belief that they shouldn’t even attempt the SAT for the first time unless they are completely prepared. But students very rarely achieve top performance on their initial try (only about one out of 100). They neglect to take into account both the trickiness of the test and their own mounting nerves.
Even if a student has been performing at her desired level in practice, she can’t help but feel anxiety on test day. She will usually miss some questions that she would otherwise have been able to solve outside of a pressurized, timed environment. This is the most compelling – and overlooked – reason to take the SAT multiple times: Scores can vary based on factors outside of cognitive ability.
Low Scores = Self Doubt
When a student doesn’t realize that his first SAT score will most likely be lower than subsequent scores, disappointment and self-doubt can snowball. He can feel defeated and discouraged over poor numbers. Sometimes he may even question if his initial goal was realistic and readjust the bar lower so as to reduce the chances of another blow to his self-esteem.
This is why I recommend that a student take the SAT a minimum of two, preferably three, times.
Rather than wait until they have deemed themselves “finished studying” for the SAT, students should sit for their first test during the preparation process (halfway to two-thirds of the way through). Expectations aren’t nearly as high if they are still learning the ropes, making the anxiety-inducing first experience less scary. There is little-to no disappointment when they realize that not everything hangs in the balance.
This way, students have the opportunity to gradually build comfort and familiarity. This puts them in a much stronger position to succeed when they are at the end of their formal preparation and taking the SAT for a second time.
And what about a third time?
Even when primed to do well on the exam – after having taken it once, now fully prepared a second time– the knotty nature of the SAT often results in students not being completely satisfied with their scores in all three sections (critical reading, math, and writing skills) from this second sitting. Third time’s the charm.
The third time is when a student can pick up additional points. Her confidence and ease is bolstered by minimal pressure. Worst-case scenario? She doesn’t improve on her likely satisfactory scores from the second attempt. With this cloud of anxiety lifted, her state of mind is most conducive to best performance.
My first step in meeting with students is to dispel the notion that they will always receive a score indicative of their abilities. In fact, this couldn’t be further from reality. There are just too many variables at play.
A student might easily parse the reading passages only to be tripped up by difficult vocabulary on the very same exam. Or, maybe he lacks a clear mind and focus on that particular morning. It takes a lot to maintain concentration for five hours!
Any distraction – an empty stomach, a headache, a sick pet, a fight with a friend – can disrupt concentration. Providing students with several opportunities to take the SAT increases the likelihood that at least one time, skills and circumstance will come together in their favor.
I remind my students of this: an athlete’s top performance doesn’t happen every time she steps onto the field, court or track. And that’s what makes top performance a culmination of multiple efforts. Somedays – some, not all – things just click.