Pacing on SAT Questions

I recently wrote an article on how to manage your time on each section of the SAT (Time Management on the SAT). Today’s article is about how to budget your time on individual questions.

Obviously, I can’t tell every student how to pace every single question. What follows are general guidelines.

First, some basic principles:

Give each question its due.

Although SAT questions (except for passage-based ones) are arranged in order of difficulty, the ordering is not exact. Furthermore, each student is different, so your order of difficulty won’t necessarily mirror someone else’s. And harder questions don’t always take longer.

The point is that you may be giving up on some questions too easily. By “giving up,” I don’t necessarily mean that you are abandoning these questions entirely. Perhaps you’re merely “settling” for an answer instead of thinking things all the way through.

I see this happen most often on Sentence Completions and math questions. If a student is able to solve a question in say, 18 seconds, he may not be willing to put in over 30 seconds to solve the next one. That’s a shame if he can get it right in 45 seconds. So don’t go for an answer because you “think it might be right.”

On the other hand, sometimes you need to “cut bait” on a problem that’s taking too long. You can’t afford to spend several minutes solving one measly question, unless it’s at or near the end of a section.

Again, it’s hard to tell you exactly what to do in a blog article. You need to make intelligent decisions about whether to spend extra time or not. If you don’t have a tutor to help you with this advice, try taking a test and writing down the time at which you finished every question. Then you can go back afterwards and determine if you made good choices.

English: Amanda's golf swing

Pace questions like a golf swing.

A golfer carefully positions herself over the ball, takes a slow, measured backswing, and only then swings the club forward for maximum speed. Never rush reading the questions. Take your time planning, or anticipating, and only then should you consider going for speed. Rushing costs many students a lot of points.

Such pacing is appropriate for most SAT questions: Sentence Completions, math problems, and Improving Sentences.

Again, this is general advice. If you anticipate, but don’t like any of the answers, you should switch to “process-of-elimination mode,” and depending on the question, you may need to slow down for that.

Error IDs (Identifying Sentence Errors) are somewhat different. Most students do well to read them once, and then focus on the four underlined portions individually if they didn’t spot an obvious error on the initial reading. That means they actually need to slow down during the process.

Passage-based questions (in the Reading section, or on Improving Paragraphs in the Writing Section) are very different, since most students will read the passage first before looking at them. Since there are several different ways of reading the passage (various speeds, skimming, reading only key sentences, etc), I can’t give specific advice here. There are several factors that will influence your best choice of reading method (the most important being your reading speed and level of comprehension). And different methods of reading will require different methods of question solving. “Don’t rush too much” is my best general cop-out advice here.

You can see that learning how to best pace your SAT can be nearly as challenging as answering the questions. Practice really helps here; the more tests you take and review, the better equipped you’ll be to time each question effectively.

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