04 Mar 2021

Embracing Small Wins

It’s a tricky thing, embarking on standardized test prep. So many students and their families have voices in their ears, bombarding them with widely varying opinions regarding how to do it “right.”

“She’s going to need to meet with a tutor twice a week for a full year to come even close to the score she needs.”

“My son takes a practice test once a week! It’s the only way to do it!”

“No 8’s and 9’s on the ISEE? Forget about applying to any decent schools.”

These opinions can come from friends, family members, admissions counselors, tutors…anyone who has been through the process and considers themselves an expert.

Here’s the thing, though: the tests are standardized. Students aren’t. A student is not a number on a score report. And the number on the score report isn’t the final say in admissions.

After many years as a tutoring company administrator and tutor for various standardized tests, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is the importance of managing expectations. And here’s what I know: if a student meets with a tutor once a week for a few months, is motivated and focused in sessions, asks questions, does their homework, and takes a mock test roughly once a month, that student is very likely to improve their score. That improvement comes from a combination of learning new material and new strategies, learning how to manage time, and becoming more comfortable with the format of the test. 

But what will that improvement look like? It’s not the same for everyone.

A student’s final score is almost always directly proportional to where they started from. If an ACT student comes into test prep having forgotten most of what they learned in Algebra, the priority will be to strengthen their confidence with those basic skills before moving on to more advanced math topics. And the speed with which they absorb and retain those skills will dictate how much more material is covered. If this student started with a 20 on the Math section of their first mock, and – within four months of tutoring – they’re up to a 25, that is a huge win in my book. Five points is quite a leap. Now, a 25 is not a 34, which is closer to what most students and their parents would like to see. But for that student, considering where they started, a 25 should be seen as a great accomplishment. It should be celebrated! 

Celebrating small victories is crucial to progress in the test prep process. Giving students permission to focus on small achievements boosts their confidence and motivates them to continue to improve. Focusing on what they don’t have or haven’t achieved can lead to frustration, a feeling of helplessness, and – therefore – diminishing returns. 

A tutor can set a student up for success with these small victories by working with the student to set reasonable goals. For example: answering the first 25 questions of the ACT Math section correctly on their next mock; writing down their own word choice for the synonym portion of the next ISEE mock before looking at the answer choices; really drilling the comma rules and nailing those questions on the next SAT mock test. 

In a process that can feel overwhelming and intimidating for many, setting realistic goals and managing expectations only sets students up for success. This idea has guided my work as a tutor and administrator for many years, and I think it has had a hand in helping my students to feel empowered and motivated in their navigation of the test prep process.

Lauren Singerman, Director of Tutoring

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