04 May 2011

Worry About Time Last

Myth: the best way to study for a timed standardized test is to always time yourself rigidly and focus on getting your speed up.

Reality: sometimes it’s better to first focus on learning the test material along with strategies for handling it, then deal with time issue.

Let me put it this way: suppose you had a math final that would last 90 minutes. You knew that it would cover all the material you had learned during the semester, and that it would require you to apply your knowledge in new ways so that your teacher could see if you really understood what you’d learned.

What would you do?

Would you spend all of your time worrying about the fact that you only had 50 minutes to finish the test and study mainly by trying to answer practice problems faster, or would you go back to your notes and work on mastering understanding the fundamentals of what you’d covered so that you could in fact apply your knowledge to a kind of problem you’d never seen before?

I’m guessing you picked the latter (if you didn’t, well… you might want to rethink some of your study habits). So why would you treat the SAT any differently?

I know that everyone says studying for these tests is totally, completely, utterly different from studying for a test in school, but actually that’s not quite true.

As I’ve written about before, time issues are usually knowledge issues in disguise. If you work on solving the knowledge component, the time issue usually goes away on its own. Spending an hour deconstructing four or five questions to the point at which you understand the rules they’re testing cold is infinitely more productive than taking a full test and missing the same old things you usually miss. Then when you feel like you understand things, move up to a full section, and finally start to time yourself.

If you’re planning to take the SAT in three days, as some of you may be, then obviously this isn’t going to work. But if you have some time, even a month, then try it.

The other reason why working slowly at first is so important is that most SAT questions — and some ACT questions — have a sort of “back door” that allows you to solve them very quickly without wasting time pondering the answers. For example:

Word Pair questions on the SAT Writing section: if you know all the word pairs cold (see the grammar rules page for the complete list), you can spot many correct answers without even reading through all of the choices.

“The point of lines xxx…” on Critical Reading. Usually reading the sentence before the given lines will get you the answer. If you can match the idea of that sentence to an answer choice, you’re done.

On ACT English, you can automatically eliminate grammatically equivalent answer choices such as Comma + FANBOYS, Semicolon, and Period.

More than anything else, teaching yourself to recognize those back doors will help you get your time down. But, paradoxically, you might have to go very, very slowly at first in order to achieve that.

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