Here’s an all-too-common scenario: a student is scoring well on practice test after practice test, but when they take a real SAT, their score is hundreds of points lower. Yes, there are several legitimate reasons this can happen: test anxiety, physical illness, a terrible testing environment, and so on. But there’s another cause which we see all the time:

Micro-cheating.

What’s micro-cheating? It’s the practice of fudging the score on a practice test while grading it by changing wrong answers to correct ones based on one of several rationalizations:

  • “Oh, I just dropped a sign, but I know how to do that one”
  • “That question was confusingly worded but I knew what the passage was saying”
  • “Eh, I kind of rushed through the answer choices, but on the test I’ll be more careful”
  • “I solved for the wrong quantity, but I had all the values to get the right answer”
  • “I see where I went wrong and I’m mad at myself, so I’ll treat myself to a right answer so I feel better” (this is like cheating at golf while playing alone)

One other micro-cheating technique is to give yourself a little extra time when you only have a question or two left on a section when time expires. Finishing all the questions in a section even after time expires is actually a great idea -- but you can’t count those answers when scoring if you want a true picture of your score progress. Micro-cheating, of course, catches up with you. It conceals deficiencies and gives false confidence, but eventually, you have to pay the piper when you take a real test and it all comes crashing down. You might fool yourself into feeling better about your prospects in the short run, but on balance, you will pay a heavy price.

Don’t steal from yourself: be ruthlessly honest when taking and grading your practice tests. It will pay off in the long run.