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"I Guess I'm Not as Smart as I Thought"

On a recent episode of This American Life (ep 734: “The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled”), reporter Paul Tough spoke with a high school junior named Daniela who had had a bit of a rough experience with the SAT. She was an immigrant from Mexico who didn’t speak any English when she started the third grade, but she worked her tail off and by junior year was in the top five of her class. She planned to go to an Ivy League school, UC-Berkeley, or UCLA and become a doctor. Then she took the SAT. Her score was about 1180. (For comparison, the schools that she was considering have average SAT scores in the 1500s.) “It made me question my qualities and skills,” she says. When Tough asks her if she felt like she was as smart as her four peers in the top five of her class, she says, “I did! In class, I performed just as well. But that test was saying otherwise. When I got that test resulted, I started questioning whether or not I really was as smart as I thought.”

As I listened to this interview, I could feel my heart breaking for this student, and I also felt a growing frustration. This one dumb test caused a smart, hardworking student to disregard solid evidence of years of proven success from her hard work, and put stock in one test she took on one day. And she found herself questioning her intelligence based on the results of a test that isn’t designed to measure intelligence. This happens to students all the time, and it’s frustrating for me because it causes unnecessary stress and self-doubt.

Let’s put this into a different context and see how it looks:

Imagine a ballerina. A young woman who’s been dancing since she was 5. She’s an elite dancer, performing near-impossible moves with grace and style. She’s won competitions and performed on world stages. She’s at the top of her game. She shows up for a competition… and someone hands her a pair of tap shoes. “What’s this?” she asks.

“Tap shoes. You dance at noon.”

“But I’m not a tap dancer,” she replies.

“It’s fine. You’re a good dancer, right? You’ve been doing this for years? You’ll be fine. You dance at noon.”

This competition is not going to go well for this young lady, and through no fault of her own. Yes, she’s a world-class ballerina, but she hasn’t prepared or practiced for tap. It doesn’t matter how amazing at ballet she is- she’s not going to be able to perform at that same level in tap shoes without any practice.

Standardized tests are exactly the same (though with fewer pirouettes and less clicking). Doing well on a standardized test requires a different skill set than doing well on an academic test, but students aren’t told this. In fact, if you look on College Board’s website you’ll see that the test writers themselves say the same habits and choices that lead to success in school will help you get ready for the SAT. The best way to prepare for the test is to take challenging courses, do your homework, prepare for tests and quizzes, and ask and answer lots of questions.


They perpetuate the idea that doing well in an academic class will ensure a good SAT score. I can tell you, after seventeen years of helping kids with standardized tests, that’s simply not true. Doing well in school and developing strong academic habits are important and will help you tremendously, but just because you're strong academically and do well on tests in school is no reason to assume that you’ll do well on the SAT without preparing. Handing a kid an SAT and saying, “Here, you’ll be fine because you do well on tests in school” is exactly like handing an elite ballerina a pair of tap shoes and saying, “Here, you’ll be fine because you’re an awesome ballet dancer.”

So if you get your SAT or ACT scores back and they aren’t what you expected, do not internalize that as “I’m not as smart as I thought.” Do not compare yourself to others based on who got what on the SAT. Simply consider the fact that you haven’t learn this particular skill set yet, so in order to improve, you must learn how the test is constructed and how to best approach it. Look at a low score as a starting point. Your academic strengths will serve you well as you learn the test, and after a couple of months of concentrated prep and practice, you’ll be up on stage, tapping your heart out.

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