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Dear Mitch, 

I'm in the middle of the SAT nightmare and was wondering if you could help me figure out my block.  I do really well using the Blue Book practices, then not so well on test day. The few weeks up to the test my practices were in the 2100-2200 getting maybe 0-5 wrong per section, yet on test day, my total was 1860.  I don't find myself getting nervous, feel I have a good handle on the more difficult questions, I just can't break this block on test day.  Any hints?


M. K


Dear M. K., 

Every case is different, of course, but the general principles and complications of taking a practice test, scoring it, and using that score as an approximate predictor for test day are as follows:

1)      Practice test conditions must be as similar to the conditions of the real test experience as possible; there are literally an infinite number of variables involved, (such as temperature of the room, background noise level, and the comfort of one's seat), and even one or two of them can make a big difference.  For example, I believe it is important to take the practice test at the very same time of the day as the real test.  We are all subject to micro- and macro- biorhythms, and there are students (and teachers) who cannot do as well in the morning as they can after lunch, and there are many who seem to be the opposite.  This may account for the fact that when people are in situations in which they work entirely for themselves, and all that matters is quality and quantity of output, they often drift into seemingly odd schedules, such as writers who only work early in the morning and quit before lunch or work only during the night and sleep during the day. 

2)      The mere fact that you have taken those practice tests and scored as high as you did is part of your overall mental picture of yourself when you take the test -- whether you realize it or not.  Some students perform better when they are feeling confident, others turn out to be more careful and less likely to overlook important details in questions when they are under-confident and a little anxious and what some might think of as self-doubting. Having high test scores behind you, whether you realize it or not, may give you a drop more confidence than you had before you scored those practice tests, and it is possible that that confidence, though well-founded, is relaxing you a bit more than is your ideal state for getting questions correct.  I have personally found when working with students one-on-one, particularly the high-end students who are used to doing well and getting correct answers to questions, it is often beneficial to reduce their confidence SLIGHTLY at the beginning of a session by giving them a question that appears extremely easy, but which virtually everyone gets wrong.  It 'wakes them up', and one can literally see them sit up in their seat and sharpen their focus. Interestingly, a lot of us are taught to believe that anxiety is always a negative force, but the fact is this: Only when one's anxiety level is too high is detrimental to performance.  There is an appropriate amount of anxiety for each of life's situations, and although we should probably use a more positive term, such as 'heightened alertness', I worry more about the student who is not in the least bit on edge about each question's wording; to be too relaxed is not ideal.  The student slumped back, reclining in his/her seat during the SAT is not typically the one who is appropriately alert ('anxious'), and may have the wrong attitude.  One should be appropriately anxious when training circus tigers, for example, or using dangerous machinery.  I have heard actors say that only after they've performed a play three-hundred times, do they become too relaxed and mess up. ANXIETY is built into us as a signal, which should be turned into a tool.

Most likely, though, it is a combination of the obvious things about the 'real' test day that one cannot replicate for a practice test.  The drama... And although you mention that you are not aware of being nervous, it is often the case that one can feel different in a large room full of peers to distract.  Undoubtedly, you say hello to ten or twenty people you see there, possibly answer a question or two about your plans for that evening, and may have even driven yourself to the exam.  Even a short drive can have an abrasive effect on the day of a test.  After all, the appearance of unplanned road construction, a detour, and ... BANG:  you panic that you'll be late.  Or what about your admission ticket -- is it still in your backpack.....

Just some things to think about. ... 

But don't let the whole issue get you to lose perspective; although the difference in your scores from the practice tests to the official test are substantial and worthy of consideration to see how it can be decreased, ALL the scores you mention are respectable, and your letter shows intelligence and motivation to learn and improve.  From what I can sense, any college or university would be lucky to receive an application from you.

Hope this helps,