Correctly Interpreting Practice Test Scores

Over the years, I have noticed that many students do not like to take their practice test scores at face value. When students get scores below their goal, the temptation to rationalize is strong.

"On Test Day, I will take it much more seriously, so I'm sure my result will be higher."
"I was distracted during XYZ sections, so my score on those isn't as accurate as it could be."
"I only really focused on the Math sections, that's why I didn't do as well on the others."
"I made a lot of careless mistakes."

I'm not saying these are excuses - it's possible they are accurate explanations - but even still, thinking this way will not serve you well.

For starters, if you're not taking your practice tests as seriously as you would the actual test, that's a problem. The whole point of practice tests is to prepare you for the real thing, so you should treat them as if they are the actual test.

Furthermore, if such explanations are NOT accurate, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment on test day. Properly taken, the practice tests should give you a strong idea of what you will score on the actual test, so if you assume that your real test score will be higher than your best practice test score, you risk feeling upset when you get your results. (In fact, a statistical phenomenon known as Regression to the Mean suggests your actual test score may be slightly lower than your best practice test score. The phenomenon applies to people in aggregate, not individuals - so you may be an exception - but the idea is to use your practice test data to manage expectations and plan effectively.) By acknowledging that progress often has peaks and valleys and thinking about your practice tests this way, you will set yourself up to be happy instead of disappointed, and to stay motivated instead of growing complacent.

Instead of assuming your actual test score will be higher than your best practice test score, factor regression to the mean in and assume it *may* be slightly lower. If such a score would not be acceptable, think of that knowledge as a blessing - you are learning ahead of time that you may need more practice, and you are giving yourself the opportunity to ensure you actually will reach your goal. Planning effectively is the best way to reach your goals. Proper practice testing is an essential part of that process!


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

900+ hours
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