Study Skills: Willpower & Standardized Test Preparation

Posted by The Aged Tutor on 2/27/13 10:15 AM

standardized test preparation

As a standardized test prep tutor, I have worked with all kinds of students. Some are intrinsically motivated, while other needs a push.

In the context of tutoring, here is an interesting definition from the American Psychological Association: “We have many common names for willpower: determination, drive, resolve, self-discipline, self-control." However, psychologists characterize willpower, or self-control, in more specific ways.

According to most psychological scientists, willpower can be defined as:

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self
  • A limited resource capable of being depleted”

Willpower can be hard to come by……

Willpower can be hard to come by – particularly in the land of test preparation.  It can be hard to muster up in the early stages of studying, after a bad practice exam or even after studying for months and taking the real exam and not hitting your intended goal.  Many of us when initiating a course of study may not even need willpower to catalyze us to do what we need to do (e.g. study, work with a tutor).  We might be so ramped up and excited to start a course of study, with the expectation that we are going to do well, that until we hit a major roadblock didn’t realize we needed willpower.

How can one muster it up when you are studying for the GMAT, or LSAT, or even the PSAT?

So, how can one muster it up?  One way is to start with a smaller goal than the one your audacious and disciplined self would hope you could achieve.  Take for example, the working GMAT or LSAT tutoring student who is dedicated to studying for two hours after a long workday.  That student finds it totally doable the first few days, but then by the fourth or fifth day is exhausted and decides not to study.  This might continue to happen.  Why? –The goal was too big and ultimately not achievable. 

Any academic tutor will tell you to start with a part of your goal…..

The tutoring student may not have the wherewithal to admit to him/herself that the goal was too big and that it needs to be modified or simply does not want to back down from that goal.  If either of these scenarios are the case, then s/he will need willpower to power through the first part of the goal.  One way I try to create willpower in these type of students is to encourage them to take a timer and start with a chunk of their studying goal – such as 45 minutes of two hours from the aforementioned example –, and to tell themselves that if they finish that chunk of 45 minutes then they did enough.  Usually what will happen is that the tutoring student will be able to go quite a bit longer beyond that 45 minutes; furthermore, at that point s/he will develop a more realistic understanding of what they can feasibly do – not overdoing it but also not underdoing it. 

For willpower to be sustainable……you need motivation and appropriate behavior to achieve your goal

One thing to remember though is that for willpower to be sustainable other things need to be in place.  According to Roy Baumeister, a willpower researcher, those two things are motivation to achieve a goal and continuous monitoring towards behavior that will allow you to achieve that goal.  All of those things can be coached.  So if you need assistance with these things –which the majority of people do – it might be worth getting a test preparation coach, who can not only help you with the content of your test but also help motivate you and help you align your goals and behavior with your score and performance expectations.

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Tags: study skills, LSAT, GMAT, SAT, MCAT, PSAT