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.

Review – Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

This is the “compact version” of Barron’s SAT. It’s well written. It’s nifty. If you’re planning to study with the larger book, it makes a great companion book.

Pass Key for the SAT, 8th edition, is 440 pages long. At just over 5″ by 8″, it’s not quite a pocket book, but it’s a handy paperback.


Introductory chapters – SAT format, guessing, timing, study plan

Strategies by section, vocabulary

2 practice exams


There’s a lot of helpful information in this small book.

There are few errors, if any.

The text is very easy to understand.

The authors of Pass Key also wrote Barron’s SAT, and the techniques are the same.

This is one of the few quick guides that has practice tests.


Not many. Obviously, the book isn’t comprehensive, but that’s no problem if you are studying from a larger book also.

At $9.99, Pass Key costs almost as much as the 936-page Barron’s SAT.


The great thing about this book is its size. If you’re studying from Barron’s larger book, you probably won’t want to lug it around everywhere you go. But you can easily grab this one and take it to Grandma’s, the library, etc. and get a bit of SAT prep in here and there.

If you’re studying from another large prep book, such as McGraw-Hill’s, this won’t be as helpful. Although the techniques are similar, the organization and explanations will be different.

What I like about this book is that it will encourage students to study for the SAT when they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a great “road companion.”

Buy the book here.

Developing Your Mental Stamina for the SAT (and other tests)

I must begin with the usual disclaimer: every student is different, and what works for one student may have to be modified for another.

However, most students can get in shape for the SAT by following a simple regimen. The words “get in shape” are particularly appropriate; an athlete exercises her heart and muscles, while you’ll be “working out your brain.” A sports clichĂ© is “no pain, no gain,” and that applies to some extent to students as well.

Continuing the sports analogy, suppose you run the mile for your track team. Would your coach tell you to run a mile every time you practiced? More likely, he’d have you build up to a full mile, and then even have you run somewhat more than a mile in your last few practices before a meet. After all, you wouldn’t want to be staggering at the finish.

The brain

You want to follow a similar pattern when preparing for your SAT. At first, don’t worry about timing the sections exactly. Furthermore, you can take just part of a practice test, or take a whole practice test in two or three sittings. At this stage, you’re more interested in getting a feel for the test and developing good habits than you are in stamina.

If you are planning to take one practice test each week, start taking full-length SATs about two or three months before your official SAT date. Now you should time each section properly, and take the whole test in a single sitting (a couple of five minute breaks are okay, but nothing more).

But remember that the tests in the College Board Blue Book are actually shorter than the real thing, because they skip what would be the Experimental Section.

So, four weeks before your exam, you should take a practice test that is of the same length as the actual SAT. It’s okay if all you have are 9-section tests (as in the Blue Book). Just complete one of those tests (don’t forget the essay!), and add a 25-minute section from another test. Then do the same thing three weeks before your exam.

Then, two weeks before your real SAT, take a practice test of 12 sections (i.e. a 9-section test plus three 25-minute sections from another test). Do this again one week before your exam.

If you take two tests each week, you can follow the same pattern in half the time. Again, your last four tests should be two full-length ones followed by two extra-length exams.

Again, I’ve found that this regimen is effective for most students. If you’re a study-holic, and often use your brain non-stop for many hours (unlike most students who take big breaks when studying for hours), you may not need this exercise at all. And some people do take longer (and must work harder) to get their brains in shape. If that is the case, don’t beat yourself up – it doesn’t mean you’re “weak brained.” Just build up your stamina at whatever pace works for you. I once had a student who would start to get a headache after only 30 – 40 minutes. Eventually, she was able to finish an entire SAT.

Remember, the most important thing about this program is the extra-length tests. Many students take only 9- or 10-section practice tests, and find their scores  drop at the end of their actual SAT. That’s because the pressure of the real exam leads them to use up more energy than they do on practice tests.

I know that taking a 4.5 hour test is not much fun. But come the day of your real SAT, you’ll be glad you did.

Review – The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

Several SAT experts have enthusiastically recommended this book to me, and I’m pleased to add my own praise for this wonderful guide.

The grammar sections in the big commercial books aren’t bad. Grammar is grammar, and only a handful of errors are tested on the SAT. Other books list these errors, and offer illustrative questions.

But The Ultimate Guide goes further.


162 pages long, softcover

Introduction, parts of speech

Overview of error types, with emphasis on Error IDs

Fixing Sentences, more about error types

Fixing Paragraphs

Appendices – Summary of error types in the Blue Book

Answer Key


The text is straightforward and easy to understand.

Information on grammar errors is more thorough and accurate than that in other books. For example, there is a list of common idioms involving prepositions, and also a discussion of the use of this, which, and that.

The example sentences test the errors in a manner which is virtually indistinguishable from those on the SAT. That’s big, and the same is not true for any other book that I’ve seen.

