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One student rolls out of bed, takes the SAT with no preparation, and scores a 1570.
Another student works on SAT prep many hours a week for almost a year, inching up slowly but surely from a 1050 to a 1280.
Which student got the better result?
On whose long-term success – academic, professional, financial, personal – would you rather bet?
If you’re like most people, your first reaction will be to pick the student who scored a 1570 with no prep, far exceeding even the best score the other student achieved. 1570 is above the 99th percentile. It’s simply impossible to score that high without good education and a certain amount of raw intelligence – even with test prep. To get there without any test prep at all suggests an extremely powerful intellect, a trait that makes us think a person will achieve great things in life.
But have you ever stopped to think about why we think intelligence leads to success? Obviously it helps, but the reality is complicated.
There’s no shortage of stories by successful people about how they achieved their success. If you listen to those stories, you’ll quickly notice a few themes. The list will look something like this:
5. Seeing lessons and opportunities where others see failure
You don’t have to be a genius to notice that intelligence isn’t on that list. It certainly comes up, but not as often and not as prominently on average.
Here’s another angle: take a quick look at the World Genius Directory. How many of the top names have you heard of? How far down the list do you have to go to find people you have heard of? When you think of people who have accomplished great things in history, how many are high on that list?
But don’t successful people always seem so intelligent? Aren’t they deeply insightful and good at making good choices? Of course. But look deeper. Most of the insights and decisions that seem to have been produced by intelligence are actually more about wisdom: knowledge and expertise gained through experience. Next time you hear a successful person say something deeply insightful, or when you see them do things that turn out well, ask yourself – or, better yet, ask them – whether that insight or those choices came from raw mental horsepower or old-fashioned experience. I suspect you already know which answer will be more common.
It’s not that intelligence isn’t important at all. Of course it is. In fact, IQ is very well correlated with success. But as Malcom Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, the correlation only seems to go so far. As long as you’re smart enough – which is pretty smart, but not genius-level smart – other factors like grit, people skills, and luck become more important. Being smarter than that doesn’t much improve your odds of success.
In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s excellent work on moral psychology shows in great detail that our intellect is not a master of the forces that drive us, but a servant to them. We can use it to seek truth and wisdom, but its main purpose and function is to make sense of and reinforce what we believe for other reasons. We think, we feel, we react, and our intellects step in afterward to justify it all to ourselves and others. Thus, powerful intelligence amplifies who we are, for better and for worse. It doesn’t necessarily make us better people.
So, yes, being intelligent is a major asset. But it needs to be combined with other skills and aimed at a worthy goal. If it isn’t, it’s a tool without a purpose – and it can even become a liability.
All of this is important context when we consider our two students mentioned above.
The one who scored a 1570 without effort is obviously brilliant. But that kind of easy success comes with a curse: it tends to make you believe that success is simply a matter of showing up and having the right attributes. That idea is mistaken in the worst way. If you end up absorbing it – consciously or not – what are you to make of your future successes and failures? After all, you’ve been trained to think and act as though success depends not on what you choose to do, but on who you are. When you succeed, it’s hard to really own your success because you chalk it up to attributes you didn’t choose and can’t easily change. When you don’t succeed, you’re likely to think it’s because you can’t succeed.
If you’re the second student, you’ve had exactly the opposite experience. You started with a result you didn’t like, skills you had to improve, a goal you hadn’t reached. Then you got to work. You pushed. You stuck with it no matter how tedious or repetitive or difficult it got. You moved toward a goal. You acquired skills. You improved yourself. You really succeeded – not because of some natural gift you didn’t choose and can’t change, but because of the choices you made. You came to a situation you didn’t like, and you changed it. You changed it. And now, you know you can do it again. If you absorb that idea, you can own your future successes because you’ll see the choices that led to them. And you can see your failures for what they really are: invitations and opportunities to make more choices that can lead you ever upward.
Which set of notions would you rather come away with? When you venture out into adulthood, with all of its impenetrable uncertainties and awesome responsibilities and endless possibilities, which mentality would you rather have?
Obviously, the ideal would be to have the big score and the experience of hard goal-directed work – the intellect and the grit. And again, the point here is not that intelligence or test scores don’t matter. Clearly they do.
The point here is that your score doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you did to get it and what you did when you got it.
If you look at a standardized test as a measure of your innate talent, it’ll be a dismal experience no matter what your score is. But if you use it as a context in which to develop meaningful skills, that experience will keep paying off long after the impact of your score has faded.
So, what to do?
If you don’t have the score you want, smile and thank your lucky stars. You’re reaching beyond yourself to become more than you are. The experience of learning something through effort is a gift that never stops giving, and tests like the SAT and ACT are very learnable. This is a golden opportunity to put in some effort and reap some reward. And that’s an opportunity you might not have had if you were starting with a higher score.
