The SAT Prep Black Book
“. . . to realize the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”
- Bertrand Russell
To judge from my experience with new clients, time management is an issue that seems to affect the majority of untrained test-takers. There are a lot of factors that contribute to problems with time management, such as reading speed and anxiety, but the biggest and most common factor is a serious misunderstanding of the test in the first place.
Let me explain what I mean.
If you were to answer every single SAT question in the fastest possible way, even with average reading speed, you’d spend no more than 30 seconds on any given question. (If that sounds crazy, it will make a lot more sense after you’ve read the parts of this Black Book that deal with specific question types.) Even if we only answered half the questions on a section in less than 30 seconds each, we’d still have a lot more time than most test-takers end up with.
So the biggest problem facing most test-takers with time-management issues is that they’re doing the questions very inefficiently. There’s a reason that people who score in the 99th percentile often have tons of extra time on every section, and the reason is NOT that those high-scorers are super-geniuses who process everything ten times faster than the rest of us. The reason is that those people are doing less work to answer each question because they know how to handle each question with minimal effort.
For example, they know that Passage-Based Reading questions never actually require us to read 80 lines of text to answer a single question. On Math questions, they know that applying formulas is usually unnecessary and slow. They know which types of phrases to avoid on the Writing section, and which ones to pick. And so on.
So if you feel like you’re doing a ton of work on most of the SAT questions you run into and running out of time as a result, then the first thing you should do is take a look at the processes you’re using to answer your questions and figure out how you can streamline it using the ideas in this book.
Of course, other factors can also affect time management. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Some test-takers are naturally slower at reading than others, but most people find they read fast enough for the SAT if they’re approaching questions in the most efficient way. As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t have problems with the speed of your reading in your classes in school, then you probably read fast enough to do very well on the SAT if you’re using the right strategies.
For what it’s worth, most of us can make some kind of improvement on our reading speed just by making a conscious effort to read faster. I know that might sound simplistic, but it’s true. If you constantly remind yourself to read faster, you’ll find yourself reading faster. It’s a bit like walking—most of us could walk noticeably faster if we tried.
If you have a serious issue with reading speed that can be diagnosed by a professional, then it might be a good idea to try to petition the College Board for extra time when you take the test.
A lot of people get nervous at the thought of taking the SAT, and some people freeze up when they’re nervous. If this kind of thing is affecting your time management, there are two different ways to attack it. First, you can work on consciously channeling your nervousness into productive energy. Let it make you read more carefully, or drive you to consider a new angle on a question that’s troubling you. Second, you can recognize that the root of your nervousness is probably a feeling of frustration or even powerlessness when it comes to the SAT—and the best way to beat that feeling is by learning how the test works so you can see that it’s actually not scary at all. It’s just weird, and detail-oriented.
Wasting Time On Tough Questions
Most people who run out of time on the SAT try to answer all the questions in a section in order. This is a huge mistake, since some questions will be easier for you than others, and since every question in a section counts for the same number of raw points as any other question in that section.
When you run into a question you can’t answer quickly, you should skip it and move on to other questions that are easier for you. You can always come back to the harder questions later. There’s no sense in staring at question 6 for a full three minutes when you haven’t even looked at question 7; in those three minutes, you might have been able to answer 7, 8, and 9 correctly.
Personally, when I look at a new question I give myself about 10 seconds to figure out how to approach it. If I can’t work out an approach in that time, I move on to the next question without thinking twice. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I solve every question in less than 10 seconds; I’m saying that I give myself about 10 seconds to see if I can come up with an approach that will eventually solve it.)
If I’ve looked at a question for a full 10 seconds and I still have no idea how to attack it, then I’ve probably misunderstood some part of it, and I should move on to another question that makes sense to me. I can always come back to the harder question after I’ve gone through the section and answered everything I can figure out.
While every student is unique, most time-management issues come down to some combination of the ideas I’ve mentioned in this brief section. But I really want to stress that the most widespread cause of difficulty for most students is that they’re addressing the test in the wrong way, and doing far too much work to answer each question. The best thing you can do to improve your time management is to work on your efficiency, not your processing speed. If you focus on trying to understand and apply the ideas in this book, you’ll probably find that your time management issues largely disappear on their own.