“Did you study for the SAT?” I’d ask my son, once a day, while juggling a dozen other things.

“Yes, Mom,” he’d say.

“How’d it go?” I’d ask.

“Good,” he’d say.

“Do you have any questions?”

“Nope,” he’d say.  “I got them all right.”

That should have been the tipoff. Time to stop multi-tasking and train all of my attention on Ethan.

For many high school juniors and seniors, “back to school” isn’t just a fresh start and new school supplies—it’s also the start of the dreaded SAT season.  With the fall SATs scheduled for October 11, November 8, and December 6, I know that sorting through the 11 million options for test prep is not the only thing to worry about.

It’s essential to beware of the perils of overconfidence!

From my own, adult test-taking experience (7 times the year before my now college sophomore son went through the process), and studying the academic research on test prep – I know that feelings are usually unreliable indicators of performance.

Research tells us that most students are overly optimistic when it comes to estimating their own performance. A 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education found that students from countries with the highest confidence in math were some of the worst performers, and the opposite held true as well. Similar studies on reading scores linked overconfidence to lower test scores and under-confidence with higher scores.

People overestimate their performance because they have the feeling of knowing something, which turns out to be highly unreliable. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains that having seen or experienced something before can give the illusion that we know more than we do. Repeated exposure to a particular vocabulary word or type of math problem can lead to familiarity, but that should not be mistaken for mastery.

When it comes to SAT, parents often worry that their child isn’t confident enough and mistakenly believe that high levels of confidence alone lead to better test performance.  However, the data suggests otherwise. There are also different types of confidence: confidence that results from a solid grasp of a subject as well as the knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and the type of confidence that arises from an inflated perception of one’s abilities.

To avoid the “inflated perception” type of confidence, experts advise overlearning by a factor of 20% beyond the point of mastery. Chances are, over-preparation will lead to a better score and a more mature self-assessment.

“I think the test went okay,” is a much better predictor of a high score than “I think I did great!”


If you’d like help preparing for the SAT via email, please sign up here and I’ll be in touch soon.