Beware of Overconfidence When it comes to the SAT

“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.



Beginners Guide to Acing the SAT

A beginners guide to acing the SAT … 13 tips in one little (5-minute) video.

  • How to pick the best SAT tutor or class …
  • How to choose a test location …
  • What is the SAT testing? …
  • How long should you do test prep …
  • How much can an SAT score improve? …
  • The 1 thing you should know about the SAT …
  • What can parents do to help kids prepare for the SAT? …
  • 4 best SAT snacks that won’t leave you depleted …

These tips are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find a gillion more tips in the book.

You can read the prologue, listen to an audio clip, and see what readers are saying.

Good luck!

For press inquiries email: [email protected]

View clips of TV appearances and talks on YouTube.

For information about speaking engagements, please see the speaking page.


No Comments

How to Improve Your Critical Reading SAT Score

Is it possible to improve a critical reading score on the SAT?

I often hear the misconception that a critical reading SAT score cannot be improved, and while it is true that empirical evidence shows average score gains to be minimal (5-10 points), I managed to improve my reading score by 80 points.

So how did I improve my reading score?

I read — a lot! And, I started the project with a rock-solid foundation in reading. Without that base, no amount of test prep could have saved me.

Note: Be sure to check out my 28-Day Critical Reading Intensive. Students that have completed it have seen some great improvements in their critical reading score.

The best way to improve a critical reading score is … to read. Reading improvement requires time devoted to practicing the skill to the point of automaticity. The summer is a great time to make headway and to build a routine.

Tip: There is no shortcut to learning vocabulary.

Even though vocabulary isn’t specifically tested on the new SAT, understanding words in context is critical for answering the reading passage questions.

The Matthew effect in reading (i.e. the rich get richer) is inevitable with vocabulary. According to research, you need to know 90-95% of a text’s words to understand what you are reading.

Tip: More general knowledge can vastly help a critical reading score.

Research shows that background knowledge helps with comprehension. For example, a student who already knows about Descartes and dualism* will process a passage much faster and more accurately than a student who is unfamiliar with the topic – even if their decoding and strategy skills are identical.

*Click to read these Descartes and dualism reading passages from the 2010 PSAT my son took, as well as the College Board’s explanations of the answers.

Here is a related post, if you would like more information about improving on the critical reading section.

The SAT Yellow Brick Road

You can sign up for a  series of tailored emails that will lead you step-by-step through the entire SAT process:

1) Parent Series

2) Student Series

Each series also includes links to SAT resources and articles that I highly recommend.

No Comments

How to Cultivate Teenage Drive

How to cultivate teenage drive is the $64,000 question, and while I am not a parenting expert, I do believe that the secret to motivating a teenager is the relationship. A shared experience can be a powerful agent of connection, and it is that connection that allows an adult to motivate an adolescent.

  1. Collecting Dance. Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld explains the “collecting ritual” in his book Hold On To Your Kids. The collecting dance is akin to making a baby smile before picking it up. The same holds true for a teenager: you must catch the eye and establish a connection in order to be a source of motivation.
  2. Enthusiasm. Most teenagers are more interested in their friends than in their parents and the SATs. In fact, the more into the friends they are, the harder it will be to get their attention. A peer-oriented teenager will need more enthusiasm and initiative from the parent to become motivated than one who is oriented toward adults. Given Ethan’s level of peer orientation at the time, I needed to deploy radical enthusiasm.
  3. Parental Involvement. Remain interested and involved, even if your teenager is resistant. I saw with my own eyes that adolescents do better academically when parents are involved beyond monitoring homework, and I believe Neufeld’s work with adolescents confirms my experience.
  4. Invite the Connection. The most potent source of motivation for a teenager is attention and interest in what they are doing. A shared project says that the child matters and is special. The relationship that results from this sustained proximity allows for the parent to act as a compass in the child’s life and to activate motivation.

Read a related post: Motivating a Teenager to Study for the SAT

What is the Perfect Score Project? Find out more here.


The Best Way to Prepare for the Critical Reading Section

A lot of parents ask me what they can do over the summer to help their children prepare for the critical reading section of the SAT.

From a parent of a rising junior:

Most tutors say that in order to improve critical reading (say 700+), you need to be a voracious reader. Well, that takes years. Forget about the sentence completion of the CR for the moment, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just do a bunch of critical reading passages, even if it they’re from non-CB material?

This is, if you are in a crunch and only have the summer to improve (i.e. 3 months).

Assume it takes 10 hours to read a book. I could do 20 CR test sections in that amount of time. 5 books = 100 CR test sections.

So, what is the best way to prepare for the Critical Reading section?

I would be wary of all unofficial SAT reading passages and use official, College Board material when it comes to “test prep.”

That said, there is a lot you can do this summer to bolster the foundation before you start official “test prep.”

To strengthen the foundation, it would be more effective to read articles from the New Yorker, The Economist, The New Republic or Smithsonian magazine. To be a strong reader, you need to have background knowledge and a strong vocabulary, which articles from these publications would provide.

Be sure to read the print editions as the online versions aren’t necessarily the same caliber.

Tip: Discussing the articles is essential. Conversations are the bedrock of memory.

Research shows that “joint conversation,” where the child takes part in the conversation, helps with memory, vocabulary, and awareness of grammar.

When children can make sense of what they are experiencing through conversation, they are able to understand key features better and encode more completely.

In addition to those tips, I highly recommend my 28 Day Critical Reading Intensive as one of the best ways to prepare for the Critical Reading section. Students who have used the course have seen great improvements in their critical reading score.

The SAT Yellow Brick Road

You can now sign up for a  series of tailored emails that will lead you step-by-step through the entire SAT process:

1) Parent Series

2) Student Series

Each series also includes links to SAT resources and articles that I highly recommend.

1 Comment