There are many “predictive strategies” – i.e. methods of knowing which errors are likely based on the number or content of the question (e.g. the mention of a profession indicates a noun agreement question).

The book isn’t filled with “extra” grammar rules which aren’t found on the test. The author even let me know that a grammar rule that I posted on my blog was no longer found on the exam. Ms. Meltzer is an expert on SAT grammar, and you won’t waste your time studying superfluous material with this book.


I see none. I suppose I could point out that the author’s claim of having “cracked” the exam sounds a bit enthusiastic. However, she has written the best SAT grammar guide available.


In order to do well with this book, you’ll have to put in some hard work. But that will be true if you use any book.

The guide has mostly excellent reviews on Amazon (the two negative reviews are bizarre and lack substance).

What separates this guide from the others is that Ms. Meltzer has put tremendous effort into analyzing a ton of SAT questions. The appendices alone, which give the error type for every question in the College Board “Blue Book,” are alone worth the price (one appendix gives the questions in order, and the other is organized by error type).

Clearly, the author has analyzed not only the 10 tests in the Blue Book, but many others as well. I noticed that she mentioned a couple of questions that appeared on my students’ disclosure exams.

Ms. Meltzer stated that parallel structure errors are very common on question #11 of the long section, and #14 of the short one. Indeed, they occurred on 6 out of 20 such questions in the Blue Book, according to the appendix. I decided to test this by looking at 8 disclosure SATs which were administered in 2005 – 2007, and I found these errors in 7 out of 16 of these questions. The author has done her homework.

If you study SAT grammar from another book, you should improve, because you’ll learn some appropriate grammar rules and how to avoid errors. But you’ll do even better with this book, because you’ll gain knowledge of exactly how these errors are tested on the exam.

If you’re serious about doing your best on the SAT Writing multiple choice, this book is worth every penny.

Buy the guide here for $24.75

Time Management on the SAT

Naturally, students work at different speeds, and have different goals for the SAT. My aim in writing this article is to provide general guidelines for a range of students.

If you haven’t already done so, you should take a practice SAT, being sure to time each section correctly. You need to get an idea of your speed on each type of section, and whether your speed decreases as you get tired.

I will address these issues in upcoming articles (one on mental stamina, and another on improving your test-taking speed).

For now, let’s assume that you are now aware of your expected pace on any given section. Naturally, if you are able to finish every section with time to spare, you don’t need to read this article.

You don’t need to finish the section.

Many students mistakenly think that not completing a section somehow reflects poorly on them. Unless you absolutely need a near-perfect score, you can omit some answers. It’s obviously better to give your best effort on some of the questions than to rush through all of them.

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...

Find an optimal strategy for your speed and goals.

If you’ve determined that your best strategy is to omit some questions, you must then determine two things: 1) how many questions should you omit, and 2) which ones to omit. I’ll deal with the second matter shortly.

Since I don’t know just how fast you work, I can’t tell you an exact number of questions to leave out. You’ll have to determine that on your own. Suppose you work at a comfortable pace on a practice test, and you find that you’ve finished about 60 per cent of the questions on one type of section. Should you continue to work at the same pace? Perhaps it will be impossible to reach your target score by answering on 60% of the questions, even if you ace them all.

But if you speed up, you may find yourself missing a lot of questions. Does your score drop? My best advice is to be willing to modify your speed and expectations, but to do so gradually. If your first attempt results in a score of 410, you might try speeding up – but don’t overdo it. Even if you’re dreaming of a 600, don’t expect to reach your goal immediately. Speed up a little on your next practice test. If your score goes up, you can push harder on the next test. If your score stays the same, or goes down, stay at your new pace for another test or two and see if you progress.

Of course, you won’t necessarily have total control over your pacing. If you feel you’ve overdone it by going too fast (and your score takes a big drop), just back off a little afterward.

It may take several practice tests before you find your optimal pace.

Choose the right questions to skip.

As you know, most of the questions on the SAT are arranged in order of difficulty. Specifically, sections are arranged in blocks of each question type, and each block is arranged in order from easy to hard, except for passages (on the Reading and Writing sections). It makes sense to skip hard questions, since those are the ones you’re most likely to miss anyway (and they tend to take the longest).

If you’re very sure of yourself, you can make exceptions. If you’re a geometry whiz, or you see a question you can easily plug in on, you might try a hard one. My recommendation is to do this very sparingly. More often than not, my students find that a high-numbered question that looks easy turns out to be trickier than it seemed.

Math Section

There are only two question types: multiple choice and grid-ins. On the section that has both, skip some hard ones of each type.

Reading Section

Skip some hard sentence completions. Since they take less time than do passage questions, don’t overdo this. Passages will always come last, so you can just go as far as the clock lets you.

Writing Section

First of all, the order of difficulty is not as pronounced on this section. On the long Writing section, do not skip the passage, since it has the easiest questions. Skip some Error IDs numbered in the 20’s.


