Test-Taking Strategies
Managing your time efficiently is only one part of the equation. Once you’ve got a plan for dealing with the set, you need execute that plan with accuracy. The more accurate you are, the more points you earn on the SAT. Here are some general tips that you should always keep in mind.
Have an Idea of the Answer Before You Look at Any Answer Choices
Remember, in multiple-choice items, four answer choices are distractors. Do not simply let the answer choices guide your thought. Attack each item with some idea of the correct answer. The methods you’ll use for coming up with your own answer will differ for each item type. The other books in this Power Tactics series cover these methods in detail.
Avoid Carelessness
Speed is only part of the goal on the SAT. Speed balanced with accuracy is the full goal. In general, the less you do in your head and the more explicit you make your approach to every item, the less careless you’ll be. If you’re solving a math item, take the time to write out all your steps. Even an easy item can become a real challenge if you try to keep all the steps in your head.
In almost every situation, you’ll also want to take a split-second and ask yourself the question, Is my answer reasonable? If not, chances are you made a careless mistake in solving the item.
Give the Item What It Wants.
This may seem most applicable to Math, but it’s actually applicable to the entire test. In Math, you can be sure that a multistep item will include a distractor that lists a key number you need to find the ultimate result. For example, if an item asks you to solve for x + 1, you can be sure that the value of x will be one of the distractors. When you come up with an answer, make sure it’s what the item is asking for. Usually on the SAT, you have to perform one final step to convert the number you’ve come up with into the number the item asks for.
All of Critical Reading—Sentence Completions and Reading Passages—tests your reading in context. So you may find distractors that are correct outside of the specific context but are actually incorrect in the item. For example, on some vocabulary items, the correct answer is usually a second or third meaning of the word. The context of the item determines which meaning is appropriate.
The Writing section is also context-dependent. You either identify an error (Identifying Sentence Errors) or identify an error and fix it (Improving Sentences and Paragraphs) according to the context of the sentence or sentences. Even the essay follows this guideline—one of the only ways to get a zero on the essay is not to address the issue presented in the prompt.
Educated Guessing
The SAT does not have a guessing penalty. What it does have is a wrong-answer penalty. The SAT is set up to cancel out random guessing, not educated guessing.
Here’s an illustration. Imagine a ten-item set on the SAT. Each item has five answer choices, A through E. Let’s say you simply fill in the bubble sheet randomly. For every item you get right, you get a point. For every item you get wrong, you lose a quarter-point. What would happen?
Item Right Answer Your Random Guess Right/Wrong Points Gained or Lost
1 D A Wrong –1/4
2 C B Wrong –1/4
3 B C Wrong –1/4
4 A D Wrong –1/4
5 D D Right +1
6 D A Wrong –1/4
7 E B Wrong –1/4
8 E C Wrong –1/4
9 C C Right +1
10 A E Wrong –1/4
Total Wrong –2
Total Right +2
Net Gain 0
In a five-answer multiple-choice item, the chance of getting the item correct by random guessing is 1/5. The chance of getting the item incorrect is 4/5. Therefore, you have a 1/5 chance of getting 1 point and a 4/5 chance of losing 1/4 of a point. Although you gained 2 points for the two correct answers, you lost 2 points for the eight incorrect answers (81 /4= 2).
Educated guessing is all about earning a net gain of points on the test. Every time you eliminate even one answer choice as being most likely incorrect and guess from what remains, you are nudging your net points higher and higher.
For example, let’s say that in ten items, you eliminated two answer choices as wrong for each item. Instead of having a 1-in-5 chance of answering an item correctly, you now have a 1-in-3 chance. Similarly, instead of having a 4-in-5 chance of answering an item incorrectly, you have a 2-in-3 chance. ‘What would happen to your net points?
    Ten items chance of guessing correctly = items answered correctly. items answered correctly 1 point for a correct answer = points. Ten items chance of randomly guessing incorrectly = items answered incorrectly. points for an incorrect answer = points. points + points = net points.
Instead of netting zero points, you’ve netted almost 2 points—without knowing the correct answer to any of the ten items.
As you can see, educated guessing is critical to raising your score. Think of it this way. There are a certain number of items you can answer correctly even if you’ve never seen the SAT before. That number increases as you become familiar with the test. It increases even more as you use focused test prep materials, such as this Power Tactics series.
However, you put a “glass ceiling” on your score potential if you refuse to guess when you’ve eliminated one or more choices as being most likely incorrect. You must use educated guessing to increase your score.
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