Motivating Students To Prepare For College Entrance Exams

After 11 years of working with students on the SAT and ACT, it has become profoundly clear to me that a student’s level of motivation for the preparatory process will dramatically impact the testing outcomes. Motivated students make the requisite sacrifices, invest the necessary time, and nearly always come out ahead.

What happens if my child is not motivated to do the work required or does not seem interested in attaining a higher score?

It is essential to understand a student’s motivational profile and college aspirations. The SAT and the ACT are meaningful only in the context of applying to selective colleges. A number of factors influence motivational levels:

  1. Does the student know the strong correlation between scores and admission into selective schools? If the answer is no, we need to spend some time on Naviance, looking at scattergrams, or on the Collegeboard.com, looking at the score ranges, focusing on the 75% score, which is the ultimate goal for most unhooked candidates (AKA straight academic admits).
  2. Has the student identified colleges that interest him or her? If the answer is no, test prep is not relevant for that student. A student must have a school in mind and a target SAT or ACT score in mind to ground the prep and give it purpose. Visiting Colleges and establishing an emotional connection with a school, with specific score requirements, frequently turns on a student’s motivation for test prep.
  3. Does the student believe in his ability to succeed on the SAT or ACT? If a student has limiting self-beliefs and a low sense of self-efficacy for testing, he will not be as interested in putting in the effort required to succeed. The notion that “I never do well on tests” will deter the student from putting in the necessary energy, as he will see it as a waste and a set-up for another failure. Better not to try at all, than try again and risk another ego-wound.  Students who have low self-efficacy for testing need a regimen of small victories, a series of mastery experiences on increasingly challenging tasks. After each positive outcome, you must direct the student’s attention to the new information, the connection between a student’s effort and the successful outcome. Over time, you can replace the negative, limiting self-belief with a positive, more adaptive belief. This is not a one-shot conversation. This is a process, that when honored, has dramatically impacted student’s ultimate performance on high stakes tests.
  4. Does the student have the time needed to prepare? A student should prep when she has time. If test-prep is competing with too many other demands, test-prep, a long-term objective, will often be subordinated to more immediate and time-sensitive objectives, which, if neglected, carry immediate consequences. It is important to do the bulk of the prep when a student is not overwhelmed with schoolwork or extracurricular activities. I have asked students to back off from jobs and out-of-school activities to allow them enough time to complete the HW with integrity. If a student is overwhelmed and overscheduled, the testing outcomes will be affected.
  5. Does the student have good rapport with the tutor? When the relationship between the tutor and student is robust, the student will frequently be more inclined to make the sacrifices needed to achieve success. Once rapport is established, the student may not be as quick to neglect his or her assignments, as it may negatively impact the tutor-student relationship.
  6. Is the student struggling against too much external pressure? I have seen cases when my students were grappling with heightened parental or familial expectations, which impacted the motivational levels of my students. If the pressure is coming on too strong, students, in the midst of their own identity formation, can bristle against that pressure. It is essential that the students want to achieve a higher score and expanded opportunities for themselves. They must feel they are doing the work for themselves, first and foremost.

Parents may want to know what they can do to facilitate a successful outcome.

Should I use tangible rewards or punishment?

In my experience, these are to be used only as a last resort.  However, I am effusive with my use of informational rewards. I constantly tell my students how they are doing, where they are making progress, what areas still need refining. I am very attentive to the successes, big and small, of my students, and I make sure to heartily reinforce those. Parents can positively reinforce the effort and grit of their students. When you notice your child working on his vocab or HW, reinforce that. When a mock score increases, celebrate the effort which went into increasing the score; call attention to how his investment of time and energy has yielded returns. Avoid motivating using negative scenarios or creating a “failure-avoidant” orientation. The “success-approach” orientation has been proven to be much more effective. Keep it positive. Focus on the effort. And you’ll be giving your students an advantage.

How involved should I be in the process?

Let your children know that the prep is meaningful, that you are on their side. Be supportive. Celebrate the wins. Stay in the positive. At times, I’ve needed to pull parents closer in to the process if a student is not completing the assignments or doing the work with integrity. At other times, I’ve asked parents to create a little more space, and allow their child to manage the process more independently. There’s a golden mean where a student knows that the testing outcomes are meaningful to the parents, but the student does not feel overwhelmed with pressures or anxieties.

Does the timing of the process impact motivation?

The timing of test prep is very important. If you prep over too long of a period of time, students frequently burn out, and their motivation diminishes. If you wait until too late junior year to begin, the pressure can get more intense and you run the risk of increasing anxiety. I believe prep should start, at the earliest, the summer before junior year. I don’t believe in testing throughout the entire year. I believe in prepping for a specific test date or two, and then backing off, giving the student a break. If/when we return to tackle the assessments anew, we rebuild momentum and go in strong. We should have specific score goals for each assessment and use each successive test as a stepping stone en route to a student’s ultimate goal. Celebrate each step and each victory along the path.

For more information on motivation, check out the notes from my presentation to HECA in May, 2011:

The Subtle Art of Motivation by Jed Applerouth


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 info@applerouth.com.


  • If a student doesn’t care how they perform on an exam they won’t spend any time preparing for it.  It’s important for students to understand that these exams will affect the decisions that they have in the future.  Even if they don’t know where they are headed now, it’s best to know that at least they will have options if they do well on the exam. 

  • Knowlimitlearning1

    Wow that`s agreat idea i really appreciate your idea because most of the students feel that they are not able to get their work properly