Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Making the Most of Test Day


General SAT Strategies

Eva Holtz
Eva Holtz

Harvard University
Perfect scores on the SAT and 4 SATIIs

Eva is a certified admissions counselor and the founder of PrepPoint, a premier test prep company in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Although we're going to be talking about a lot of specific strategies that apply to the math section or the writing section or the critical reading section, there are also some general SAT strategies I need to share with you. To start out with there'll be some quick tips about how to interact with your test booklet on test day. We're also going to talk about guessing, when to guess, when not guess and lastly we'll talk about the order of difficulty, how it shows up on the test and the strategies that arise from the fact that it exists.
Let's start by looking at some of the quick tips. Here are few tips for test day on how to use your booklet best. First off you definitely want to write in it you bought it and it's yours so you should you deserve to, in addition writing in it is going to be beneficial. On the math section you can work everything out on paper and make fewer mistakes that way you don't want to keep it all in your head. On the reading section as you go through a passage, you can mark it up and really pull all the stuff you want to remember or really pay attention to and on the writing section you can mark answers as ones that you like or ones you're eliminating and basically it helps you make fewer mistakes and focus your attention. So you definitely want to mark up your test booklet.
In addition when you are done answering questions you want to transfer them in chunks that'll have a couple of benefits. First of all you'll save time when you transfer a whole page or a pair of opposing pages to your answer booklet at the same time you aren't constantly looking back and forth back and forth and shifting your attention and energy, so you'll save a little time that way. In addition since your transferring in chunks you are less likely to lose track of where you are and grid something wrong, so again do one page or two pages at a time and lastly when you finally have transferred all your answers over and you're just be sure look it over at the end. Couple of things you want to watch out for. First of all are their any stray marks maybe you've dragged your pencil across the answer sheet by mistake 'cause if there are you definitely going to want to erase them otherwise you could get graded wrong when you didn't get answer wrong and the flip side of that is you want to make sure that every answer choice you did fill in, is filled in fully and darkly so that the machine will grade you correct and give you credit for what you deserve. Those were just three quick tips for using your booklet best on test day.
So this little bit of information here is probably the most important thing I could tell you about the SAT in a short period of time and that's how to deal with guessing. Let me start out by giving you a little background info first off almost every question on the SAT is multiple choice, there is only one exception and that's a certain kind of math problem called a grid-in but it's only ten problems in the entire test so it's a very small part, the rest of the SAT is multiple choice and that means that you can eliminate choices and you should eliminate every choice that you know is wrong and then you should guess if you can eliminate one or more choices. Let me emphasize that you should definitely guess if you can eliminate only one although ideally more choices that's huge and a lot of people feel like guessing is wrong or even cheating but making an educated guess is not cheating. The system of penalties for wrong answers and rewards for right answers is actually set up to encourage you to make educated guesses, the test is designed that way so you should take it that way. Let me show you how the math looks and what that tells about when you should guess and when you shouldn't. It's a little complicated but if it's hard for you to absorb don't worry I'll still give you the bottom line at the end.
So first off on the SAT the reward for a correct answer is one raw point and that translates into roughly ten points to your bottom line, so if you get one more raw point it ends up being what could take you from like a 520 to a 530 for instance. Meanwhile there's a small penalty for incorrect answers it's only minus a quarter of a raw point. So right away you can see the test writers want you to make guesses because the penalty for a wrong answer is so small compared to the reward for a right answer. Now let's actually see how this applies in a multiple choice problem. Let's say you're doing a multiple choice problem and there is one right answer and four wrong answers that's how they work. Now if you have no clue and you can eliminate zero of those answer choices you're going to break even, let me show you why. You have one chance of getting it right 'cause one of the five choices is right and if you do chose that you get plus one 'cause that's the reward, so if you multiply that together you get plus one. Meanwhile, how many wrong answers are there available; four the penalty for each is minus a quarter and if you do that math you get negative one. So the positive one plus the negative one it comes out to zero.
So all that's saying is if you guess with having no clue, if you can't eliminate none of the answer choices it comes out neutral. So should you guess when you could eliminate no answer choices I'd say no it's not worth the time to think well I don't know which one should I choose and take the time to bubble, so don't bother. But check this out when you can eliminate one because you get fewer wrong answer penalties you come out a quarter of a raw point ahead, if you can eliminate two you come out half a raw point ahead, if you can eliminate three you come out three quarters of a raw point ahead and of course if you can eliminate four which means you've got it down to only the right answer you're going to come out a full raw point ahead and so that actually gives you a useful rule of thumb.
If you get a question right because you got it down to the right answer that's worth one raw point and that's about ten more points on your bottom line score. So the take home message here in case you're overwhelmed by grids is that you break even if you guess randomly and it's not worth your effort. But any time you can eliminate one or more you come out ahead by guessing, so you should always keep that in mind the more you can eliminate the better you'll turn out but if you can eliminate one or more you should always guess. The test is design to reward you. So that's guessing. If you remember nothing else although I hope you'll remember more remember this.
