I usually try to avoid clichés. Really, I do. I honestly don’t recall whether I ever had a penchant for them, but any tendency toward employing them in my writing was thoroughly beaten out of my by my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Gutmann (who unfortunately, it must be said, failed to make much of an impression on me otherwise).

That said, there are times when nothing but a cliché sums up a particular idea just right, the title of this post being a prime example. (I also happen to like the alliteration). It’s a phrase I find myself uttering repeatedly when I tutor. It’s important for people working at pretty much any score level, but it’s especially relevant to those in the higher range — assuming that you know how to do all, or nearly all, of the problems you’ll encounter, the details might be the only thing standing between you and your dream score.

Let me emphasize this: it does not matter whether you are capable of answering a question correctly if you do not actually answer that question correctly when you sit down the take the test. The scores that actually end up in front of admissions officers are what counts. They will not stop to think that hey, maybe that 680 should really be a 720 because that kid two rows over who wouldn’t stop kicking his feet against the chair kept distracting you. Admissions officers are not responsible for that type of speculation.

I am not saying this to scare you (ok, maybe I am, just a little) but rather to attempt to convey to you that you cannot take anything for granted when you take a test for real. It does not matter how many practice tests you’ve taken. I’ve worked with kids who took 30 or more and still managed to screw up on the real thing. It does not matter whether you’ve scored an 800 on every single one. When you get complacent and start taking things for granted, you get sloppy. And when you get sloppy, you make careless errors. And when that happens, soon enough you’re right back at 690. Or a 29. Or wherever it was you started from.

Or, conversely, if you have a tendency to get anxious, you must resist the tendency to either rush through questions or overthink them to the point where you can choose an answer choice that blatantly contradicts common sense without noticing that there’s anything odd about it.

And then there are my real cautionary tales: every year, I inevitably have one student who incorrectly bubbles anywhere from a couple of questions to an entire section, and ends up with score that they really don’t deserve.

Hence the point of this post.

Now, when I point out how s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully I work through questions, usually my students just roll their eyes and/or tune me out (and then they wonder why they didn’t do as well as they were expecting). But for what it’s worth, if you’re taking the SAT or the ACT anytime soon, here’s a quick list of things to pay extra close attention to:

  • Put your finger or pencil on the page when you read the passages AND the questions. Misreading a key word can cost you easy points. NB: if you use your pencil, put the eraser side on your page — otherwise you will underline the entire passage, making your actual underlinings hard to distinguish.
  • Do not jump to eliminate an answer before you’re clear on what it’s saying. If you can’t figure out what an answer is saying, don’t eliminate it just because it confuses you!
  • When you do eliminate an answer, put a line through the entire thing, including the letter. Otherwise, you will get distracted by irrelevant information.
  • When you work by process of elimination, double-check that the answer you’re left with makes sense.
  • On SAT Writing/ACT English, make sure you plug your answer back into the sentence. Answers that make sense independently can be clearly wrong in context.
  • When a question is presented in a complicated manner, take a moment and rephrase it in simpler words so that you know exactly what that question is asking you to do. Otherwise, you may inadvertently answer something other than the question in front of you.
  • Pay attention to your notes. If you’ve circled/underlined important info in a passage, don’t overlook it when you go back to answer a question. The answer is probably right where you marked it.
  • Do not rely excessively on the answer choices — they are there to confuse you, not help you. If you are a strong enough reader to get an idea of what information will be included in the correct answer, take a few moments and figure out what you’re looking for. Most of my students who couldn’t get past the low 700s have been stuck on the idea that because they could recognize the correct answer most of the time, they could learn to recognize it all of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how the SAT works.
  • When you answer a question in your own words, write down what you come up with to keep you focused. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone answer a question correctly on their own, then get confused when they looked at the answer choices.
  • Don’t take a wild guess when you can take an educated guess with just a little more work. If you’re down to two answers, see if there’s a specific feature of one of them that you can use to improve your chances. Just hoping you’ll get lucky doesn’t usually work.

And finally…

  • As you go to fill in your answer, confirm that you’re bubbling in the correct question number. Just take a split second and do it. You’ll be grateful when you walk out of the test and don’t have to decide whether to tell your mom to call and cancel your scores because you think you might have accidentally mis-bubbled a whole section.