A perfect test score isn’t always a good thing.
I know… I know… it feels pretty damn good to ace a test. I certainly can’t say I don’t get that same feeling. There is absolutely nothing more that you could have done right on the test. It means you understood everything well. You didn’t even make simple little mistakes. You’ve done as good as you can possibly do on the test.
A perfect test score can feel really good and I don’t want to take that away from you but what does a perfect test score even mean anyway?
One perfect test score won’t get you into a better college (well… maybe on the SATs or equivalent tests.) One perfect score usually won’t decide the final fate of your grade in the course. That’s particularly true when compared to a 99. The difference between an almost perfect score and a perfect one means almost nothing to your future.
When you get a perfect score you should hesitate for a moment because it’s not always a positive sign. Despite how good it feels, it can be a sign of a serious problem in your study routine. (This is particularly true if you’re not always scoring perfect.)
I’m going to be making some points that sound like I’m trying to bum you out but I have slightly different goals. I’d much rather help you:
- Appreciate your 95+ scores dramatically more.
- Study more efficiently
- Not waste any more time than you have to.
The reality is that a perfect test score could be a sign that you’re wasting some serious time.
The Time Sink Problem
Imagine you’re capable of getting a perfect score on a college exam with “only” 10 hours of studying.
Getting yourself to study for 10 hours is pretty tough. That’s more true if you don’t just cram those 10 hours in the night before. It requires at least a few good decisions about time management on your part. Imagine you could get a perfect score with ten hours.
Naturally, no one knows how long they need to study to get a perfect score on a test. The test is a bit of a mystery. A student looking to get a perfect score has to guess how long they need to study in order to get that perfect score. The guess should be based on previous tests.
If you end up guessing that you need to study for 30 hours to get a perfect score on a that same test then what’s your score going to be?
It’s still going to be perfect.
Despite studying 3 times longer than you had to, you still had the same score. Essentially, you wasted 20 hours of studying. You only needed 10 hours but you lost 30.
That’s 20 hours that could have been used to get you a perfect score in two equal tests. Instead of having one perfect score you could have had 3 of them.
A perfect score can feel good but it gives you absolutely no feedback to the amount of time you need to be studying. That means you’re probably wasting time. There is only one perfect score amount of time to study and unlimited too much studying. To get a perfect score you need to study the perfect amount of time or too much.
95 to 99 is virtually the same as a 100 for most students but 100 comes without the knowledge that you’re investing the right resources into studying.
But… I know… you’re probably thinking a few points can’t mean that much to your study routine. Sure, you don’t want to go nuts and vastly overestimate the time you need to study but it’s not that bad, right?
Why Perfect Tests Are A Waste Of Time
This is a difficult idea to conceptualize but it can change the way you think about studying.
The first point on any particular test is the easiest.
The last point on any particular test is the hardest.
There is a fundamental difference between these two points because the first point you earn on a test can come from any question on the test.
To score the final point on a test you need to know the answer to one specific question.
I think this is easiest understood with an example:
Imagine you’re being given a 100 question test with one point for each correct question.
Your teacher gives you a study guide that includes 1000 different things you should learn for the test.
To make the test even easier, imagine the teacher plops a list of the 1000 different answers from your study guide directly on the test. You just need to connect the right answer to the right question. A little bit of cramming can get you through this simple a test.
(This is an unrealistic example to help clarify the point. In reality there are usually thousands and thousands of potential things you need to learn for a test. You also can’t simplify every question as equally valuable. In reality, this point is usually more extreme than my example.) I’m also simplifying some of the math here.
To score your first point on this test, you need to know the correct answer to 1 out of 100 questions. Statistically, to score that first point on the test you probably only need to memorize 10 of the things on your study guide. If you know 10 of the things on your study guide then you’ll probably know at least one thing on your test.
Imagine you get your first 99 points on the test.
To score your final point on this test, you need to know the answer to 1 out of 1 remaining question. You can’t score that point by answering anything else. The perfect score needs to come from a single remaining question.
You’ve used up 99 of the answers. There are still 901 potential answers but still only one of them will be right. To know you can get this final point you have to know all 901 of the remaining potential answers.
If you had a 98 and wanted to score a 99 then you’d only need to know 451 of the potential answers.
97 to a 98 you’d only need 301.
90 to a 91 you’d only need 91.
You need to know twice as much to score a 100 instead of a 99. That’s how much more difficult getting a perfect test score is in comparison to an almost perfect test score.
You’d need to study twice as much.
For the example I used earlier, by settling for a 99 you could study only 5 hours a week instead of 10. And don’t forget that a non-perfect score actually helps you learn how to study better instead of leaving you guessing whether you studied too much.
But Seriously Though…
I’m not saying to dread a perfect test score.
Sometimes, even if you properly manage your study routine, you’ll get a perfect score. A perfect score doesn’t always mean you studied too much. It could also mean:
- You studied just right.
- Your teacher threw a softball test.
- You guessed better than average.
- Your bribe worked.
Even if you studied too much, it’s not a horrible thing. Sure… you could have invested your time a little better. By investing it in other courses you could score a higher average. It’s a quality problem to have. (Plenty of students can’t start studying in the first place. That’s not your problem.)
Given the choice between studying too much or too little, plenty of people would prefer to study too much. Colleges don’t care if you allocated your time poorly to get your good grades. They do care if you don’t get good grades at all. (Of course, I do have strong opinions around the value of some of this but that’s irrelevant for my point.)
When you get that perfect test score, here is my response.
Now what can you do to make this happen more often?
Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s the strategy I used to graduate near the top of my class. The strategies I used are the same ones that I teach on this blog. Please share the content if you found it interesting.
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If there is one thing I’ve learned in life…
It’s that decisions are about risk.
I’m going to tell you some stuff that sounds pretty crazy.
Want to learn:
- Why You Screwed Up In The Past Because Of The Things They Forced You To Do – And What To Do Instead
- How To Get A Top Score (Even If You’re Failing Assignments Now)
- 5 Biggest Reasons Students Get Bummed And Give Up
- How to prepare for a test so well that test day is easier than studying
- Learn to predict what’s on the test with (almost) perfect accuracy
- How to use the most science-backed study strategy to study in a fraction of the time
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