It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

It’ s not you — it’s the test (or: if you don’t understand it, it probably doesn’t make sense)

Much as I’ve tried to cut back on tutoring to work on my seemingly endless SAT book revisions, I somehow haven’t been able to escape entirely. In fact, I somehow ended up with no fewer than five (!) students taking the ACT this Saturday. It’s therefore entirely unsurprising that I’ve had the same set of conversations repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. (It’s also entirely unsurprising that I can no longer remember which conversation I’ve had with whom and am therefore reduced to constantly asking the student in front of me whether we’ve already discussed a particular rule, or whether I actually gave the explanation to someone. Although actually I’ve been doing that for a while now.)

Perhaps not unexpectedly at this point in the year, almost all of my students were “second rounders” — people who had worked with other tutors, for months in some cases, before finding their way to me. And that meant that there was the inevitable psychological baggage that accumulates when someone has already taken the test a couple of times without reaching their goals. As a result, I’ve been paying just as much attention to how people work through the test. When I work with a student who actually does have most of the skills they need but can’t quite seem to apply them when it counts, that’s basically a given.

It’s interesting — I’ve never really bought into a lot of the whole “test anxiety” thing, but more and more, I find myself dealing with the psychological aspects of test taking. (But rest assured, I don’t talk about scented candles or relaxation exercises).

Anyway, over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself paying an awful lot of attention to just what people who are scoring in the mid-20s on ACT English and trying to get to 30+ do when they sit down with a test. I’m pretty good at managing the psychological games that people play with themselves, particularly when they involve second-guessing, but I’ve never spent so much time thinking about those games specifically in terms of ACT English before.

Well, there’s a first time for everything.

If there’s one salient feature that characterizes the ACT English test, it’s probably the straightforward, almost folksy Midwestern style. There’s an occasional question that really makes you think, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. A lot of wrong answers are really wrong, almost to the point of absurdity.

As I worked with my ACT students, I noticed something interesting: when the original version of a sentence (that is, the version in the passage) didn’t make sense, the student would get confused and reread the sentence or section of the passage again. And when they still didn’t understand, they’d reread it again. And sometimes a third time.

The issue wasn’t so much that they were running out of time, but rather that they were wasting huge amounts of energy trying to make sense of things that couldn’t be made sense out of because they thought they were missing something. Then they were getting confused and panicking and second-guessing themselves.

So although it might sound obvious, I think this bears saying: if you are working through an ACT English section and find that you just cannot make sense out of a phrase or sentence in the passage, that version of the phrase or sentence is wrong. Do not try to wrap your head around it by reading it again and again. You can’t make sense out of it because it doesn’t make sense. In other words, it’s not you — it’s the test.

Even if you don’t know what the right answer is, you do know what the answer is not: NO CHANGE. Pick up your pencil, put a line through A or F, and start plugging in the other options.

You might not know quite what you’re looking for, but at least that way you’re doing something constructive, not just freaking yourself out.

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.

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.