Are you a high achieving student who’s used to getting good grades in school? Were you expecting a similarly high standardized test score and were disappointed when you got your scores back?
I have two pieces of good news: 1. You are not alone; this problem is a lot more common than you probably think. 2. There are ways to improve your test taking skills and raise your score. This guide will go over the most common reasons smart students get low scores on standardized tests and give step-by-step guidelines for solving the problem.
Why Do Smart People Not Always Score Well on Standardized Tests?
Getting good grades in school does not automatically translate to doing well on standardized exams because these exams are often quite different from tests you take in school. Unlike most school exams, standardized tests:
- Cover multiple subjects. Unlike just studying for a math test in high school, standardized tests cover math, literature, writing, and science all in one test. This means that you have to study a much wider variety of subjects than you would for a typical school exam, which can be challenging and time-consuming.
- Are divided into strictly timed sections. This makes standardized tests more difficult because you need to work through the questions faster and often don't have as much time to check your work.
- Often include misleading questions and answer choices. Most tests you take in school are fairly straight-forward, but standardized tests often include trick questions or answers, which means that even if you know the material, you can still get fooled and end up choosing the wrong answer.
There is also typically a lot more pressure to do well on a standardized exam than there is to do well on any single test you take in school because ACT and SAT scores are an important part of college applications.
There is no one reason why smart students sometimes get low scores on standardized tests. Below are five scenarios that cover nearly all the reasons top students may not be getting the scores they want on the ACT or SAT. For each scenario, the underlying problem is explained, and steps are provided to help solve the problem and avoid it in the future.
Scenario 1: Studying the Wrong Way
This May Be You If:
You prepared for the exam, had enough time to answer all the questions, and didn’t feel overly anxious, but still got a lower score than expected.
It’s possible, and even fairly common, for you to put in a significant amount of time studying for a standardized test and still not get the score you want.
If this is the case for you, and you’ve ruled out the other scenarios as possibilities, then you may need to change the way to study for the test. Even if you are a star math student at school, that doesn't automatically translate to getting a high score on the math section of a standardized test because standardized tests are longer, cover more material, and can ask questions in ways that seem confusing or misleading. This means that your methods of studying for your classes at school may not get you the score you want on a standardized test.
How to Solve:
If you're studying for a standardized test the same way you study for a test at school and it isn't getting you the results you want, then you need to change your study methods. Unlike school exams, for standardized tests you need to know not only what topics they'll test you on, but how they'll test you on those subjects, which means you need to become familiar with standardized test questions and how they are worded.
The best way to do this is to answer a lot of practice questions and get used to the way questions are asked. Take official SAT practice tests or ACT practice tests to have the highest quality and most realistic practice questions. You should also review each of the questions you answered incorrectly or guessed on and learn what mistake you made. Reviewing your answers also lets you see which subjects you need to spend the most time studying so you can get high scores across the test. Check out our guide on the best way to review missed questions on the SAT or ACT. We also have a wealth of resources that cover all aspects of SAT preparation and ACT study tips.
A tutor may be able to help if you're having difficulty studying on your own. (Tulane Public Relations/Flickr)
Scenario 2: Didn’t Study Enough/Overconfident
This May Be You If:
You took the test without any or a lot of preparation because you didn’t think you needed to practice.
You may be used to acing tests and papers in school without ever needing to study beforehand. This attitude is common among high-achieving students, and many expect to do just as well when they take a standardized test.
However, standardized tests are a special breed of exam and for students who don’t have a lot of practice with them, they may not be used to the types of questions being asked. Test makers also make some questions and answer choices deliberately tricky and misleading, and if you aren’t used to that style of exam, you may be falling for their tricks and selecting the wrong answer choices.
How to Solve:
Practice! Set up a study schedule for yourself so you're better prepared for the next time you take the test. To get you started, check out our guides on how long you should study for the SAT and how long you should study for the ACT.
You should also take 3-4 practice tests to get used to the types of questions these tests ask and how they ask them. For every question you answered incorrectly, look it over to see what you did wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future.
Scenario 3: Over-Thinking the Questions
This May Be You If:
You spend a lot of time going back-and-forth between answer choices and struggle to pick the correct option.
There are specific answer options on these tests designed to look almost like the right answer, and you may think they could be the right answer if you argue their case enough. In school, you may be able to support your answer with a strong enough argument to get it accepted by the teacher, but this doesn’t work with standardized tests. For these tests, test makers are only interested in the right answer, not an almost-right answer.