Now let's talk about pacing, pacing first of all depends on the order of difficulty, so let me give you some background on that. You should know for sure that most blocks of questions on the SAT are in order of difficulty from easier to harder. Now there's some variation depending on the kind of question you're dealing with so let me show you specifically what that looks like. What is definitely very much in order of difficulty is these questions here. It starts easy it ends hard, always very clear relationship. When you're dealing with sentence completions, number one of eight is going to be easy number eight of eight is going to be hard. Multiple choice math and grid-in math the one kind that we said was not multiple choice also follows the same pattern, so it starts easy for sure and it ends hard for sure. It's a little more varied here in the writing section on identifying errors questions and on improving sentences questions, they mostly trend upwards from easy to hard but there is some variation in there, so that's worth being aware of and then here with passages and with the writing sections improving paragraphs questions, those are not in order of difficulty at all.
So we're going to talk about strategies in a moment that applies to these a lot and these to a fair degree but not at all to these. So mostly sentence completions multiple choice math and grid-in math so all math and then identifying errors and improving sentences on the writing section so let's get to that. So with that in mind with all these sections that are in order of difficulty you should know that in a block of questions the first third is easy the middle third is medium and the last third is hard. So as a result there some strategies let's talk about those.
First of all pay attention to where you are that tells you so much because if you're in the first third of the test and the question seems hard you're probably over thinking it give it another read, so often I'll have a student working on say a math question and they'll say "Oh I skipped it, I just didn't know how to do it." and I'll say "Oh well isn't it early on?" they'll say "Yes." I say "have another look" and they read it and they say "are you kidding me? How did I not think I could do that?" and they immediately get it. So if you're in the first third of a block that is in order of difficulty you know it's easy so give it a shot you can probably get it. On the flip side if you're in a block of questions that's in order of difficulty and you're not having trouble it seems totally easy to you or you're just going on gut instinct, chances are you are missing something, chances are you've gone for the wrong answer choice. So on the hardest questions you should be really critical and take your time to make sure you're getting it right.
Here's some other fun facts on pacing I guess you could call them, this is really liberating this information to know about the test. First of all the SAT is designed to be tight for time. If you take the SAT for the time on test day you're really going to drive up your stress level 'cause you might think that you're supposed to have enough time, maybe in school you're used to having enough time even unlimited time for test. The SAT is designed so that a certain portion of test takers will not be able to finish that's part of the design. So if that's you're experience you're not missing anything, that's how the test is designed. You should also know that this is not a regular high school test maybe in one of your tests you think a good grade would be 80 percent 85 percent 90 percent 95 percent but on the SAT it's totally different. Getting 55 percent which in real life would be a F is actually average on the SAT and the funny thing is it's just not average among high schoolers it's average among some of the strongest high schoolers, high schoolers who are applying to four year colleges. So this test is not what you're used to it's designed in a very different way.
Lastly it's different in that you can skip 30 percent of the SAT and still get an above average score, so if you walk into the SAT and approach it like a test you're used to you are not going to get your best result. You need a series of techniques that address the fact that the SAT is much harder and it's designed to be harder and you should allocate your time differently as a result. Let me show you what I mean. Bottom line as simple as I can tell you unless you're close to a perfect score close to an 800 critical reading, close to an 800 math or close to an 800 writing, you should not be completing the whole test. It's really hard to get used to I mean obviously you can't do well on high school test unless you finish basically everything and ace basically everything you've finished.
That is not true on the SAT you can do great doing much less and in fact if you try to do everything you'll spread your time too thin, you'll be hurrying through, you'll be making mistakes and your reward for hurrying through the easy problems 'cause remember they're in order of difficulty for the most part is that then you get the honor of trying the hardest problems and they're not worth any more points. So it's pretty cool right. So you should not necessarily complete the whole test you should skip the hardest questions and instead focus your time on the easiest questions you should work really deliberately, work carefully, check your work, not stress out about it and remember if you rush through those, all you get on the other end is more questions that are probably beyond what you can effectively handle because remember the average percent right is 55 percent what's at the end of the test is bunch of nearly impossible questions not where you want to spend your time.
So instead you want to use the pacing charts based on your practice SAT or a past PSAT or a past SAT you may have those, look at the scores you have now then look at the pacing charts that are available in the bonus materials find out about how many problems you should be aiming for based on your target score. So for instance if you're around a 500 math now and you want to aim for a 550 and see how that goes go to the pacing charts it'll tell you about how much of the test you should be attempting and they're separate pacing charts for math, critical reading and writing so you can find out what you should be doing and what you shouldn't be doing on each of the three sections. This is huge you don't want to do the whole test so definitely go check out the bonus materials get the pacing charts and find out what you should be focusing on.
Let's tie all that together now. So I've been doing a lot of talking so let's back up and see a sort of broad summary of what we've covered. First off we have the quick tips, on test day make sure you use your booklet well that means first of all write in it both because it's the only scratch paper you've got and because it's so easy to make mistakes you want to be able to write stuff down and really think on paper. In addition you want to transfer your answers in chunks it'll be more efficient and you're less likely to bubble in the wrong place and lastly the last tip for your booklet is make sure to look it over make sure there are no stray marks because the computer might interpret that as an answer choice which you didn't actually select and also make sure you've bubbled darkly so that when you have chosen an answer choice you will get credit for it.

