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.