Many adults still have stress dreams in which they are running out of time on a timed test (How unfortunate that so many cannot even escape this dread in their sleep!). I have personally had the unfortunate experience of waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming of a clock winding down to zero as I have pages of questions left unanswered.
The SAT is a beast of a timed test and many students have a hard time determining how to manage their time while taking this exam. Whether you are taking the old version of the exam, or the new format, there are a number of ways that you can increase the your pace on the SAT:
1) Practice in a Timed Setting
It is surprising how many students sit down for the SAT having never actually timed themselves on any full SAT sections. Doing SAT practice problems is great, I will never chastise anyone for doing these, but there is simply no substitute for replicating the actual timed conditions of the SAT. You don’t have to take a full length timed SAT every week; you don’t have to be a hero! Simply do a timed section when you feel comfortable with the format. Work until you run out of time and mark the questions attempted and skipped.
After the time is up, go back and finish up the other problems so you have a chance to attempt all the problems even if your time management is still being developed. Being prepared for the SAT is imperative to being able to use time effectively on the test day, and part of preparation is knowing what twenty five minutes feels like and what spending too much time on one question feels like. There is no substitute for practice.
2) Create a General Template for an Essay
The time spent figuring out how to structure an essay on the SAT is time wasted. This may sound counter intuitive as structure is a big part of what the SAT graders are evaluating, but it is this reason exactly that makes the structure of the essay the first thing that can be systematized and recycled. If you are taking the old format of the SAT, use a little time to brainstorm examples. Essentially all a brainstorm consists of is the position on the question and the examples that will be used in the argument.
If you are taking the new format of the SAT, use the time to identify stylistic elements, logical elements, and evidence used in the document. The new format is an analysis essay, but its set up is the as the previous test same. You simply need to set up an introduction with a clear thesis that the document is effective or ineffective because of the three elements listed above. Read the essay and mark any sections that fall into those three categories – once this work is done, the essay is practically written. All a student must do now is plug these specifics into the general essay template and the essay quickly writes itself. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the clock in this section as it is easy to get behind (you should start writing by the 15 minute mark on the new format).
3) Answer Questions From the Section of the Text Being Referenced
The answer to all reading test questions are in the passage. Anyone who has had me as a tutor is likely tire of hearing that mantra, but it is as true as the sky is blue. It is not simply that the answer is in the passage though, but it is also the case that the answer is in the part of the passage referenced by the question. If the question asks for what the author is doing in a specific few lines it is best to search for the answer in those lines (and the lines directly before and after those lines). The biggest waste of time on the reading section in either format of the test is random searching of the passages. Mark the passage so you know which sections deal with what general topic. By simply writing one word by a paragraph you can save yourself a fair bit of time searching through the passage.
4) Skip Hard Math Questions IMMEDIATELY
For most students who wish to achieve SAT success at the highest level, all questions will need to be attempted, but should a student encounter a question that is difficult for them to answer, the student should skip the question immediately and come back to it later. The SAT gives equal weight to every question, so spending six minutes on one question and coming up with no answer not only hurts a student on that question, but also on every question that follows. A student should attempt to answer every question that they can, so if the student does not even get to four questions at the end of a section , they have no way of knowing if they would have been able to more easily answer one of the final questions.
The SAT questions are presented in order of difficulty, but difficulty is relative. What’s hard for one person might be simple for another, so do not waste time being baffled by a question. Be baffled, then if you have answered all the questions that you feel you can approach easily, go back to the questions where you didn’t know how to start and do SOMETHING. Write out formulas, label givens, eliminate answer choices that don’t make sense. Sometimes, doing the first step will lead to others and an impossible question will become possible.
5) Do NOT Focus On The Time
Wait, didn’t you just say to make sure to keep an eye on the clock? A little glance at the clock is fine, but you should be so used to the timing of the test that you feel whether or not you are spending too long on a question. If you realize that you are running out of time, don’t panic! Do your best to complete the questions you can with accuracy and take a glance at the questions you have left so you can attempt those that seem possible to complete quickly. Perhaps you will get one or two more questions correct, instead of getting all the remaining questions wrong because you rushed through them.
The biggest thing a student can do on the day of the test to make sure that they are pacing themselves properly is to practice often in advance and to breathe! The stress of the day can make people jittery and poorly focused, but preparation and breathing help to eliminate these problems and prepare students to rock the SAT. So what are you waiting for? Get out that timer and start practicing!
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.