Designed to Differentiate

Today, I want to offer a message of realism regarding the standardized tests that are used for private school and college entrance: the ISEE, SSAT, HSPT, SAT, and ACT. This message will probably sound a little harsh at first, but if you really let it sink in, my hope is that you’ll actually feel better about these exams.

These tests are designed to differentiate. That’s their purpose.

And because they’re designed to show differences among all students – including among high-end students – they’re not designed so that everyone can “ace” them. They’re made to be hard, very hard. And it’s not unfair that they’re hard. That’s their whole reason for existing. An easy test wouldn’t differentiate because most people would do very well. And the purpose of these tests is to differentiate.

Let’s just use math as an example. All these tests have math on them. They pull content from several years of schooling, from all units covered in those years, and they randomize the problems. They don’t tell what the problem types are, so you have to figure out for yourself what techniques to use and what bits of knowledge to apply – if you remember them. If, like most students, you’ve acquired knowledge gaps in your upside-down pyramid of math, there will be plenty of problems you won’t know how to solve. And if, like most students, you don’t have all the content you do know deeply mastered, you’ll struggle with questions that are presented in a strange or unfamiliar way. Oh, and the pace is ridiculously fast. Not only do you need to know how to solve the problems, but you also have to access and apply that knowledge much faster than you ever would on a homework assignment or most in-school tests. On exams like these, only a tiny percentage of students get most of the questions right. That’s the norm; that’s how the tests are designed.

But I want to reframe this as good news. It means that when you’re preparing for these exams, you can put away unhealthy, unrealistic goals and set reasonable targets for yourself. If you’re accustomed to getting C’s and B’s in your math courses, you should not set the goal of getting a perfect score on the SAT math sections. The likelihood of that happening is about as high as the likelihood of a decent high school basketball player becoming an NBA star. Instead, you should set the goal of making incremental improvement from wherever you are. Improvement is possible, but you’re probably not going to leap from an 1100 on the SAT to a 1500. Realistic optimism would have you aiming for 1200 or maybe 1300 if you’re willing to put in the work.

The idea here is that, while anyone can improve, not everyone can be the next Lebron James. If you’re a mediocre basketball player, you can get better. Of course you can – anyone can improve. And yes, coaching and practice help. If you eat tests, you’ll improve. If you adopt the technique of having a busy pencil, you’ll improve. If you learn strategies and master content, you’ll improve. But you’ll improve incrementally from where you started. And the process will be difficult and time consuming. If you’re an average student, you’re not going to get a perfect score on the SAT, no more than an average basketball player is going to become Lebron James. The growth mindset says that growth is possible. It doesn’t say that miracles are possible.

But what if you are a very high-end student? What if you got a 1450 on the PSAT and you’re pushing for as close to 1600 as you can get? Well, you should know that the end of the line is very hard. It’s generally easier to go from 1000 to 1100 than it is to go from 1450 to 1500. The closer you get to perfect, the slower and more hard-earned your gains will be. The other people at the top are working very hard, and the test is designed to differentiate among you in spite of this.

In any case, our recommendation is to simultaneously work hard and relax about the scores. All you can do is keep your eyes on the process of improving, and let the results come as they may.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

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