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Preparing for the SAT: “E” for Effort

“All types of test prep, with the exception of using books or software, significantly improve students’ SAT scores, which in turn are a strong predictor of enrollment in college, and selective college enrollment in particular.” So write sociological researchers C. Buchmann et al in their study,  “The Myth of Meritocracy? SAT Preparation, College Enrollment, Class and Race in the United States”.

Broken PencilThe researchers proclaim: “The SAT and devices used in preparing for it have become a tool of advantaged families to ensure that their children stay ahead in the competition for college admissions.” So how can their findings help all families with college-bound students? Most families cannot afford a private SAT tutor or a private tutor class. According to this study, they are simply out of luck, since books and software, the only affordable prep tools available, apparently do not improve scores. Here is where I roll my eyes. Where do individual differences in motivation come into play?

Buying an SAT book does not an SAT scholar make, just as buying a violion does not ensure virtuosity. The landmark 1993 study by K.A. Ericsson et al, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” determined that in pursuits such as violin, one’s best work is preceded by 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice.As judged by conservatory teachers, the best group of 20-year-old violinists in Ericsson’s study averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. The “practice makes perfect” hypothesis has been proven in many domains, such as sports, chess, surgery, and business.

As  a personal example, my niece’s family could not afford a private tutor or class to help her prepare for SAT’s, so they chose an online software approach. Of course, that did not automatically improve her SAT scores; she had to do something. She practiced before she went to bed, on a consistent basis, raising her scores a hundred points. Conversely, I have known students whose parents bought them SAT workbooks that they never opened, or online programs they never logged onto. I have even known parents who hired expensive private tutors, but the students never practiced between sessions. No surprise, their scores did not improve.

The SAT’s indeed reflect aptitude, mediated by socioeconomic status, family structure, race, gender and factors such as learning, processing and test-taking style differences. But they also measure something else: effort. And I would venture to say that one’s discipline and motivation is probably a pretty good predictor of success in college, and in life. The experience of setting a goal, preparing to achieve that goal in an organized, disciplined way, and working hard to improve is a valuable life experience that enhances self-respect, sense of accomplishment, and confidence in one’s own agency, self-sufficiency, and ability to triumph over a challenge.

Am I saying don’t hire a tutor? Absolutely not! As Buchmann’s study showed, tutors and classes do help raise SAT scores. If you can afford it, I cannot think of a better investment. I am amazed at how willing many parents are to spend money on extra-curricular activities (lessons, training camps, equipment), but are far less willing to spring for a tutor.

What I am saying is, the drive within an individual to commit to painstaking, consistent practice is what will ultimately drive success in any pursuit. When my son was on his high school cross-county team, he faithfully ran everyday. If he didn’t, he’d lose his edge. It couldn’t just come from his parents or coach. It had to come from him. The same is true of academics or preparing for standardized tests.

For thought-provoking discussion of Ericsson’s work on practice: Fortune/ CNN.Money: “What It Takes To Be Great”and j.somers blog: “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Related posts: Should I Take the SAT, the ACT, or BOTH?, What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors, and High School Testing Strategy and Timeline.