The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good – An SAT Attitude Adjustment

This is one of the “Attitude Adjustments” in The New Math SAT Game Plan: For 2016 and Beyond!

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good  (With Apologies to Debbie Stier)

            The SAT, and really the entire college application process, is notoriously stressful.  You may have already noticed this.  And it may be that your parents are adding to your stress, not quite able to maintain their cool as they guide, cajole, push and pull you, trying to help you navigate these waters.  I am well-known for being a calm voice of reason (with other people’s children) but as a parent, I can tell you it is hard for us too.  We are eager to see you succeed and we are older than you.  With our advanced years and wisdom, we can see some of the challenges that lie ahead with a clarity we are convinced that you lack, but we have less control of the situation than you do.  So we feel, and attempt to communicate, a sense of urgency.

            Different parents deal with this stress in different ways.  The author and parent, Debbie Stier decided to immerse herself in the SAT experience.  Over a period of a year, she tried a variety of prep methods and then took the SAT every time it was offered.  She then wrote a book about it: The Perfect Score Project.  Though I never actually worked with Debbie, she did interview me, and my book was one of her resources.  She improved spectacularly in reading and writing and helped her own kids to great success.  But her math improvement was actually quite small.  When her project was finished, we emailed about what she could have done differently.  I’m going to tell you what I told her: the goal of “perfection” got in her way – and lowered her score!

            I am not telling you to abandon that goal.  I have not met you!  If you are already scoring in the high 600s – low 700s and you have just begun to prepare, well then maybe a perfect 800 is in your future.  But for most students, obsessing over perfection makes it harder to achieve their personal best.  Look at your PSAT score or your last SAT score. Ask yourself: how you would feel about raising that math score to the next level? Let’s start by turning a 440 into a 570.  A 540 into a 650 or even a 700.  Take that 650 and turn it into a 720.  I’m not asking you to give up on long-term dreams, but let’s start by making incremental progress.  I am telling you that you are more likely to raise your score on the very next SAT you take if you approach it in a slower, more low-key and playful way.  You need to give yourself time to think and time to breathe. 

             As for Debbie Stier, though she never attained the perfect math score, I’d still say that her project was a tremendous success.  When I first heard about it, I admit that I thought it was a crazy idea and that she would drive her own kids nuts!  But that didn’t happen (much) and I really enjoyed reading her book.  One thing that comes across very clearly is a steady respect for how difficult this all can be.  There’s no sense of “hey-you-lazy-kid-why-can’t-you-be-perfect-like-me?”   It’s more like: “Wow. This is very challenging.  How can we find a path to help you succeed?”

            So when I recommend that most of you take the SAT with a strategy that causes you to run out of time, please be open-minded.  If you do this, you probably will NOT get a perfect score.  That’s OK.  It’s also the single easiest thing you can do to raise your score to your own personal best.  And if when you walk away from this test (and this whole college application process), you have achieved your personal best, isn’t that the perfect score?