If you already have that higher score, you have a different kind of opportunity – and an additional responsibility. You can refuse to rest on your laurels and keep pushing for an even higher score, or you can close this chapter and seek another more challenging conquest. Either way, you can take this chance to be one step closer to being the kind of person who will never, ever stop improving. Surround yourself with people who can help you decide on a path and wring every drop of advantage from it.
“Oh, man. See… When I see a question like this, it just makes my head spin.”
That’s a direct quote from one of my students in a recent session. My student was looking at the kind of math problem that buries a very simple question under layers of geometry and several lines of text.
Although this kind of problem can seem intimidating, it’s easily solved using simple methods and a little patience. It’s an excellent opportunity to show how complicated-seeming problems can be broken down and conquered with surprisingly little effort. That lesson isn’t just useful on a test; it’s also vitally empowering.
The math problem was important for another reason: it made my student visibly anxious. If we could tackle it at that moment with a simple and powerful method, that might have significantly improved my student’s state of mind and bolstered our rapport.
In other words, my student was handing me a golden opportunity to teach one of the easiest, most impactful lessons I could possibly teach. The moment practically begged me to jump in and lead.
I did lead – but I didn’t jump in.
I signaled that I had heard and understood what my student had said. Then I watched, waited, and said nothing. I paused. I held myself back for less than half a minute. And in that time, my student slowly started chipping away at the problem until the solution was clear.
As a tutor, it’s easy to see situations like this as invitations to take over and deliver your highly effective anxiety-crushing methods. You don’t want to see your students struggle in vain, especially with something you’re being paid to help them learn. You want them to see you delivering the solutions they expect. And although you’d hate to admit it, you want the feeling of vindication that comes from demonstrating an easy solution to someone’s apparently intractable distress.
But I hadn’t been invited to jump in. It took careful observation of body language and facial expressions to notice, but my student hadn’t given up. The anxiety was real, but it was manageable. My student’s comment was an invitation to listen and understand. It warranted receptivity and validation, not rescue. It demanded respect for my student’s space and capabilities.
Had I jumped in at that moment, I would have replaced my student’s solution with my own. If my student felt any positive emotion after that, it would have been nothing more than an evanescent sense of relief. The price for that relief would have been validation of my student’s initial anxiety and suppression of their talent. I would have denied my student the chance to see and exercise their own strength – something more valuable than literally anything else I could have offered in that moment.
This is a context in which vision is crucial for a tutor. What was my student’s most important struggle in that moment? Despite initial appearances, it wasn’t the struggle against the math problem itself. We know that because my student soon solved it. The most important struggle was against the illusion that the problem was too difficult to solve without help. It’s hard to imagine a better way for my student to prevail than literally solving the problem without help.
I’ve never been in a situation in which a moment of attentive silence has truly gone amiss. I have been in countless moments in which attentive silence has allowed my students to practice seeing skills and capabilities in themselves. I’ll take that over the alternative every time.
Students come to a tutor for guidance. Sometimes they also need a boost. But nothing should eclipse the need for space.
When preparing for the ACT or SAT exam, one of the questions we address most frequently is which section(s) to prioritize to maximize the ACT or SAT Score. Is it better to work on the lowest section scores or to focus on areas where performance is already strong?
I love this question. Not only is it important for practical reasons, but it also gives us a chance to exercise other important skills. This question is really a specific instance of a more general dilemma: Should I focus on my weaknesses or play to my strengths? When you put it like that, it’s easy to see how important it can be to be able to answer that question – not just in the context of SAT or ACT preparation, but generally. The ability to prioritize accurately is as close as we humans get to a superpower.
Moreover, the best answer can change month-to-month or even week-to-week. That’s both a great reason and an excellent opportunity to practice answering that question effectively, again and again.
In other words, answering this question is one of the many ways we can turn ACT and SAT preparation into a training ground for vastly more useful skills.
This post is the first in a series in which I’ll go over the various factors involved in making this decision – not just the first time, but every time. I’ll start by providing a few tips that are specific to the SAT and ACT. Then, I’ll zoom out to cover more general scenarios and show how this process can help you beyond the test.
Part 1: Which Section of the ACT or SAT exam challenges you the Most?
Answering this question starts with understanding the challenges you face and the skills you have at your disposal.
For the SAT and ACT exams in particular, a good starting point is to know the kinds of questions you’ll face in each section. With that in mind, let’s start with a quick recap and overview.
The SAT has four main sections:
Reading (52 questions, 65 minutes)
Writing & Language (44 questions, 35 minutes)
Math – no calculator allowed (20 questions, 25 minutes)
Math – calculator allowed (38 questions, 55 minutes)
The ACT also has four main sections:
English (75 questions, 45 minutes)
Math (60 questions, 60 minutes)
Reading (40 questions, 35 minutes)
Science (40 questions, 35 minutes)
Each test also offers an optional essay and may include an experimental section, but those don’t matter for this discussion. I’ll cover why that is, as well as the big difference in time-per-question on the SAT vs. the ACT, in future posts.
