Thinking Fast and Slow

I recently posted about the necessity of learning to think quickly on the SAT, but lest you think I’m advocating rushing through the test at warp speed, I’d like to qualify that advice a bit. Learning to manage time on is not fundamentally about learning to do everything quickly but rather about learning which things can be done quickly and which must be done slowly.

When I go over Critical Reading material with my students and they ask me to explain a question they had difficulty with, one of the things I always point out to them as I read the question out loud is how slowly I move through it. I actually take a fraction of a second to absorb each word and make sure that I’m processing it fully. Sometimes I rephrase it for myself two or three times out loud, in progressively simpler versions. If necessary, I write down the simplified version. The end result, while not excessively time-consuming, involves considerably more effort than what my students are likely to have put into understanding the question.

Usually by the second time I rephrase the question, however, my students start to get that oh-so-exquisite look of teenage boredom on their faces; I can almost see the little thought bubble reading “ok, fine, whatever, can she just get on with it already?” pop out from their heads. As I do my best to impress upon them, however, I’m not simply reading the question that slowly to torture them; I have to read it that way because if I don’t, I’m likely to miss something important. Sure, if I just breezed through it, I might get it right anyway, but I might also not — and I’m not taking any chances. The fact that I recognize my own potential for weakness and take steps to address it is, I also stress, one of the reasons I almost never get anything wrong. (Usually they just say “yeah” and roll their eyes.)

The other thing I stress, however, is that reading questions slowly will not create a timing problem for them if they’ve used their time to maximum efficiency elsewhere. If they haven’t lingered over words or answer choices whose meanings they’re really not sure of; if they haven’t stared off into space instead of taking active steps to distinguish between those last two answers, then they can afford to spend fifteen or twenty seconds making sure they’ve read every word of a question carefully. The whole point is that they have to adjust their approach to the particular task at hand. Flexibility is, I would argue, a key part of what the SAT tests, and building that flexibility is a key part of the preparation process. You can’t predict every guise that a particular concept will appear in — that’s part of what makes the SAT the SAT — but if you know how to resist getting sucked into things that confuse you, you’ll at least have some measure of control.

The five second rule

When a student who consistently runs out of time comes to me, one of the first thing I try to do is pin down what exactly is causing them to slow down. In the absence of a serious comprehension problem, I frequently find that as they work through the sentence completions and encounter words they don’t know, they simply stop and stare.

I can almost hear the little voice in their head saying “Wait… I’ve seen this word before… It looks really familiar… We talked about it in English class last month… It means like “stubborn” or something, right? I think…” Meanwhile the seconds and then the minutes tick by, and they’re still struggling their way through the same medium-level question.

As I constantly have to remind my students, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the wrong answers means as long as you do know what the right answer means. In other words, if you see a word whose meaning you’re absolutely certain of and it fits the sentence perfectly, it’s the answer, and you need to just pick it and move on. The fact that there might be three or four other words whose meanings you’re not sure of is completely irrelevant. The point is to answer the questions correctly, not to know the definition of every single word.

What happens, however, is that students see the unfamiliar words and assume that they know far less than they actual do. For those trying to break the 600 mark, that reaction is a disaster because it causes them to 1) get easy-medium-ish questions wrong that they should be getting right, and 2) waste huge amounts of time so that they run out of time and end up missing additional questions at the end of the section that they could have answered correctly.

One of the major mental adjustments that people have to make when they first start studying for the SAT is the fact that the exam tests flexible knowledge — the stuff you know so well that you can pull it out on autopilot, not the stuff you tried to cram last night or last week and that only got stored in your short-term memory. If you don’t know a word when you see it and don’t have any tools (roots, etc.) for figuring it out, there really isn’t much you can do about it on the spot. If that word hasn’t been stored in your long-term memory, the reality is that sitting and staring at it probably isn’t going to help, no matter how much it feels like it will; if anything, it’ll simply take time away from other things.

When I work through sentence completions with people, one of the major things I focus on is getting them out of staring mode and into “let me focus on something else” mode. The moment I see their eyes start to glaze over, I say “next.” Usually, that’s about five seconds after they’ve looked at the word. (To be perfectly honest, it’s probably more like a second or two, but if I called this post “the one second rule,” I’m not sure anyone would bother to read it. ). Inevitably, they’re startled, but I’ve learned that if they go any longer, they’re going to get stuck.

Consider this sentence:

Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

Give yourself five seconds to come up with words to plug into the blanks. If you can’t come up with anything, just say whether each blank is positive or negative.

Now, when you look at the answer choices, you’re going to deal with each side individually, starting with whichever side you’re more certain of. Left or right, it doesn’t matter.

Go in order, (A)-(E).

If you know that a word won’t work, eliminate the entire answer; if you don’t know what a word means, keep it.

For each word, you have a maximum of five seconds to decide.

Repeat for the other side. Five seconds max.

Do not allow yourself to think, “well, maybe if I just stared at this word a little longer,” I might figure out what it means,” or “let me try plugging this word into the sentence and seeing how it sounds…” Just say “yes” or “no.” You can go back and plug in once you get down to a couple of answers.

If you go back and plug in your remaining answers and still aren’t sure, give yourself five seconds to decide what to do. You can guess, skip entirely, or circle it to come back to later. But you have to decide — you can’t just sit and stare.


Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

(A) volatile . . anticipation

(B) edifying . . deprivation

(C) noxious . . contamination

(D) destructive . . purification

(E) benign . . pollution

How was that? If you usually have time problems, that was probably a much faster pace than you’re accustomed to working at. It might even feel a bit breathless. But yes, in order to finish on time, you do actually have to work that fast.

For the record, the answer is beside the point here; the point is the process. But you can scroll down for the answer.

The same is true for passage-based reading questions, by the way. If you’re consistently staring at answer choices for more than a few seconds without actively figuring out whether it’s right or wrong, you’re going to get into trouble. That doesn’t mean you have to answer the question in five seconds, just that staring at answer choices without actually engaging with those choices (thinking about how they relate to the main point, rephrasing them in simpler language, going back to the passage to check out something specific) will get you nowhere.

The answer is (C). If you did happen to get the question right, congratulations. You might, however, be thinking, “ok, fine, I tried it your way, but I would have gotten it right anyway — it wasn’t really that hard.” To which my response would be, “I appreciate that you might have gotten this question right anyway, but this is about 1) using time to maximum efficiency, and 2) working as systematically as possible so you don’t make careless errors — you know, the kind that can knock you down from an 800 to a 720, or a 700 to a 620. Besides, there will be other, harder questions that you will end up wasting huge amounts of time unnecessarily on if you don’t train yourself to make decisions quickly on the easier ones.

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.

Take more time than you think you need

Disclaimer: if you always finish right at time or are forced to leave a couple of questions blank because you just couldn’t get to them, this article does not apply to you. For the rest of you, but especially the ones who finish sections with five or ten minutes left over and aren’t scoring consistent 800s on them, slow down!

And when I say “slow down,” I don’t just mean “stop racing.” I mean give yourself the time you need to fully process each question, determine exactly what it requires, work through every step of the problem, and make sure you’re choosing the answer you actually intended to choose. If you think you need an extra five seconds, take ten instead. If you’re finishing 24-question sections in 20 minutes rather than 25, that gives you about 12.5 extra seconds per question to play around with. Assuming that you won’t really need all those extra seconds for some of the easier questions, you can probably spend up to 20 or 30 more seconds on the couple of hardest ones.

Working this way can be scary: it forces you to stop going on instinct (and hoping that you get lucky) and actually prove the answer before you pick it. It means you can’t justify a wrong answer by saying that you had to guess because you were afraid you’d run out of time (even though you were finishing with ten minutes to spare). It means you have to be really, really careful.

But here’s the thing: it works. If you’re scoring 650 Reading and are trying to break 700, chances are you need to be a little more meticulous. Slowing down, making sure that you really consider whether there’s one word in an answer choice that doesn’t quite work, going back to the passage to check things out… that might just be enough to get you there.

Why most time problems really aren’t

I think that far too much gets made of the fact that the SAT is a timed test. Yes, you do need to practice finishing sections within the allotted time and take a full-length test or two before the real thing in order to learn how to pace yourself, but in your actual studying, your goal needs to be mastering the actual material, not just doing timed section after timed section and seeing how fast you can get.

I’ve had a couple of students come to me seriously concerned about time issues and wanting to focus on improving their speed. They were all a bit surprised to learn that I don’t usually deal directly with speed in the sense that I rarely time people or, with the exception of ACT Reading, talk about how much time they *should* be spending on any given section of a test. Why? Because speed is what results when you strengthen the actual (logical, mathematical, grammatical, etc.) skills that you’re being tested on rather than a technique in and of itself. If you just focus on the speed at the expense of the actual skills, you end up short-circuiting the entire process. You might get faster, but your score probably won’t go up all that much. On the other hand, if you improve your skills sufficiently, you won’t waste time pondering answer choices rather than actively solving problems, and the time issue usually takes care of itself.

A suggestion for managing time on ACT English

If you find yourself in the habit of slowing down on the rhetoric questions and then having to race at the end of the English sections, please consider
trying this out. (If you’re fine on time and have no problem with rhetoric questions, you can ignore this post.)

On ACT English, you have 45 minutes for 75 questions, divided into five passages with 15 questions each. That breaks down into 9 minutes per passage, or a little over 30 seconds per question.

As you may already know, however, some ACT English questions take far more time to finish than others. Grammar questions are often fairly straightforward and can often be done in a matter of seconds. However, rhetoric questions, especially ones that require you to reread substantial portions of the passage, can take much longer.

Now, rhetoric questions are usually located at the end of each passage — but not always. Sometimes they come right at the beginning. Sometimes they’re mixed in with grammar questions. When that’s the case, forget them for a little bit. Mark the ones you skip so you won’t forget to come back to them later, then do all the grammar questions.

If you get done with the grammar questions before the 9 minutes are up, go back to the rhetoric questions you skipped; if not, move on and do the same thing for the next passage (but don’t forget to guess on the ones you skipped; it can’t hurt you).

Your goal should be to get as many questions right as fast as you can. No question counts more than any other question, so it’s in your interest to first do all the questions you’re sure of, then worry about the ones you’re shaky on.

So the bottom line is this: don’t waste time working on a question you might not get right at the expense of working on a question you’ll almost certainly get right.