Why Good Students Score Poorly on SAT Math - Part IV

SAT Tip of the WeekToday we continue a 5-part series on SAT math tips for smart students who are struggling to keep their SAT math scores high. In Part I we learned that the result is rewarded, not the effort. Part II taught us that SAT math problems can be very tricky, and in Part III we looked at why the SAT math section is unlike what you’ve seen before. Today, we’ll see how perfectionism can hurt you on test day.

4.      Perfectionism Punishes Good Students on the SAT

In part four of our five part series on why good students sometimes do poorly on the SAT, we talk about how being a perfectionist can hurt you on the SAT.  If you missed parts one,  two or three, you can catch up and read up by clicking on their links above.

Good students tend to have a perfectionist approach to everything academic.  They want to get the straight A’s, do all the homework, and finish that extra credit project even if it’s not required.  While this is excellent work ethic for getting awesome grades and teacher recommendations in high school, this kind of perfectionist mindset can really hurt students on the SAT.  How?  Perfectionist students try to get a perfect score on the test.  But isn’t this a bit counter-intuitive?  How can shooting for a perfect score possibly hurt?  Well, there are a few reasons.

First, we have to acknowledge that the SAT is a difficult test and very few people actually get perfect scores.  In fact, in a given year, only about .02% of students actually get a perfect 2400.  Shaan Patel, Veritas Prep’s SAT course designer is one of them.  So out of 10,000 students, you can expect only two of them to actually hit that 2400.  That’s how hard the SAT is, so it may really be an unrealistic goal for many students to expect to answer every question right.

Second, we see how that can hurt our high-achieving students.  These students will try to answer every single question, solve every problem and make sure they give themselves a chance to get that perfect score.  However, the timing of the SAT Math section makes it so that you can only really spend 2-3 minutes on each problem.  So guess what happens when a perfectionist student gets to a problem that they can’t solve right away?  That’s right; they stare at it, ponder on it, and spend a lot of time trying to figure it out.  After 4 or 5 minutes, they may still not have the answer but now they have wasted those precious minutes that could have been spent on other questions and end up rushing at the end of the section and making mistakes.  The timing of the SAT sections is such that you will probably barely finish if you’re in the top 5-10% of scorers.  With the timing being this tight, there is no room for perfectionist students to waste time trying to answer every question.  Students would actually do better if they skipped and returned to the problem after finishing all the problems they know how to do at first sight.

Third, another thing that hurts perfectionist students is that they like to be very careful and check and re-check their answers to make sure they did it right.  However, this is really time consuming and students should instead do the easy problems as quickly as possible, check their work as soon as they’re done with the problem and move on.  Whatever time they can save from solving easy problems quickly can be ‘borrowed’ for solving more difficult problems.

Finally, letting go of perfectionism can be a good idea in general.  While some would tout being a perfectionist as a virtue, it can be quite a liability in life.  ‘Perfect’ is often a subjective term and it’s nearly impossible to please everyone.  Also, there are trade-offs and a diminishing returns effect.  You really have just 24 hours in a day and a third of it should be spent getting enough rest.  Is spending that extra two hours on that paper going to prevent you from preparing for that on-campus recruiting interview or force you to miss a networking event for summer internships?  Students who attend college will be overwhelmed with classes, clubs, extracurricular activities and other enrichment activities.  You may find that those two hours spent going from an A- to an A on that paper could have been better spent developing yourself elsewhere!

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