The Fine Art of Motivation

Without question, the most successful tutors are the most adept at motivating their students. Academic coaches, test-prep coaches, we are essentially brokers in motivation. Our job is to find a way to convince teenagers to log out of Facebook, minimize their four open chat windows, turn off their cell phones, and do SAT and ACT drills. To be effective, we must convince our students to come home early the night of Homecoming in order to be rested for a Saturday morning mock test. We must convince our students to drill vocabulary flashcards on the plane ride home from Spring Break. We must convince them that on top of the three and a half hours of homework their school teachers have assigned them, our homework is equally, if not more, important.

Some students come pre-motivated, eager to do whatever is necessary to knock the SAT or ACT out of the water. Often these are the first-borns of the family, and I generally hear about them when parents begin to explain how their second or third child is “nothing like” their first child. When we tutors have the extreme good fortune of working with one of these highly motivated students, we get to taste what it must be like, for a moment, to walk in Bono’s shoes: opening for U2, on a crowded stage, wearing designer sunglasses. Stellar students make us feel like rockstars.

But if all of our students were super-motivated and driven to succeed, our lives might eventually get dull. Luckily for us, we have the good fortune of working with students at every level of the motivational spectrum. We get the shooting stars, the mildly-motivated, the generally apathetic, and the vocerifously recalcitrant, anti-motivated students. The latter keep us on our toes and generally send us, scratching our heads, back to graduate school to gain more insight into the workings of the human psyche.

In this article I will focus primarily on steps I have taken, and steps my tutors are trained in, to bring unmotivated students to a higher level of motivation. I will limit the scope of this article to exploring how intrinsic motivators can turn the most dedicated slacker into a motivated, highly efficacious student.

To begin, what distinguishes the shooting stars from the total slackers? Generally, the shooting stars have a very high level of self-efficacy, i.e., they think their efforts are going to yield meaningful fruits. They are the self-proclaimed “good testers,” and they have an air of confidence regarding standardized testing. Beyond this, the shooting stars, more often than not, have very specific academic and collegiate goals. They are going for something and are willing to work to achieve their stated goals. Finally, the shooting stars are more aware of the college admissions process and believe that their higher scores will have a significant impact on where they can get into school. The total slackers, on the converse, rarely tout their abilities as excellent testers, often have ill-conceived notions about the requirements for specific schools, and are not convinced that investing in the test-prep process will ultimately serve their values or advance their interests.

When a student walks (or is dragged or carried) into an introductory tutoring session, it is the job of the tutor to gauge the student’s readiness to succeed on the test. The tutor, turned inspector, must answer several questions. Does the student really want to be there or, metaphorically speaking, is he trying to gnaw off his leg and escape from the trap that his crafty parents have set for him? Does the student have a specific goal in mind? Does he place enough importance on this process and its outcomes? Does he believe he can do well on this test, or rather, that he has been condemned by the academic fates and the College Board furies to a lifetime of poor testing and negligible testing returns? The tutor has to understand if the student is ready for the process and prepared to work.

For those students who are markedly unmotivated at the beginning of our sessions, the tutors must diagnose the source of the motivational deficit and attempt to bring the student to the proverbial light.

For the many students who have been browbeaten into believing they are just “bad test-takers,” pariahs, ill-stricken creatures marked for failure, we need to break out some good old fashioned counseling skills and begin to poke holes in this tenuous “bad tester” theory. We need to scour the academic record of the student to find if, at any point in history, the student ever exhibited ability in taking tests, any kind of test. If we can find a singular success, we can build upon it and begin to erode this notion that the student was eternally condemned to fail at high pressured tests. If the academic search yields no fruits, we can look to other domains in which the student has achieved some measure of success after investing her energies. We simply need a starting point.

Beyond this, we must deliver a full frontal assault against the mantra “I’m just bad at taking tests.” Students may have heard this, or surmised this, or found some way of planting this destructive idea into their heads. As students continually reinforce this notion, it takes on its own life and eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to replace that tape with a better one. I never let my students get away with saying “I’m just bad at taking tests.” Ever. From our first session onward, my students have to become open to the possibility of achieving a strong score on their assessments. I will browbeat them, gently, into believing that they actually could do well on this test, despite their theories, despite their long history and copious evidence of testing debacles. When they walk in the door, their history stays outside, and together (alongside Emily Dickinson) we will dwell in possibility, rather then revel in the past.

The low-efficacy students are not the only ones we meet. We have plenty of students who simply do not understand how important these tests are in determining where they will spend four years of their lives. We need to make that clear to them and find a way to make these tests relevant to their experience. From the get-go, we stop talking about abstract test scores and start talking college. The language shifts completely. I don’t talk about getting that Critical Reading score up 100 points; I talk about giving them a shot at getting into UGA.

Every student who walks in the door to our sessions does so with some preconceived image of his future collegiate life. Notions of freedom, novelty, possibility, and fun often come to mind when students gaze into the crystal ball of life after high school. Some students dream of hobnobbing with world class professors, wearing tweed coats, chewing on pipes, and having esoterically erudite, philosophical conversations on the campus green; others imagine themselves living out their favorite scenes from “Animal House” or “Old School”. No judgments here. We will meet our students wherever they are, and we will leverage these emotionally charged images of our students’ perceived future lives to get them working towards higher scores on the assessments.

