In the last two weeks, I have received results from my students who took the March SAT and the April ACT. Some of their results are stellar: a few students jumped around 200 points from their PSAT scores to the actual SAT.  Another couple of students raised their ACT Composite scores by 5 or more points from their Diagnostic test with us. Why do some students jump and others only inch up slightly?  For the students who have only increased one or two points on their ACT Composite scores, take heart and read on.

When I meet parents and students for initial evaluations, I am very honest and remind them that input equals output. Students MUST put in 2-3 hours of additional practice each week, combined with their one-on-one tutoring sessions, if they want to see score increases. Content must be reviewed, formulas memorized, and grammar rules internalized during this at-home practice time. That hour or two the student meets with a tutor should be dedicated to answering questions about the homework, learning new concepts, and reviewing the basics if it’s been several years since a student has done so. I also tell my students that I will not be there with them on test day (although I do think about them a lot on those Saturdays!) They need to have the discipline to monitor themselves and stay focused. They need to breathe deeply and manage their test anxiety. If they see that the SAT is trying to trick them with “its” vs. “it’s,” how can they check which is correct? What’s the formula for the area of a circle and where can they find it if they forget?  Did they double check their answers? I will not be there to nudge them along so these are habits they should have down as routine by the time they go in for the grueling four-hour official exam experience.

Sometimes it takes an actual testing experience for this to all click with a student. I’ve had many students come back to me after the real test and say that they didn’t realize how long it was going to be. This is why we offer a proctored practice exam for all of our students: they need to have that mock experience to help build up their test-taking stamina. All the tutoring in the world will not help if a student cannot perform on test day. Some students may need to be instructed in mindfulness, and we can refer them to experts on this subject. Others may need to make flashcards and review them before they go to sleep at night. Perhaps they may need to re-do the practice questions they got correct, as well as those they missed, so they understand why they’re getting answers correct.

The bottom line: there is no substitute for hard work. As I am training to get in shape by kickboxing and taking 3-mile walks, my boxing instructor’s words come back to me: there is no magic pill, only blood, sweat, and tears.  Studying for these tests is not much different (well, there shouldn’t be blood in test prep, but sadly, I have seen my share of tears during this process). And for those of you inching along: as long as you’re increasing, you’re headed in the right direction. Perhaps you haven’t covered all of the math yet, or perhaps you know that your timing is getting better, but you still need to master the ACT 8-minute reading passage. If you haven’t been dedicating the time, it’s not too late to start. The June tests are weeks away, which add up to hours of practice.

There comes a point at which, as a tutor, I tell students that they know all the content; it’s just a matter of practicing on their own. This is especially true for students who are scoring at the 95th percentile or higher–it just comes down to those few pesky “difficult” level questions or perhaps the self-discipline to know when to call an answer, guess, and move on to the next problem. For the majority of students, practice on a regular basis will help you increase your score.