“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
- Albert Einstein
If you ask 100 people to name the five most intelligent people the world has ever known, I’d bet 75% of them would mention Albert Einstein. But Albert Einstein honestly didn’t think he was that much more intelligent than anyone else. What he recognized as the catalyst for his unbelievable insights about the physical world was his belief that, with the right amount and type of focused thinking, he could find a solution to a problem. He stayed with the questions longer.
But, if Albert Einstein wasn’t necessarily that much more intelligent than anyone else (let’s assume that statement is in part true), then what does it mean to be intelligent or to measure raw intelligence? We argue that it means very little, and is difficult or impossible to do so. When you are taking a test, your skills and knowledge are being measured, and those are things you can build over time with the right type of practice.
With this in mind, we are going to tackle the more or less mistaken notion that standardized exams such as the ACT, SATs, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT are IQ tests. Too many high school and college students believe that studying or preparing for these types of tests is in part a losing battle, because the tests are specifically trying to measure some notion of raw intelligence. This leads to a negative mindset during SAT/ACT prep classes, work with private tutors, and on test day. If you don’t believe there is a ton to gain from preparing, the quality of your preparation, i.e., the way in which you engage with the material, will suffer. It doesn’t need to.
In fact, it’s important to understand that standardized tests are not used to identify the smartest applicants, or to measure innate intelligence. Instead, they are generally trying to measure the extent to which an applicant is prepared to succeed in college or graduate school, based on whether they’ve amassed the types of reading, writing, and mathematics skills that are required to do that.
So, we suggest that the harder you work, the more you’ll learn, and that you can, to a very large extent, prepare for these exams, because the exams are testing “learnable skills” such as reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, and critical thinking. We tend to underestimate the influence of practice, mindset, and a strategic study plan can have on students’ performance on the ACT or SAT.
Jenny Krugman, Vice President of The College Board (the company that administers the SAT test), states, “The best preparation for standardized tests is to take challenging, college preparatory courses in high school and study hard. That advice should be printed in 500-point type and underlined about 20 times.”
Ms. Krugman is basically reiterating our point that practice done right will certainly positively affect your standardized exam scores. It is not merely an IQ test measuring the raw intelligence you were born with – your intelligence amasses over time through practice and study.
Research shows that simply having information regarding how the brain works can result in an improvement in academic performance. The knowledge that intelligence is built over time through practice and studying is a powerful idea that changes your mindset, and thereby potentially has a positive impact on your test scores. Once someone is convinced that they can improve with practice, they will get more out of that practice.
Here is a series of thoughts that, while seemingly innocuous, perhaps common, can be very detrimental to someone preparing for the ACT and/or SAT.
Dangerous but Common Beliefs about Standardized Tests
- Standardized tests are extremely important – they determine in large part whether I’ll get in to the college, graduate, business, medical, or law program that I’m applying to. It’s the main element of my application.
- Standardized tests are in some significant way IQ tests – they are in part measuring my natural intelligence, because the programs to which I’m applying are seeking the smartest applicants. I can prepare for standardized tests to ensure I reach my personal potential, but my preparation can only take me so far.
- My GPA is important, because it measures how hard working I am, another important thing that the programs to which I’m applying care a lot about.
- Other elements of my application, such as my leadership and teamwork skills, community service activities, rationale for wanting to get admitted to this program, and communication skills, are important, but secondary to my test score and my GPA.
These beliefs can be incredibly detrimental to your overall performance on standardized exams due to the increased stress and pressure they create, not to mention the lack of control one feels over scores. This kind of environment is toxic when it comes to performing on the SATs and ACTs.
Less Common but More Accurate Beliefs about Standardized Test
What if the following four statements were true instead?
1) Standardized tests are very important – they are one of five or so factors that determine whether I’ll get in to the college, graduate, business, medical, or law program that I’m applying to. It’s one of the main elements of my application.
2) Standardized tests are not IQ tests, even though they can seem like they are – they measure specific mathematic, reading comprehension, and verbal skills that can be learned, and which you did learn in school. They measure how likely you are to succeed in the program to which you are applying (i.e., college, grad school, etc.), not your innate intelligence.
3) The GPA is used alongside the standardized test score to estimate the likelihood of success in the program – it’s not a separate measure looked at independently. True, unlike a test score, it also provides information about a student’s work ethic, but its purpose is primarily to combine with the test score to create an estimate of success in the program.
4) Other elements of the application, such as my leadership and teamwork skills, community service activities, rationale for wanting to get admitted to this program, and communication skills, are important, and in many cases, receive equal weight in the application review process.
In this case, much of the previous stress is reduced because the idea that “everything is riding on this one test” is partially removed. Second, once the test is no longer simply an indication of IQ, you have much more motivation to study long and hard for it. Lastly, if this second set of statements is true, and your SAT or ACT score isn’t as impressive as you’d like it to be, you may consider taking time to improve other elements of your college application instead of re-taking the test many times over. Many admissions experts will tell you that this is very possibly a smart strategic move, since those other parts are very important. Hopefully, this fact helps you relax, study hard, and begin to build the confidence necessary to do your personal best on whatever standardized test lies ahead of you.
So, perhaps the most important thing to take away from this article and to keep in mind as you consider taking a standardized test is that these standardized tests can be studied for, because they are testing learnable skills that you probably have been exposed to already in school. Simply knowing that you put in the time to prepare can actually raise your confidence substantially, and when you’re more confident, you’re less likely to become stressed, and more likely to be in an alert state that is conducive to optimal performance. With all of this in mind, we hope every student can begin to understand that standardized tests are not IQ tests, and that there is a great chance for even the “bad test takers” among us to succeed.
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