SAT Tip of the Week: Making the “Order of Difficulty” Rule Simple

SAT Tip of the Week - FullThe concept of “Order of Difficulty” is something that can be extraordinarily helpful to any SAT test taker. In general, the SAT orders its questions from easy to hard and on the surface, it seems to be a pretty simple concept (this information is readily available on the College Board’s website). While this is extremely important and helpful to know, it is even more essential to analyze and understand how to use this to your advantage. So let’s talk about the “Order of Difficulty” and how you can benefit from it come test day:


Math Section

On the Math sections, for the most part, questions go straight from the easiest to the most difficult. The one exception to this is when you have two questions that look at the same table or graph. The first of these two questions will be simpler and the second will be much more difficult. The third math section, which is both multiple choice and grid, follows a similar pattern BUT restarts at question nine when the grid-in questions begin.

On this section, understanding the “Order of Difficulty” phenomenon can help you catch errors. If an early problem is taking you a lot of time, you are probably doing something wrong. These problems are designed to be simple and most test takers across the board get them right. If you find yourself struggling with question one or two, start from the beginning and you will almost surely identify an arithmetic error or find that you may have misunderstood the directions.

The opposite applies on later problems: if a later question takes you just a few couple seconds to figure out, chances are you fell into one of the College Board’s traps. In this case, restart the problem again and see if you can catch the error you made. Once you rectify this, you will most likely be able to answer the difficult question correctly – which will separate you from the pack – and allow you to then proceed with the rest of the section.

Writing Section

On the SAT Writing sections, the rule of “Order of Difficulty” also applies. The section with 35 questions will go from easy to hard for the first 11 questions of this sequence, and deal with improving sentences. The order of easy to hard restarts from questions 12 to 29 and reviews identifying sentence errors. Questions 30 through 35 do NOT follow the “Order of Difficulty” rule, so if problems are taking a while there, it is a good idea to come back to the troublesome questions later.

In this section, the advanced strategies for “Order of Difficulty” center on the idea of “no error”. Many students will be hesitant to choose a “no error” answer on a later problem because they feel as if they are missing some difficult, obscure grammar rule. Generally, this leads to students picking an answer that might sound awkward or “off.” Don’t fall prey to this temptation and remember it is very common for one or two of the later Writing questions on identifying sentence errors to not have any error at all. Unless you can point to a specific grammar rule, don’t choose an answer that sounds weird just because you feel the question MUST have an error – that is exactly what the SAT wants you to do.

Reading Section

The Reading Comprehension section is the one area of the SAT where the “Order of Difficulty” rule doesn’t apply as frequently. Here, all of the sentence competition questions increase in order of difficulty. However, once the passage-based reading questions start, there is absolutely no order in terms of question difficulty. This means that it is possible for an early question to be very difficult. If you are stumped on one of these, the best thing to do is to move on to the next question, as no single problem is worth a large portion of your time.

Unlike with passage-based reading questions, the “Order of Difficulty” concept is great for sentence completion problems. Generally speaking, easier words will be the correct answers on the earlier questions and more complex words will be the correct answers on the later questions. Even without understanding the specific definitions of some words, this pretty rudimentary concept can help eliminate some incorrect answer choices and improve your chances of getting the answer correct.

“Order of Difficulty” is a fairly well known concept among test takers, and understanding it is essential. You will separate yourself from fellow test takers nationwide by working with this concept and turning it to your advantage.

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Jake Davidson is a Mork Family Scholar at USC and enjoys writing for the school paper as well as participating in various clubs. He has been tutoring privately since the age of 15 and is incredibly excited to help students succeed on the SAT.