I hear this a lot in the work that I do with New York families navigating the college process. Like, a lot. I hear it especially from very ambitious dads, many of them Harvard alums. They want their beloved, perfectly GPA-ed daughter or son to get into their alma mater and make them proud. They have very high standards. They are often quite linear thinkers. And it's common for high-achieving parents to worry that perhaps their kids (no matter how high-achieving themselves) just aren't working hard enough. And so...
It’s an imperative meant to instill discipline and restore a sense of order. But actually, it’s all about control.
The idea is that doing “4 hours of SAT prep a day—MINIMUM!” will ensure a perfect or near-perfect score on the SAT or ACT. Then that score will ensure a spot at an elite institution. The idea is that by working, by “doing”—even doing mindless, rote, unengaged practice problem sets—an outcome is guaranteed. So by enforcing the study-more principle, Dad gets a sense of security, of certainty. A sense of control.
But here's the thing: that’s just not how the standardized test game works.
"Study more!" may calm parents down (that's what that sense of control is good for!), but it doesn't necessarily raise scores.
See, if you want the best score you can achieve on the SAT or ACT, you can’t just spend hours dutifully filling out workbooks. You have to be engaged. You have to be curious. You have to develop a sense of when you feel the information has fully marinated in your brain and has “cooked.”
Face it: if you’re truly honest with yourself, you KNOW when you truly understand a topic or when you’re just winging it. You KNOW when you’re giving something your all or when you’re just phoning it in, checking the box so you can say you did it and get that ambitious dad of yours off your back.
And truth be told, MORE studying is not always BETTER.
Case in point: our dear Harvard Alum Dad may try to force his darling daughter to keep doing an SAT practice section each night. Evidence-Based Reading on Monday. Evidence-Based Writing on Tuesday. No Calculator Math on Wednesday. Calculator Math on Thursday. Essay on Friday. You get the idea. That's a lot of work! Should be a shoo-in for a 1600, no?
Is Darling Daughter analyzing what she gets wrong? Is she taking stock of patterns? Is she utilizing Mental Mastery Techniques to make sure she truly focuses on each section?
Seeing Darling Daughter drilling endlessly may give Dad a sense of satisfaction and control, but it’s not a substitute for a smart, strategic approach to maximizing her score—and it’s not an ideal use of anyone’s time (including Dad’s!). With a bit of analysis and introspection, maybe Darling Daughter can figure out (or her tutor can help her see) that she needs to drill rate problems and that she loses confidence on the Math grid-ins. Maybe she rocks at Reading, but needs a new strategy to get the Evidence questions right.
These are finite, fixable problems.
And a 30-minute worksheet or strategy session would take care of pretty much all of them. Plus, they would free Darling Daughter up to work on her essay, her extracurriculars—even to (gasp!) have a little fun during her junior and senior years of high school. Making a game plan and studying more strategically, rather than just studying more, lets her present a well-rounded application that offers elite colleges more than just a great test score.