4 Tips For Helping Your Student Deal with Disappointing SAT Scores
The situation is, unfortunately, common: a student waltzes out of the test center insisting, “I nailed it!” Then, the scores come back, and they’re bad. Not just bad, but “I’m not even getting into my safety school” bad. The student is devastated. You’re worried. Curse words ensue.
I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much. A sense of humor is important here, because standardized tests are probably the unfunniest part of college apps. And, since it’s easy to perform less than optimally, this process may extend from freshman all the way through senior year. The right scores are critical: a mismatch between grades and test scores is usually a sign to admissions committees that something’s amiss and will be used to screen potential applicants. It’s rough.
Don’t panic. There’s plenty you can do before your student runs out of opportunities to improve an SAT score: read on for more.
Jump Back Into the Process—ASAP
This one might sound obvious, but one test score doesn’t make or break a student’s academic profile. Test performance isn’t correlated directly with intelligence. It more often measures how good someone is at taking tests. So take a low test score in stride.
It’s super important to start testing your student early and to continue doing it when scores aren’t initially optimal. Maybe not like nine years old early (which is, believe it or not, not unheard of), but you could start doing administering practice tests or official Khan Academy videos as early as freshman year. Ask your student’s school what methods they have to help high schoolers learn vocabulary, advanced critical thinking concepts, and test-taking strategies.
For the SAT specifically, because it recently changed format, there are fewer resources and practice tests from previous years available. So you and your student should read up on the recent changes and the effects they’ll have. This is also another reason to take the test often to understand new benchmarks.
Prepping a student before they even take the test is helpful, but even more so after low test scores come back. Remember: a student doesn’t have context on the failure that comes later in life, and this may be the first time they didn’t succeed at something. Reassure them, remind them about superscoring, and have them look at their test-taking journey as a holistic process instead of isolating one individual test.
To a degree, the SAT is designed to be stressful. If it test feels easy and stress-free for a student, that’s usually bad. The goal is to pour one’s heart and soul into the test, leave, then take a well-deserved nap.
Pinpoint for Gaps
This is most helpful right after a student takes the test or when there’s time to dive deep into the results. What questions were the hardest? Were there times when a student just blanked (or had no idea what the question was asking)? Were there entire sections, like the non-calculator math sections, that just felt impossible? When did they run out of time?
Then, target those gaps. Talk to a teacher. Grab a prep book with lots of practice questions in that area. Have the student practice: alone, with you, or with a test prep expert. This is especially helpful if a student is worried about running out of time or needs to learn how to go through problems more quickly. It’ll also mean time won’t be wasted focusing on concepts and areas the student has no issues with.
If the problems are more widespread or there’s no coherent pattern of what answers were wrong, that may be a sign that the SAT isn’t a good fit for the student. Just remember: if the SAT isn’t getting at least a little easier after more than one try, it might be time to try the ACT instead, which consists of more straightforward questions in less time.
Some students (no judgment) hate practice SATs with passionate fire. Others (again, no judgment) believe that they’re “just not good at taking tests.” That’s actually a common misconception, because taking tests is a learned skill. And these tests are harder than the ones students get in school.
The truth is that the SAT, and to a lesser extent the ACT, is trying to trick you: sneaking in answers that sound right, putting in two similar answer choices, etc. The test-makers don’t want to make it easy for students to succeed, so students have to treat it like they’re doing battle with the test. By preparing effectively, they’re just arming themselves properly for when they go in on test day.
Test prep experts, like the ones at CollegeVine, will show students where these tricks and traps show up and keep them on track while they learn. Individualized attention means students can get help on what they specifically find challenging.
Accountability is unbelievably critical in this process, especially for students dragging their feet. If they feel like someone is watching them, holding them accountable for their work, they usually do better. It may be the exact same message as the one you’re telling them, but hearing it from an objective third party can make a difference.
Students with ADHD, cognitive impairment, and other learning disabilities can have a particularly tough time with sitting still, concentrating for literally hours at a time, and mustering the organization they need to methodically go through the test. If this is the case for your student, look into getting extra time or other special accommodations that may help.
Reprioritize for Reality
This one isn’t fun, but it’s sometimes necessary. If the test scores just aren’t coming up, or if there are just a few tricky questions that a student keeps getting wrong to prevent a truly high score, it might be time to face facts. Maybe these tests scores are as good as it gets for your student.
There are plenty of great schools that de-prioritize or don’t require tests, but that also means your student might be at a disadvantage against others with top scores in their application packages. So, make sure the rest of the application is killer. Optional video? Do it. Optional essay? Do it. Portfolio of artistic or extracurricular work? You get the idea.
Help your student turn a weakness into a strength. With a learning disability, make sure they disclose it and use it to argue that they’re working past obstacles to thrive and flourish. If a student has worked ceaselessly and the final score does represent an improvement relative to the starting point, say that too (certain colleges that don’t allow you to superscore will see the progression when they receive all the test scores). There’s also a case that can be made, if a student is creative or has a unusual work process, that a unique perspective could actually be an asset in a college environment.
All is not lost. Help your student buckle down, keep at it, and not be too downhearted if the scores don’t quite pan out. Remind them: these tests are critically important now, but they’re far from the only indicator of success in college and beyond.
If you’re curious where current test scores compare relative to others, check out what constitutes a “good” versus “bad” score.
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