A worry I often hear from my students is that despite the fact that they’ve taken numerous practice tests and learned new test-taking strategies, there’s just one section on the SAT that they haven’t achieved their dream score on. With only a few weeks until the SAT, a student will nervously reveal that although she’s improved on both the Writing and the Math Sections, her Reading scores haven’t jumped up. This student is especially confused because their study practices have been effective in all other areas – so why, they ask me, am I getting stuck only in this section?
Of course, every student studies differently, so working with a tutor or a parent who can observe your study methods and your test-taking habits often proves to be an enormous benefit. At the same time, in my two years of teaching the SAT, I’ve noticed that many students make the same mistake when it comes to tackling a “problem section” – they overdo it. The student who keeps missing questions involving circles and triangles, it turns out, spent hours last Sunday first rereading his notes from the in-class geometry review, then reviewing questions he’d missed on previous practice tests, and then finally squeezing in a practice math section before he began to work on the back-breaking load of chemistry homework due on Monday. The student who’s been struggling on the Reading Section has stopped studying Math and Writing altogether, and now does back-to-back practice Reading sections.
There are a few problems with ‘marathon’ and ‘single-focus’ study sessions like these. The first, and arguably most important, is that your brain simply isn’t built to pay attention to a difficult task for more than approximately one hour. This is because your brain has two main ways of functioning: focusing and daydreaming. (The science-y terms for these two modes are: “task-positive network” and the “task-negative network”, as described in this cool article from the New York Times.
After enough time focusing on anything that requires brain-power, whether that’s studying SAT Reading questions, or, as discussed in the NY-Times article, arguing with your siblings over whose turn it is to do the dishes, your brain is going to switch from focus-mode to daydreaming-mode, and you won’t be able to pay attention to what’s in front of you.
I know that when the SAT is a few weeks away, you feel like you should spend every spare moment working on your problem area; however, you’ll find that if you divide your “marathon sessions” into manageable chunks, you will be able to think more clearly when you study. That’s why I tell my nervous students – much to their surprise – that I want them to study less and to relax more. Rather than study for four straight hours, I say, study for an hour, and then take a 15 minute break – whether that’s going for a walk around the block, listening to a few songs, or having a healthy snack. Repeat this hour of studying followed by 15 minutes of relaxing two to three times, and then do something entirely different, such as going on a jog.
The second big problem with studying one type of question or one section for many hours at a time, without breaks, is that you’ll stress yourself out. I’m not kidding! You are already going to feel nervous if you’re not scoring as high as you’d like on a certain section on the SAT, and if you sit at your desk studying only the questions you feel the worst about for hours on end, you may continue to perform poorly even after learning new problem-solving techniques, because you will be too stressed to form new habits. Many of you are at the age when you are learning to drive: imagine if every time you practiced driving at night, your mom made you drive for five straight hours, in the heavy rain, without stopping – not even to go to the bathroom! Eventually, you wouldn’t want to drive at all. So, during a SAT study session, if you miss a bunch of problems on the Reading Section, sometimes it’s better to spend your next hour studying Math questions (or questions from whichever section you feel more confident doing), and then returning to studying the Reading Section, rather than continuously doing something you find stressful.
You may have heard the saying, “Stop and Smell the Roses.” When it comes to studying for the SAT, doing just that can make all the difference
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By Rita Pearson