This problem is particularly common on inference questions for ACT and SAT reading sections. In class, you may be able to infer something from other things you’ve read or your own life experiences, but on a standardized test, every correct reading answer will be supported by the text, even inference questions. This confusion can also happen on other test questions, such as second-guessing yourself on sentence completions, making easy math questions more difficult than they need to be, or assuming there must be an error on every writing question.
How to Solve:
Remember that each question on a standardized test has only one correct answer, and every other option is unambiguously wrong. For reading questions, even if you feel that a certain answer choice is better, if you don’t see any evidence in the text supporting it, then it isn’t the correct answer. You should be able to point to a line or passage in the text to support every answer you choose.
For all test questions, if an answer choice is even the slightest bit incorrect, then it is not the correct answer. Move on to other answer choices and don’t let yourself waste time by trying to convince yourself that it’s correct. Read our guides specifically on inference questions for reading sections of the ACT and SAT. We also discuss how to choose correct answers for other SAT questions and ACT questions.
Don't overthink standardized test questions.
Scenario 4: Anxious Test-Taker
This May Be You If:
You felt confident and prepared before the test, but once you start taking the exam, you get nervous and second-guess yourself.
Sometimes you know all the information and tricks, but when it’s test time, you psych yourself out and let your nerves get the better of you. It’s easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself when you take a standardized test because it can be very important for your future.
Overachieving students can be particularly susceptible to this problem because they feel like they have to get a top score in order to get into the best colleges. Feeling stressed or anxious while taking the test can cause you to make silly mistakes and forget information and strategies you’ve learned.
How to Solve:
The best way to combat this problem is to take a lot of practice tests and make the conditions as real to the actual test as possible. We have guides to help you take practice SATs and ACTs under the most realistic test conditions.
The more familiar something is, the less anxiety it will cause. If you are not yet a senior and feel that you may have a problem with test anxiety, consider taking the PSAT or ACT Aspire. Both of these tests are very similar to the SAT and ACT, respectively, and they will give you a low-risk way to become more familiar with standardized tests.
Also remind yourself that your standardized test score is only one part of your college application, and you are free to take a standardized test more than once. Check out our guide to managing SAT anxiety (you can use these same skills for the ACT).
Scenario 5: Poor Time Management
This May Be You If:
You know how to answer the questions, but repeatedly run out of time on exam sections.
I struggled with this problem for a long time. To prepare for the SAT, I had studied, knew the types of questions I’d be asked, and was ready for their tricks, but I was constantly running out of time. Standardized tests usually cram a lot of questions into a short amount of time, and many students have trouble answering all the questions before time runs out.
This can be especially difficult if, like me, you’re somewhat of a perfectionist and like to make sure of each answer and double-check everything. I was used to having enough time to finish exams at school, and the time crunch on standardized tests threw me for awhile.
How to Solve:
The best way to solve this problem is to take a lot of timed practice tests. You’ll get more used to the types of questions that are asked, which means you’ll be able to answer them more quickly.
When you take practice tests, make sure you give yourself exactly the same amount of time you’d have for each section on the real test, so that you know how much you need to work on your time management.
You should also stop yourself from spending a lot of time trying to solve a single test question. Our general rule is that if you’ve spent more than 30 seconds on a question and still have no idea how to solve it, skip it and move on. You can always come back to it if you have more time at the end. We also have more in-depth guides that cover how to stop running out of time on SAT reading and SAT math, as well as for ACT Reading and ACT Math.
Keep track of your time while taking a standardized exam.
Which Scenario Applies to You?
Now that you know the different reasons why smart students don't always score well on standardized tests, you can determine which scenarios apply to you and start to overcome them.
In order to determine which of the scenarios you fit, first find your standardized test results and look over each of your incorrect answers. For each question you answered incorrectly, ask yourself why you got it wrong, and look at the options below to decide which scenario best matches your reason for answering incorrectly.
On a sheet of paper, make a column for each of the five scenarios, and mark a tally under the corresponding column each time a certain scenario explains why you got a question wrong. In some cases, more than one scenario could be the cause.
- Scenario 1: You were confused by the question's wording, even though you knew the material the question was asking about.
- Scenario 2: You weren't familiar with the subject the question was asking about.
- Scenario 3: You struggled to choose between 2 or more answer choices because you couldn't decide which was the right answer.
- Scenario 4: You knew how to solve the problem but answered incorrectly because you were stressed or anxious.
- Scenario 5: You didn't have enough time to answer the question but would have gotten it right if you'd had more time.
After you have done this for each incorrect answer, look to see which scenarios had the most tally marks. Review those scenarios and their "How to Solve" sections to learn how to avoid making those same errors in the future. You are now on your way to raising your standardized test scores!
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.