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Grit Mindset for the ACT and SAT

“A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity, and that, in

turn, leads to both giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place. In contrast, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that, in turn, leads to

perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger.”

Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

If a 7 am wakeup call on a Saturday morning isn’t daunting enough, the prospect of a

four hour test heavily influencing college decisions could not be more intimidating. For many

high school students, it’s difficult to get past their own sense of impending doom about the ACT or SAT, much less recognize that there’s a bigger picture at play here. One test score can only take you so far. But a mindset? That potential is limitless and extends well beyond this 4 hour test.

When it comes to test taking, we like to focus on the idea of a grit mindset, sometimes

called a growth mindset. Angela Duckworth, a UPenn professor and well renowned expert in

psychology, describes, “ Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future.” In other words, it’s changing our perspective from “Ihope I can get a good score on the ACT” to “I know hard work will help me get the score I want on the ACT.

”Beyond a four hour test, this grit mindset will apply to your ability to take adversity head on and master tasks going forward. Some Practical Steps to Develop a Grit Mindset:

1. Change what you are telling yourself.

Many students I’ve talked to consistently say things like “I hate this test. I’m a horrible

test taker. I’ll never be able to get my math score up. Why am I even studying if I know

I’m not smart enough to get the score I want.” Commit to changing your mindset to a

more positive thought process. The narrative you tell about yourself will influence the

effort you put in and the outcomes you receive as a result. Most importantly, pay

attention to the subconscious and conscious attitudes that you bring to the table whenever

you are getting ready to study. Say to yourself, “I know through preparation, I’m going to

do great. When I work hard, I have success.”

2. Commit to overcome initial feelings of intimidation.

It’s easy to get caught up in our own fears and preconceptions about what we can and

can’t do. Many students see a word problem and immediately think, “I have no idea how

to do this.” Instead, take it step by step and identify what you know. For example, write

down the formula, understand what the question is asking, and maybe recall similar

problems you’ve done in the past. This builds confidence that you know more than you

think and emphasizes that you aren’t out of your comfort zone or completely out on a

limb. Bringing awareness to your fears and initial nervous reactions allows you to first

acknowledge and then counter those feelings with confidence and focus.

3. Set a goal that is specific and measurable.

Many of us have this vague term floating around of needing to get a “good” score on the

SAT or ACT. When we don’t concretely identify what “good” means for us, we aren’t

able to either recognize where we need growth or celebrate when we’ve reached our

goals. Saying you want a “good” score can lead to a long, unending path where nothing

you get is ever actually good enough, even when you’ve put in a great deal of effort and

accomplished a lot. Having specific markers to track your progress like putting in a

certain number of study hours, taking a set number of practice tests, raising your score by

a specific, reasonable amount, and knowing when it’s time to stop are great ways to

ensure that you both meet your goals and get to then celebrate them.

4. Break your goal into action steps.

Work with people in your life who know you and your goals to develop a plan to reach

them. Action steps can include setting up specific study times, taking practice tests on

particular dates, outlining different study resources and practices, and designating times

to take a break and celebrate the progress you’ve made. Don’t forget to take into account

the ways you learn best and the habits that are the healthiest for you individually. Action

steps provide a plan that you can refer back to and make the entire process much less


5. Celebrate the Process!

Enjoying your success is a big component of having a grit mindset! We have to celebrate

the small steps of progress that we make in order to have genuine pride in our effort.

Preparing for these tests doesn’t have to be a miserable, painful process when we allow

ourselves to take breaks and relax when we’ve met the markers we set for ourselves.

Rather than focusing on our assumptions about our skills or perceived limitations on

ability, a grit mindset allows us to view our work and effort as the direct path to reaching our

goals. Any setbacks, big or small, are not a reflection of our intelligence, but rather of where we have room for growth.

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