You might think that after taking the SAT nearly 90 times that there wouldn’t be any new test taking strategies that could be uncovered from an additional attempt. The nature of the unique challenges to each SAT exams keeps me on my toes each time I take one. The SAT this past May 8th certainly presented some intense challenges and with the June SAT right around the corner, it’s important to share my recent test taking experience.
It’s all about flexibility.
After taking the SAT so many times, there is a typical rhythm that I expect in each section. In the reading section, there are a certain amount of hard questions that I need to skip and return to after all five passages are complete. I call these questions “hard skips.” I typically have about 5 hard skips in the reading test and I typically figure all of them out upon going back to them at the end of the section. It did not work out this way at all for me on the recent SAT.
My two big pivots
- Forcing myself to move on to the next passage after 10 minutes. No matter what. We have 13 minutes to read each passage and answer 10 or 11 questions. Because I know I will need a significant time cushion at the end to figure out my “hard skips,” I need to be done with each passage in well under 13 minutes. On the May SAT there was a passage written in the 1800s (that was very difficult) in the second position out of the five passages. Typically this 1800s passage is in the fourth position, so encountering it as the second passage caught many test takers off guard. Since this challenging passage occurred early on, many students lingered on it for far too long and found themselves unable to finish the section in time as a result. Students should have either skipped the passage entirely to save it for later (as we discuss constantly in class) or spent no more than a specific fixed amount of time on that reading. I forced myself to move on to the next passage after 10 minutes even though there were 4 questions that I still hadn’t figured out. That’s almost my full quota of hard skips in just one single passage!
- Lowering my typical threshold for the confidence level needed to bubble in an answer. As direct result of having so many unanswered questions I knew I still needed to get back to, I made a change to how I went through the rest of the reading section. We all have a certain threshold as to what confidence level we need to feel comfortable bubbling in an answer choice. I found myself willing to bubble in answers when my confidence level was meaningfully less than my typical threshold (if I was was 88% sure of a choice, I would bubble it in even though I am usually at least 98% confident before I would bubble). I made these decisions in the moment because I knew I already had too many questions that required additional attention later and I needed to carefully manage how many new questions I was adding to that pile.
Both of these changes to my typical test-taking methodologies favored proper time management over anything else. I always teach our students that good time management decisions are crucial to a solid SAT performance. While solid time management doesn’t guarantee an ideal performance, it certainly puts us in a much stronger position to have all of the other good things happen. Even with making some new types of decisions to manage my pacing, I still felt unable to completely “figure out” some of the harder reading questions. Unlike a typical exam where I would feel 100% sure I answered all the reading questions correctly, there were definitely a few that I simply selected my best answer even though I knew there was a chance I was wrong. The end result was a solid 790 for my English score, but I actually had answered 3 out of 96 questions wrong. Three wrong should never translate to a 790 (on an exam with a typical curve, this would be more like a 760). However, it did turn out that the reading test was indeed more challenging than usual and the result was a more generous curve. I discuss this idea further in this instagram post:
Ultimately, we never know what unique challenges test day will bring. While we have learned how to get through each section and how to answer all different questions types, the specific challenges of any given SAT can only be overcome with plenty of flexibility. Instead of becoming upset and feeling bad for our unlucky to have a difficult situation on the SAT, we need to stay relaxed and recognize that this is always going to happen. Perhaps we can even feel grateful that we have the opportunity to take this test (and that we have been well trained!).