All tests are stressful. But, the SAT is in a league of its own when it comes to inducing anxiety. So much rides on the student’s performance. He or she has prepared for the Test for a long period of time or, at the very least, has been told repeatedly for months, of the importance of the test. And, just to make the stress more acute, the test is incredibly long – a three and a half hour, fatiguing and draining marathon. How does that stress influences the student’s performance? Stress can help as well as hurt performance. It can focus and concentrate the mind and screen out extraneous thoughts. But, when anxiety affects the decision making process of a student, it can negatively affect the student’s score significantly.
One of my SAT students – let’s call her Sara (not her real name) had emigrated to the United States three years earlier. She was a bright, capable individual. In fact, Sara wrote beautiful essays that surpassed those of some of my best students. But, her scores on SAT practice tests remained stubbornly in the same range – one that did not reflect her progress and knowledge.
I asked Sara what she was doing differently on the Test day that caused her results to be over 100 points less than her performance in our sessions together would have indicated. When I first started to work with Sara, I showed her my system for answering Critical Reading questions. As with most students, she expressed concern that using the system, including taking notes on a passage would take extra time and prevent her from finishing the Exam within the time limits. I asked her to give it a try and see if it didn’t save time in the long run. She was soon convinced that my system worked and I thought that the battle was won. Her timed homework practices improved over time and everything pointed to a higher score. What was wrong?
I learned from Sara that when she took the practice Test, she used the first steps of the system, but afterwards reverted to her old habits – guessing. Her anxiety regarding the clock took over. Furthermore, it turned out that in her practices, she was going over the allotted time constraint. She thought the goal was to hand in perfect homework, rather than to simulate Test time constraints. Hadn’t we talked about timing her practices? Yes, but…
I made clear to Sara all over again, that homework must be timed. If we aren’t simulating test conditions, we aren’t accomplishing anything. There is only one goal – to prepare for the SAT. I learned something from this conversation. The tutor has to check and re-check whether the student is following the guidelines. Even if you have gone over all the ground rules, don’t assume that the student is following them. Reinforce them periodically. Focusing on the content of the Exam and developing the student’s analytical skills are not enough. You have to remind the student of the overall strategy. And, you have to do it, periodically.
Joel Goldman is President of Summit Tutoring. He helps students in the NYC area to develop the skills, confidence, and mindset required to excel on the SAT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 917 528-0424.