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