Thinking You Did Great After the SAT is a Sign You Bombed

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Last Saturday, students from around the world took part in a ritual of adolescence: the SAT. After the test, I received a slew of emails from test-takers who’d read my blog for SAT tips, reporting back on how the test went.  Most write some variation of, “The test was much easier than I expected!” or, “I did much better than I thought I would!”  This is exciting to hear – and all too familiar.

From my immersion into the SAT—taking the test 9 times myself, shepherding my now college freshman son through the process, and studying the academic research on test preparation – I know that post-test taking 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. Erica Meltzer, the author of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar as well as an SAT verbal tutor, distinguishes between the type of 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.

“My highest scoring students think the test is hard,” she says. “I know I’ve done my job when I hear something along the lines of “There were a few questions I wasn’t totally sure about, but I think it went okay.” Meltzer says students who score in the 500-600 range are typically the least able to assess their performance accurately because they’ve learned enough to recognize the material but have too shallow an understanding to apply it in new situations. To avoid this situation, 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.

If your teenager comes home from the SAT and says, “I think the test went okay,” consider this to be a sign of modest confidence—and a much better predictor of a high score than “I think I did great!”