What’s important here is the content breakdown. Both the ACT and the SAT exams test roughly the same content. There are differences in how the content is tested, but those differences don’t matter much when considering which sections to prioritize. You can see these differences in any ACT or SAT practice test.
The Reading sections of the ACT and SAT exams are very similar. Each section has several passages of text that are clipped and edited from real books, articles, and speeches. Each Reading passage has several multiple-choice questions associated with it. Answering Reading questions correctly requires you to have read the passage – and the questions and answer choices themselves – very closely.
The Math sections of the ACT and SAT exams both cover content up to a level that most students reach in precalculus. You can expect some foundational math, lots of algebra and geometry, and a few questions on more advanced topics like trigonometry. Both the ACT and SAT Exam mix straightforward math problems with sophisticated word problems.
The SAT’s Writing & Language section and the ACT’s English section are, for all practical purposes, differently sized and paced versions of the exact same thing. Like the Reading sections, they are based on passages that are clipped and edited from other writings. Some of those edits include intentional errors in grammar, word choice, sentence order, and so on. Multiple-choice questions in the English and Writing & Language sections are about how to fix and improve those errors (or recognizing when no correction is needed).
The ACT has a Science section whereas the SAT does not. However, the SAT does include the same kinds of questions peppered throughout its Reading and Math sections. With extremely rare exceptions – only 1 or 2 questions, and only on the ACT – these questions are not about testing your knowledge of science facts. Rather, they are about drawing logical conclusions from graphs, tables, and descriptions. Again, both the SAT and the ACT exams include these questions; the main difference is that the ACT has a whole section just for them whereas the SAT includes them in multiple sections.
Given all of that, there are basically four main classes of content you’ll face:
English language mechanics (grammar, semantics, etc.)
Part 2: Frequently Asked Questions about how to approach these challenges
Here’s a quick breakdown of how to get started on each of those kinds of content.
How should I tackle scientific reasoning questions?
I’m putting this category first because it’s easiest to know what to do with. If you’re preparing for the ACT and the Science section just freaks you out, then you might want to focus on it a bit. A little familiarity and a few simple tricks can wring a few easy points out of it. Otherwise, don’t worry about this question type. The skills you’ll gain by working on other sections are likely to improve your abilities on these question types anyway, so you’ll probably be able to pick up a few points for free.
How should I improve my reading comprehension?
For most people, Reading usually takes the most work to improve. Usually doesn’t mean always, but it’s surprisingly safe to assume this will apply to you unless you have evidence to the contrary.
One option is to prioritize this section, but work on high-yield strategies that will pay off elsewhere on the SAT or ACT: using process-of-elimination, comparing answer choices two-at-a-time, marking up the passages and questions intelligently, and so on.
Another option is to simply leave the Reading section for last. You can practice the aforementioned high-yield strategies on other sections – like the Writing & Language, English, and Science sections – and then use them to get a head-start on your Reading prep.
Whichever option you choose, practice the Reading section without time limits at first. You need to train your mind to pick up on the kinds of details and concepts that the ACT and SAT are interested in. Once you’ve done that, you can pivot to working on speed.
Is English or Math easier to improve?
This depends on you. There’s a lot involved – your skills, your preferences, the work you put in, and so on – and the reality can be surprising. The best thing to do is usually to try working on both and see how it goes.
For example, if you’re inclined toward Math, you might feel that English skills are difficult territory because they don’t seem as systematic or “objective” as Math is. That may be true in general, but both the ACT and SAT exams select rules of grammar and style that are as predictable as math. You might find that your penchant for the systematic makes the SAT’s Writing & Language section or the ACT’s English section very math-like.
On the other hand, if you’re verbally inclined, you might find Math too esoteric or complicated. Again, that’s arguably true. However, both the ACT and SAT exams present surprising numbers of problems you can just reason through using processes that may not feel very math-like.
Again, the best way to decide is to try both.
When should I shift my attention to another section?
Ideally, you should work mainly on one section until you are consistently able to get the score you want in that section with the normal time limit.
If you don’t know what score you want – for example, if you’re just trying to get the highest possible score – look out for when your improvement on one section starts slowing down, and make your move at that point.
There may be times when you just get stuck for a few weeks and your performance and score don’t move. If that happens, shifting to a different content area can help keep you moving. It can also give you some ideas for when you return to that troublesome section.
Is it more important to raise the composite score or to improve weak section scores?
If you’re taking the SAT, imagine scoring 750 in Math and 500 in Reading and Writing, for a total of 1250. Now, imagine scoring 600 in both sections, for a total of 1200.
If you’re taking the ACT, imagine scoring 34 in Math and 22 in each of the other sections, for a composite score of 25. Now, imagine scoring 24 in all sections, for a composite score of 24.
In either case, which is the better outcome: the higher composite score or the more even section scores?
Again, it depends. What matters for the colleges or universities you’re applying to? Which scenario fits better with the rest of your application? Which is more in-line with your own personal goals? Which is most feasible for you? Advice from your college counselor, teachers, and a test prep tutor can be key here.