In addition to that keep in mind guessing really simple, the more answer choices you can eliminate the better of course but really simple if you can eliminate one answer choice guess. Some students don't want to guess they feel like they should know the answer before they pick an answer but guess, if you can eliminate one always guess please. And lastly remember the order of difficulty that has several implications virtually all blocks of questions on the test are in order of difficulty, there are just two big exceptions number one passages and number two improving paragraphs on the writing section both of them look like passages so it's easy to remember. If you're reading a long passage it's not in order of difficulty but everything else is and that fact has several implications. If you're in the beginning of a block of questions you should expect the question to be easy and so if you're having trouble just read it again chances are you can manage it.
Then if you're in the last third of a block of questions you should expect them to be hard so if you just breeze on through them chances are you made mistakes. You should be able to, number one see what makes it hard or else expect to be getting it wrong so give them a really good try, pay attention to details that's going to matter and then lastly on order of difficulty, you want to remember that the test is not designed so that you're supposed to do 100 percent unless you're one of those unusual students who is actually looking at near perfect score across the board. Since that's the case you want to allocate your time to the easier maybe medium questions and not put effort into the hardest which are going to time consuming and you're probably going them wrong anyway so look at the pacing charts in the bonus materials and see what you're target is and see how you are going to best served by spending your limited time on test day and that's an overview of techniques for the SAT.

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