Advice from an ACT/SAT Guru: Going the Distance

For her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Angela Duckworth probes the best of the best in business, industry, athletics, arts, and the military. And, these best of the best are-obviously-gritty people. She defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals.” Her definition reminds me of two quotes. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” And “genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.”

After a tough loss, coaches often talk about grit, though they might not use that term specifically. And now grit is unsurprisingly (and perhaps justifiably) a buzzword in educational circles. It is one of the often talked about non-cognitive skills. In fact, it is the non-cognitive skill. But, can it be taught? Should it be taught? When it comes to the ACT and the SAT, in my opinion the answers to both questions are yes. Although, perhaps, trained not taught is the more appropriate word to use here.

As we enter into April, many of my students have taken at least two official tests (either the ACT or the SAT) and numerous practices tests (at least six). So, that’s about eight tests. Not to mention the hours of tutoring that went into the preparation for those tests and the actual troubleshooting of the tests themselves after they were taken. Furthermore, here at A-List, we have found that it typically takes a student 20 to 25 hours of tutoring to prepare for his or her first official ACT or SAT.

Let’s do some math. The ACT and SAT are each about three hours long; eight tests times three hours equals 24 hours. If it takes 20 to 25 hours of tutoring to prepare a student for his or her first test, and my students have each all taken at least two official tests, then let’s say for simplicity that they have completed at least 25 hours of tutoring. That’s at least 49 hours for the ACT or the SAT! Where am I going with this? My students are DONE. They hate the test. They hate their parents (for forcing them to see me). Oh yeah: they hate me too. They hate the distance formula. They hate comma splices (though the rate at which they create them would suggest otherwise). They hate protons, electrons, and croutons. They hate Shakespeare (whose work will never appear on either test). They hate Euclidean Geometry. And, they hate Euclid too. They just want this ordeal to be over with, but they don’t have the scores that they want. Ergo, we’re not done yet.

Preparing for the ACT or the SAT is much like training for a sport and playing that sport for an entire season: there are wins and losses along the way to the championship. Many of my students, although they have improved, still see their scores as losses because they want more; they feel that they are capable of more. And, they are! But, they are easily discouraged; they don’t have grit. Buck up, buttercup: an infinite capacity for taking pains. Instead of whining, get busy winning. Love the distance formula. Love fixing comma splices. Love protons and electrons (save the croutons for salads). Love Shakespeare and Euclid. I’m reminded of one last quote, something that my old wrestling coach used to tell me, and I now tell my students: “The tragedy is not that a weakness exists. The tragedy is that you let the weakness persist.”

This post was written by Director of Staff and Curriculum Development & A-List Senior Tutor John Oh.