Procrastinate (or: if you can’t handle the question now, don’t)

Occasionally I’ll be working through a section — usually a Reading section — with a student, and I’ll come across a question that just makes my head spin. Usually it’s an “all of the following EXCEPT” or a “which of the following would most undermine the author’s assertion that…” or a “which of the following is most analogous to the situation in lines 35-47?”

At that point, I generally turn to my student and declare that I just can’t deal with it right then. We’re moving on. I don’t care if my student wants to try it. I don’t want to end up with smoke pouring metaphorically out of my ears, which is frankly what will happen if I try to muddle through. Either that, or I’ll sit and stare at it uncomprehendingly for about five minutes, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be seeing and not quite managing to make logical sense out of the letters on the page.

In other words, exactly the same thing that happens to most of my students when they look at a question like that.

I do this because 1) I am a self-confessed procrastinator, a skill that I honed assiduously (diligently, sedulously) throughout high school and college, and, more seriously, 2) I want to make a point: know what you can handle at a given time, and if you can’t handle it, don’t even try. Leave it, do something else, and come back to it when and if you can handle it. Surely if I can do it, they can do it.

I really do my best to insist on this: a big part of beating the SAT, quote-unquote, is about not letting the test wear you down. If you try to do everything, in order, and refuse to budge, you’re most likely going to get tired and end up missing things you know perfectly well how to do.

One of the biggest differences between the 500/600-range students and the 700-range students is that the latter are more aware of what they *don’t* know how to do — they know their weaknesses and plan accordingly. If they see that something is going to give them trouble, they make a strategic choice and just save it for later.

Besides, sometimes all you need is a few minutes off. Sometimes, on CR, answering other questions can actually point you in the right direction for a question that originally seemed impossible. But even if you don’t end up having time to come back to a question… at the very least, you’ll be able to work calmly through questions that you might otherwise have had to do twice as fast.