We will have a conversation about why students want to go to college to get a taste for their interests and their values. This will give us leverage down the road. Once we understand what the students want, we need to figure out a way to make them understand how the SAT or ACT can help them get what they want.

Once we begin the conversation about the assessments, the key is to ground the students’ expectations firmly in reality. Students need to see real numbers and scores for specific schools. For some of my private school students, we have the option of scanning through the scatter plots in the Naviance system to get a sense of what doors their GPA and current SAT scores may open for them, in the context of their particular high school. For others, we log on to and spend time looking up score ranges for specific colleges. I tell my students, unless they are a “hooked” candidate or have a special situation, they should be shooting for the high end of the “middle 50% of first year students” SAT score range. We need to hit the 75% mark, rather than shoot for the middle of the range. If a school reports that its middle 50% range is 1200-1400, my student should be shooting for the 1400.

For the students who have an idea of where they want to go, we record the scores they need and establish concrete goals for the tests. Specific and measurable goals are much more powerful motivators than loose notions of “I want to do better.” We need a fixed reference point. All of the practice tests and the official administrations of the SAT or ACT will be stepping stones along the way to achieving these goals.

For many students, the process of looking up the actual score requirements for the schools that interest them is a real wake-up call. Many students with lower scores may be humbled by the limited options arrayed before them. Suddenly things come into focus. Students realize they don’t have the scores to secure a spot at GSU, much less a spot at UGA, and they may even end up at home, attending a community college, rather than breaking away from the folks and living the dream of the unfettered college experience. I totally play on this image and ask the students to imagine themselves still living at home, with their mom still doing their laundry. You can almost smell the fear. It’s tangible. I often leverage this temporary moment of insight and anxiety when I ask my students what they’d be willing to give to have more options. How badly do they want to go to Clemson or Charleston or Florida or Texas? Are they willing to work for it? As soon as students “get it” and understand what is at stake, they often take a dramatically different position regarding their high school grades as well as their collegiate entrance exam scores.

For some students who have no idea of where they would like to attend college, knowing score ranges for specific schools may not be a compelling source of motivation. I have worked with a number of students who did not “get it” until they actually made their first college visit or stayed for a full weekend on a college campus. I have seen the light-bulbs switch on and burn brightly after students realized what four years of their lives might look like if they could just bring that 1050 on the SAT up to a 1250. They realized just how much fun they would have if they could get their act together. Suddenly, these students were willing to work, willing to give up 40 or 50 hours of their valuable time in exchange for some 5000 hours of independent academic life at a great school. And it’s no coincidence that we are releasing this article only weeks before Spring Break, the perfect time to send an unmotivated junior on a college visit or two. A well timed college visit can ignite the spark that may carry a student all the way through the test prep process.

When students come back from their college visits, all fired up and ready to work, we must keep them inspired by constantly talking in their language. We motivate students on their terms, never on ours. We need to figure out how to talk their talk and trade in their currency, or we will likely have little impact upon them. If a student is talking friends and fun and great parties, then we will reflect that right back to them. Some of my conversations have looked like this: “If you think high school parties are fun–wait till college! And if you have heard that Boulder has the world’s best parties–excellent. I would love to help you get there. Now, let’s talk about your 870 on the SAT. An 1100 on the SAT would make you a much more attractive candidate for admissions at Boulder. How are we going to make up that 230 points? How badly do you want to go to Colorado? If you are serious about it, and this is what you really want, I’ll do everything in my power to help you get there.”

If we can get our students to buy in, suddenly we have our goal and the rationale for all the work that will follow in our preparatory process. Whenever we talk about scores or tests, we will constantly link everything back to their goals, to the service of their values. “On this test, we are shooting for a 970, one step closer to Boulder.” We establish an alliance, and all of our efforts are tied to getting the students where they want to go. I have been inspired by the efforts of my “slacker” students who finally claimed what they wanted and were willing to work, sometimes like they had never worked before, in the service of their stated goals.

It is important that parents and tutors understand that motivation works best from the inside. Parents have a role, tutors have a role, but the students are ultimately going to determine the outcome of our work together. If we can get them excited, get them to believe in the possibility of their success, and get them to understand how their gains will impact where they spend four years of their lives, students will be well on their way to achieving an excellent outcome. Motivated students will make the necessary sacrifices, knowing that what they give up now pales in comparison to what they may get down the road.

So take advantages of those college visits. Talk with your kids about specific schools and finite goals. Empower them to take this process on, for themselves, in the service of their interests and aspirations. Ultimately, when a student gets inspired, everyone’s interests are served. The students do better and have more options, we tutors look good, and the parents are satisfied. This is our ultimate goal. And everything starts with motivation. If we can just find and nurture that initial spark, it can carry a student all the way to the end of the assessment, application and admissions process.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or