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.

Start Early

A few dozen times each year, a parent emails us asking, “When should my child start preparing for the SAT?” Or occasionally, a freshman worrying about their first experience taking final exams will ask, “When should I start studying?” Or a student might ask us in March when they should start reviewing for their AP tests. Or a rising senior might ask us in July when they should start working on their college essay.

To all these questions, our answer is always the same:


We’re only half-joking. We’re just trying to give you permission to start earlier than you otherwise might.

If most students start studying for the test two nights before, you’ll do better if you start earlier. You can start studying for next May’s AP tests this summer by previewing next year’s content. You can start preparing for your final exams during the first week of school by doing a little more than what is asked of you. You can review throughout the year because you understand that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ and spaced repetition forms lasting memories. And you don’t have to wait for the test to be announced before you can begin studying because the test is always coming.  

And this is especially important if you’re concerned about test anxiety. Remember, true confidence comes from self-efficacy. If you’re well prepared, you’ll feel more confident.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go sign up your third-grader for SAT prep. I’m suggesting that, if you’re thinking it might be time to start, it probably is.

The Secret to a Higher SAT or ACT Score

People often want to know “the secret” to a higher score on the SAT or ACT, and they’re often unhappy about the answer.

In the world of test prep, there are basically four categories of students:

  1. Students who do little or no practice and receive no strategic coaching
  2. Students who receive strategic coaching but do little or no practice
  3. Students who do a great deal of practice but receive no strategic coaching
  4. Students who receive strategic coaching and do a great deal of practice

All other things being equal, that is also the order of scores students will earn from lowest to highest.

What’s the big takeaway from that list? Practice is more important than coaching. Of course, it helps to have a well-informed tutor who teaches you how to attack the test with skill and strategy, but that’s never a substitute for practice. This list of options also reveals the secret to earning a higher score on the SAT or ACT:

Eat tests.

The more practice you do, the better. Most students don’t even complete the first two practice tests in the official SAT prep book, of the eight that are offered. When they ask how to do better, the response is simple: Eat tests. Chew your way through the prep book and you’re bound to improve.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to do full-length practice tests all the time. You can also do five-minute drills from a math section, single passages from reading sections, or other small drills. Consistent, regular practice is essential for convincing your brain to care and walking down the mastery path for these exams. Also, giving yourself permission to do small doses of practice will, ironically, help you do more practice in the long run. Aim for 5-25 minutes per day, and try not to miss days. Apply the “shoulds before have-to’s” strategy and do it before your homework. And occasionally sit down for a full-length practice test to build your endurance.

Last year, Glencoe High School junior Nisala Kalupahana got perfect scores on both the SAT and the ACT – a tremendously rare feat.1 In an interview about the accomplishment, he explained that “‘The secret is doing practice tests. … It’s learning how the test works. Because the test doesn’t test subject content as much as how good you are taking the test itself. It’s a skill in itself.’”1

1 Rollins, Michael. “A Glencoe High student’s secret to a perfect SAT, ACT score.” KGW8. September 18, 2018.