Skip to main content

Don't Rush, but Don't Linger

Learn how to work at a decent speed when taking the SAT.

Don't Rush, but Don't Linger

What's a few seconds, right? Doesn't sound like very much time, does it? But if you waste even a few seconds on each question of the SAT, you'll have lost 15 minutes by the end of the exam! Gone, vanished. And 15 minutes is enough time to answer fifteen questions. In other words, if you waste just a few seconds per question, you'll be risking as much as 150 points by the end of the exam.

Yes, you want to be accurate on the SAT; on the other hand, you can't afford to waste any time. And the biggest time waster of all on the SAT is trying to "figure out" what to do. Whether it's trying to figure out the definition of a word or figure out what to do on a math problem or figure out what a passage is all about or figure out whether a word is grammatically correct—it's all wasted time. Here are famous last words, and a sure sign that you're about to waste time: "Hmmm, let me think..."

Look, there's nothing to figure out on the SAT. You either know something, or you don't. If you can't decide whether a choice is right or wrong in five seconds—max—squiggle a "maybe" wave in the margin and move on to the next choice. If you don't know what to do on a question, do whatever you can do—it's usually a step in the right direction. If you can't do anything, move on to the next choice or the next question. Move!

Keep your pencil moving. As I mentioned in The SAT: How to Gain (or Lose) 30 IQ Points—Instantly!, if your pencil lifts off the page for more than a few seconds as you take the SAT especially if your elbow goes on the table and you look off into the distance, searching your memory—you're probably spacing out. Just keep moving, you can always return to the question later.

Train yourself to go through each section in more than one pass. Most students complete a section's questions in numerical order. They answer number one before moving on to number two; number two before moving on to number three; number three before moving on to number four; and so on. And when they get stuck on a question, they come to a complete halt, wasting precious minutes before finally deciding to move on.

This is a natural approach to taking the SAT, but a beginner's approach. Smart test-takers are more ninja-like, leaping from question to question according to ease of solution. Smart test-takers also go through each section at least twice.

On the first pass you answer every question you can solve quickly. If you misjudge a question, circle the question number and move on—immediately; you can return to it on your next pass. Postponing the question gives your subconscious mind a chance to work on the problem while your conscious mind moves ahead to tackle a new question. This first pass through a section will take half to three-quarters of the available time because you haven't wasted any wrestling with difficult questions.

On your second pass through a section, you return to the questions that stumped you on the first pass or that you skipped entirely. Now you step up your pace, spending less time per question or per choice. If you're still stumped, no prob—leave the question for a third pass. And if you still haven't solved a question as time runs out, guess.

Subscribe to Family Education

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.