Review my article titled Should You Guess on the SAT. My advice is that you should nearly always guess.

Nevertheless, I have heard many experienced SAT teachers say something like “I tell my students not to answer the three hardest sentence completions under any circumstances!” The reason they say that is that they don’t want their students wasting time on questions that they’re likely to miss.

Solving can waste time. Guessing takes almost no time. Be absolutely sure you know the difference. You should guess the hard ones, but do it quickly! Very quickly!

Avoid trap answers on hard questions. Guess hard words on hard sentence completions. Avoid extreme answers on Reading passages. Guess short answers on Improving Sentences. The idea is to select an answer in 3 seconds or less, and move on.

Remember to look for my upcoming articles on developing your mental stamina and improving your test-taking speed.

Good luck!

Review – Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide

Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide 2012, 15th edition, is 1088 pages long, making it one of the fattest SAT guides on the market. On Amazon, it ranks behind books by Barron’s, The Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill, and Kaplan in sales.

As I have mentioned in earlier reviews, most of the strategies for the SAT that are found in these books were first published many years ago. Although there are some differences between the guides, they are mostly similar.

Obviously, people who write or publish an SAT book would like their product to stand out from the pack. Dr. Gruber has made an effort to do that, but in this case, different clearly doesn’t mean better.

On the back cover, it says:

“The Best Book On The SAT” – CBS Radio

For real.


Introduction – basics, thinking skills and modes, study program, SAT format

Small Diagnostic Test – 90 questions

Mini Diagnostic Test – 18 questions! (7 Reading, 4 Writing, 7 Math)

Strategies – Math, Reading



Writing section

5 Practice Tests


The test is well written and easy to understand.

Helpful SAT tips are found throughout the book.

The practice tests have few errors.

The book is only $10.99 (eligible for free Super Saver Shipping) on Amazon.


The author goes out of his way to teach techniques that differ from those in other guides, and most of the ones here are inferior.

The practice tests differ more from the real SATs than the ones in the better guides.

Many strategies are not well explained and/or are insufficiently stressed.

The diagnostic tests are too short. The mini-test is laughable.

There are only 5 practice tests.


This book isn’t awful. I’m sure that many students could improve their scores with it.

I have mentioned in previous reviews that many of the comprehensive SAT study guides are very similar. The author of this one tried too hard to make it different, without substance to back it up.

I don’t want to list every example, but here are a few ways this book runs off the tracks:

I’ve already mentioned the ludicrous 18-question diagnostic.

There is a section on SAT strategies for women. Men beware!

Plugging in (perhaps the most useful strategy for the Math section) is mentioned almost as an afterthought, and is poorly explained.

Backsolving (plugging the answers into a variable in an algebra question) is also very useful. Every other guide, and every SAT teacher I’ve ever spoken to about it, tells you to start with answer (C). That’s common sense, since the answers are almost always in order, and you can usually tell if (C) is too large or small if it doesn’t work. But Dr. Gruber says to start with (E) and work backwards!

I cannot recommend this book.

SAT Math – How to Backsolve

Backsolving is a popular, effective shortcut that you can use on some math problems. Generally, this technique can be used on questions that ask for the value of a single variable, and that have numbers in the answers.

Backsolving simply means plugging the answers into the question until you hit the right one. The answers will generally be in order, so you should start with choice (C), so you won’t end up having to try all the answers.

Let’s start with an easy question:

Q. If 2n = 512, then n =

(A) 8
(B) 9
(C) 10
(D) 11
(E) 12

Try 210 on your calculator – it’s 1024. Since that’s too high, try 29 and get 512 – easy.

Q. If x is an integer and 2 is the remainder when 3x + 4 is divided by 5, then x could equal

(A) 3
(B) 4
(C) 5
(D) 6
(E) 7

Try 5: 3(5) + 4 = 19, which has a remainder of 4 when divided by 5. It’s hard to tell what to try next, so just pick one quickly. If x = 4, you get 3(4) + 4 = 16, and the remainder is 1. Try answer (D) next. If x = 6, you get 3(6) + 4 = 22, and there’s your remainder of 2.

Q. In January, Kent had p dollars in his savings account. He withdrew 1/4 of the money in February, and he withdrew 1/3 of the remaining money in March, and made no other transactions. If $120 remained in his account, how much money was in Kent’s savings account originally?

(A) $144
(B) $196
(C) $240
(D) $288
(E) $336

Try (C) first. If Kent started with $240, he withdrew $60 and had $180. Then he withdrew another $60 and had…$120. It’s great when you get it on the first try.

A lot of students read this type of question carelessly, and think Kent withdraws 1/3 or the original amount in March. It’s much less likely that you will make this kind of error if you use the backsolving technique.

As I mentioned above, the technique isn’t useful if the question asks for something other than a single variable. For example, if the questions asks “what is x + y?” and (C) is 12, how do you backsolve that? x + y could be any values that add up to 12, so you don’t know where to begin.