30 May 2012

Don’t lose points trying to finish on time

I sometimes get students who have already been through a prep class or two, and in such cases, I’m almost inevitably responsible for breaking the students of some very bad habits — for example an excessive concern with finishing every section on time.

I don’t dispute that timing is a major problem for some people, and in those cases, it really is necessary to spend a good deal of time experimenting with strategies to make the time constraints more manageable. But in my experience, those cases are less common than most test-prep programs assume — the reality is that many people struggle just a little bit with time. They’d like another five minutes to feel comfortable, but they make it through nonetheless.

The problem, however, is that making it through every question in the allotted time is not necessarily a worthy goal in and of itself. If rushing is costing you questions that you truly could have answered correctly, especially at the ends of section, then you need to give yourself more time. But that means you need to plan upfront to skip questions, even questions that you might know how to do.

Think about it it this way:

Say you’re scoring in the high 600s, and the only thing holding you back from scoring higher is that you always rush through the last few questions because you’re running out of time and make some mistakes along the way as a result. Say 2 mistakes at the end of each Critical Reading section x 3 sections = 6 mistakes.

Then let’s say you make another three mistakes scattered throughout the test. That’s nine mistakes total, plus an additional 2 points from the quarter point you lose for each wrong answer, which is 11 points off your raw score: a 56, which is about a 690. Definitely not bad, but still, you’re trying to break 700.

Now let’s say you plan to skip one question per section to take some of the pressure off at the end. Let’s say that the extra time gets you one more question per section. With three other errors on the whole test, you now have 6 errors total, for a raw score of 60 (61 – 1.5 = 59.5, which rounds up).

That’s a 740, which puts you smack in the middle of the range at the Ivies.

Three questions, fifty points, between having a CR score that puts you around the 25th percentile and one that puts you around the 50th.

Think about it.

Likewise, say you feel like you have to race through and usually miss about seven questions per section. That gets you down to 46, minus an additional 5 = 41 = 560. Now let’s say you forget about four questions per section. Just forget about them completely. Don’t even try. If you can spend more time and get three additional questions right per section, you’re down to only 4 wrong per section.

That’s 67 total – 12 wrong – 3 from the quarter point off each wrong answer = 52 raw score, which is a 650.

90 points gained from not even attempting three questions per section.

In order for this strategy to work, you do need to fully commit to it. You can’t let yourself get tempted into thinking that just this once, you really might be able to answer every single question and get that magical 800. The chances of that happening are, well…slim. The SAT is a standardized test, which means that unless you really do something differently, you’ll score in more or less the same range on every time. If you’ve been having problems with time, you’ll almost certainly continue to do so. You can’t count on getting interesting passages or an easy test.

But if you know exactly where your problems lie and just give yourself those extra thirty seconds to stop panicking and think things through, you might be able to shift things just enough in your favor to make a difference.

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