Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

The Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

Preparing for the ACT or SAT can seem daunting. Often, people instinctively turn to friends or online articles for advice. While some guidance from these sources is helpful, it’s important to examine the limitations of students who could be referencing an outdated version of the test, whose only knowledge of the exam comes from taking it, and who may have needs that are dramatically different from your own.

Our students commonly pass along what they’ve heard from their peers, and while some of it is good, solid information, a lot of it rings completely or, at least, partially false. For instance, some students will swear that “C” is correct the majority of the time when in reality, the answers on the test are evenly distributed throughout the exam – so C is no more likely than any of the other options. Another common tip passed around among high schoolers is to take the test on a particular date – take June, for example – because it’s easier than the others. There are several issues with this. Maybe June felt easier for one particular student, but, as everyone’s strengths are different, that didn’t necessarily hold true for others. Additionally, if the June test in 2015 truly was easier for most students, that doesn’t mean that the 2016 test will follow suit. Most importantly, the curve on the ACT renders any differences in difficulty irrelevant. If the June test truly was less difficult, then the curve would just be harsher.

Additionally, we recently worked with a student who scored higher on the ACT, but was told by a friend at Harvard that she should take the SAT solely because she had already taken the ACT previously. This was amidst the new changes (which made the SAT unstable and a bad choice for the majority of students). Combine that with the fact that every college will accept either exam, and her friend’s direction amounts to some pretty rotten advice. In the end, the student remained focused on her stronger test and exceeded even her expectations.

Looking to current college students for help – particularly those who attend prestigious schools – seems intuitive on the surface. However, students who attend top schools are often scoring in the top 99th percentile of college bound students nationwide, and therefore do not reflect the reality for the majority of other students. Also, these students have a very limited experience. Scoring well on a test does not make you an expert – especially as the tests continue to evolve.

The newly revised SAT gives a perfect example of this. In this article, Business Insider presents the perspective of a “Harvard grad with a perfect score on the SAT.” In the article, Chris Ryan (the aforementioned Harvard alum) offers last minute tips to scoring well on the SAT. There’s a major problem with taking his advice: the test that Ryan took years ago hardly resembles the current SAT.

In another article, titled “College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies,” students from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University are consulted. Their advice includes some valuable tidbits, such as beginning to study well before the test, striving to learn new strategies, realizing that these tests are “not the be-all, end-all,” and the importance of skipping questions that are sucking up all of your time. Alternatively, some of the advice falls flat and illustrates a lack of expertise. When counseling students on time management, the WashU student claims that you should skip passages on the ACT Science section that include charts if you struggle with reading them. This information is not only inaccurate, it’s potentially quite harmful. Of the six ACT Science passages, five of them will reliably have charts, while only one may not. If a student were to try to follow this advice on test day, they’d end up frantic and confused – as they’d potentially be trying to skip over all of the passages.

Overall, it’s vital to use discretion when following advice about college entrance exams that comes from friends or articles. While some of it may be valid, keep the source in mind. Just because your uncle recently had his home remodeled, that doesn’t mean you’d want him creating blueprints for yours. Instead, you’d turn to the experts.

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