Guest Blog by My Guru: You Can Improve! How a growth mindset benefits students taking the ACT/SAT

Have you heard of the term growth mindset? It’s a powerful concept that can apply to many facets of our lives: personal, academic, and professional. The term was coined by Carolyn Dweck in her 2011 bestseller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and in it she explores the vast differences between perfectionism, absolutism, and black and white thinking that often accompany a fixed mindset versus acquiring a more open, resilient, persevering growth mindset. In short, if you have a fixed mindset, you believe your personality and intelligence are basically traits that you receive at birth. A person with a fixed mindset might believe they were born introverted and shy, and this is something they must learn to accept, because there isn’t much that can be done. A person with a growth mindset would say that they might be introverted and shy now, but with focused effort and practice, they can learn to be more outgoing and comfortable in public over time. For more on the power of the growth mindset generally, you can watch Dr. Dweck’s powerful TED talk.

Nowhere has this approach of growth-orientation benefitted young people more than in their education. Having a receptive, flexible, and strong approach to learning allows for individuals to overcome setbacks more readily, to keep trying even in the face of great challenge or outright failure, and to maintain a somewhat positive and curious attitude toward subject matter and the learning process. If you believe you lack some sort of math “gene,” what’s the point, really, of studying? But with a growth mindset, you believe that studying and effort will steadily lead to improvement and skill development. How often have you said or heard another say, “I’m simply bad at taking tests,” or I’ll never score higher than blank,” or “I’m alright at the math portion but hopeless when it comes to verbal.” These are all fixed mindset statements that reflect rigid beliefs. It might be true that one has struggled with test-taking in the past or that their strengths lie more in mathematics, but these are not set in stone, be all end all realities that mean a student has no chance of improving.

Growth mindset clicks very readily for certain people and may seem most applicable to subjects where a bit of subjectivity and room for exploration are apparent. But what about seemingly rigid and straightforward modes of measuring intelligence like standardized tests? Unfortunately, many high school students still believe that an ACT or SAT solely measures one’s IQ and that therefore a growth mindset is a waste of time or an overly idealistic outlook. This is false. The SAT and ACT have evolved quite dramatically to be more focused on concrete academic skills, and in fact they were never considered flat measurements of one’s IQ.


On ACT.org, one can clearly see it written that the “The ACT measures the knowledge, understanding, and skills that you have acquired throughout your education.”


Studies are showing more and more how a growth-oriented approach to something like an ACT can allow a student to greatly improve, not only the outcome of a test score but as a test-taker, close-reader, and studier. The fact is, the ACT and SAT are testing specific academic skills that can be built with focused practice, and for a given level of conceptual knowledge, the chances of answering questions correctly goes up when you apply specific testing taking strategies, like intelligent guessing or process of elimination, which again, can be taught.


Implementing a growth mindset means the following as it relates to preparing for the ACT or SAT:


  • Dismissing the belief (if you have it) that these tests are “IQ tests” of your underlying intelligence and instead believing that practice will lead to improvement
  • Since practice takes time and effort, you must plan in advance for a few months of focused preparation
  • A fair amount of actual practice and hard work…
  • …followed by careful review of missed problems so that you can learn from your mistakes
  • If you are having trouble understanding your mistakes by simply reviewing the explanation in a prep book, you should consider signing up for a class or ACT or SAT tutor
  • Taking lots of practice tests, such that you can observe yourself improving over time and build the motivation to continue to practice
  • A willingness to take the ACT or SAT several times, knowing that with practice and experience, your score will improve.


This is not always what busy high school students want to hear. Many who believe that the tests simply and straightforwardly measure IQ then feel validated in having no need to study or understand the material on the tests, which couldn’t be further from the truth. One can learn how to take an ACT or SAT, the common formatting and subject matter they will find, the type of reading it demands, and the various ways to both study and approach the test. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it can certainly make progress and subsequent improvement. The very act of practicing a growth mindset with something as difficult and stressful as a college-entrance exam is in and of itself a rewarding experience that will benefit students entering higher education. So throw off that fixed mindset and be willing to get your hands dirty! You might even find that you enjoy it. And you might just surprise yourself with how successful you can be with a little extra effort and grit.


About the Author


Stephanie Ingraham is a tutor and blog writer for MyGuru, a boutique 1-1 tutoring company that focuses on customized study plan development and tutoring as a path to building skills and improving academic performance. They have been a provider of in-person and online ACT tutors since 2009. MyGuru has also made a commitment to talking to tutors and students about a steady rush of new research that suggests that academic performance is driven by mindset, grit, and the right type of deliberate practice. For more of our thoughts on these topics, feel free to visit our blog.