Test-Taking Strategies
Bombing Runs
The key to tackling any standardized test is managing your time so you can answer as many items correctly as possible. On just about every test you take in school, you start at number 1, work on it until you come up with an answer, go to number 2, do the same, and so on. This method is death on the SAT, and here’s why. Imagine two test-takers, Jack and Jill, who have identical skill levels. Each test-taker has the ability to answer every item on an SAT set correctly. The set has ten items, in the following order of difficulty:
Item Number Difficulty Level
1 Hard
2 Easy
3 Hard
4 Easy
5 Hard
6 Medium
7 Easy
8 Easy
9 Medium
10 Hard
Jack follows human nature. He starts at the first question and works his way through the set in the order in which the items are presented, spending as much time to get an answer as is necessary. Jack runs out of time after item 6, but he gets all six items correct.
Jill, however, flies Bombing Runs. She scans the items and completes the set in the following order:
Item Number Order in Which Jill Attempts Item Difficulty Level
1 7th Hard
2 1st Easy
3 8th Hard
4 2nd Easy
5 9th Hard
6 5th Medium
7 3rd Easy
8 4th Easy
9 6th Medium
10 10th Hard
Here’s how Bombing Runs work: Jill does all the easy items first, then goes back and does all the medium items, and finally attempts the hard items. Jill—who has the exact same skill levels as Jack—has enough time to attempt every item on the set and gets all 10 points. Jill bombs the easy targets first, then the medium ones, and finally the hard ones.
Jill’s got the right idea. Fly Bombing Runs to distribute your knowledge across a section as efficiently as possible.
Order of Difficulty
Easy, medium, hard—what do these terms really mean? Well, there are several ways of understanding difficulty on the SAT.
First, an item’s difficulty is a statistical quality based on the test-takers who encountered that item on an experimental section. A geometry item can be considered hard if only those students who tend to score high in the Math section answer it correctly.
The items in Sentence Completion sets and multiple-choice Math sections are set up by order of difficulty, whereas the other sections mix these items up. More difficult items tend to have more seductive distractors.
But you’re an individual, and just because most test-takers found an item easy (or hard) doesn’t mean that you will. When you fly Bombing Runs and skip around in a section, your personal determination of an item’s difficulty based on your experience and practice is what counts, not its statistical difficulty level. Difficulty is not an essential feature of an item.
The take-home message here is not to worry too much about how the SAT orders the items on a set. What counts is your order of difficulty.
We illustrate this in the chart below. Jack and Jill have equivalent overall general skill levels—over a full test, they’ll score the same—but more realistically, they have different specific skill levels. For example, Jack is better at geometry. Jill shines in word problems. Assume Jack and Jill are taking the same test but they categorize the difficulty of each item differently, as follows:
Item Number Jack’s Determination ofDifficulty Level Jill’s Determination ofDifficulty Level
1 Hard Easy
2 Easy Medium
3 Hard Easy
4 Easy Easy
5 Hard Medium
6 Medium Hard
7 Easy Medium
8 Easy Medium
9 Medium Hard
10 Hard Hard
As long as both Jack and Jill fly Bombing Runs, given that their overall skill levels are the same, we can assume they’ll each answer all ten items correctly, although they’ll attempt them in different orders, based on their own personal determination of difficulty level:
Item Number Jack’s Difficulty Level Order in Which Jack Attempts Item Jill’s Difficulty Level Order in Which Jill Attempts Item
1 Hard 7th Easy 1st
2 Easy 1st Medium 4th
3 Hard 8th Easy 2nd
4 Easy 2nd Easy 3rd
5 Hard 9th Medium 5th
6 Medium 5th Hard 8th
7 Easy 3rd Medium 6th
8 Easy 4th Medium 7th
9 Medium 6th Hard 9th
10 Hard 10th Hard 10th
For any set, do the items in order of difficulty from easiest (for you) to hardest (for you). Ignore the order in which the items are presented. Smart test-takers fly Bombing Runs based on their personal determination of difficulty.
Section-Level Bombing Runs
We’ve been talking about flying Bombing Runs on sets of items, but you can also apply this strategy to an entire timed section. This strategy works especially well on the Critical Reading section. A typical Critical Reading section includes Sentence Completions, Short Reading Passage sets, and Long Reading Passage sets. Let’s say you encountered a Critical Reading section made up of the following:
  • 10 Sentence Completions.
  • 1 Short Reading Passage on humanities with two items.
  • 1 Short Reading Passage on science with two items.
  • 1 Long fiction passage with nine items.
Because all items are worth the same amount of points, always do the lowest investment items first. Here’s how you’d fly a Bombing Run on this section:
  • Do the Sentence Completions first. They require a far lower time investment than the Reading Passages.
  • Next, tackle the Short Reading Passages. They require less of an investment than the long passages. If you’re into science, do that one first. If not, do the humanities one first.
  • Tackle the long Reading Passage last, making sure to fly a Bombing Run within the set of items.
The same idea applies to the Math section. If you know you’re good at geometry, word problems, or data analysis, do those items first.
Knowing When to Bail
If an item starts eating up a lot of time, you have to overcome your desire to finish at all costs. If you’re taking too much time on an item, you’ll eventually have to let go and move on. Items are each worth 1 point. You get no extra credit for taking five minutes to answer the hardest item on the test. Instead, you’ll end up with 1 point and less time for all the easier items.
Bailing can mean a couple of things:
  • Stopping work on that item completely and moving on to another item. You’ll go back to it later if you have time.
  • Eliminating one or more answer choices, guessing from the remaining, and moving on.
Keep a clock going in the back of your head as you work through a section. It doesn’t pay to be too nutty about exact amounts of time, but if you’re pushing two minutes for any item, you should be looking for a parachute—a way to bail out.
Think of it this way: don’t be a drum machine or metronome, counting out exact packets of time per item. Be more like a real, human drummer, keeping time loosely. Through practice, you’ll get a sense of how long it normally takes you to answer an item. Eventually, you will have the time constraints running in the back of your mind, but your focus will be on the item at hand, not the clock.
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