General Test-Taking Strategies
General Test-Taking Strategies
Most of these “strategies” are common sense; many of them you already know. But we’re including them anyway because it’s amazing how a timed test can warp and mangle common sense. If you review anything in the minutes before taking the test, review these strategies.
General Hint 1: Be Calm
The best way to do poorly on a test is to psych yourself out. Physics in particular calls for cool, systematic thinking: if your mind starts thrashing about wildly, it will have a hard time settling on the right answers. There are a number of preventative measures you can take, beginning weeks, or even months, before the test date. Buying this book was a good start: it’s reassuring to see all the information you’ll need to ace the test in a compact, manageable form. But there are a number of other things you ought to keep in mind:
Study in advance.
If you’ve studied at regular intervals leading up to the test, and don’t do all your cramming the night before, the information will sit more securely in your mind.
Be well rested.
Get a good night’s sleep on the two nights leading up to the test. If you’re frazzled or wired, you’re going to have a harder time buckling down and concentrating when it really counts.
Come up for air.
Don’t assume that the best way to take an hour-long test is to spend the full hour nose-to-nose with the test questions. If you lift your head occasionally, look about you, and take a deep breath, you’ll return to the test with a clearer mind. You’ll lose maybe ten seconds of your total test-taking time, but you’ll be all the more focused for the other fifty-nine minutes and fifty seconds.
General Hint 2: Fill in Your Answers Carefully
This is very important. People make mistakes filling in their answer sheets and it can cost them big-time. This slip up occurs most frequently after you skip a question. If you left question 43 blank, and then unthinkingly put the answer to question 44 into row 43, you could start a long, painful chain of wrong answers. Don’t do this.
Some test prep books advise that you fill in your answer sheet five questions at a time rather than one at a time. Some suggest that you fill out each oval as you answer the question. We think you should fill out the answer sheet in whatever way feels most natural to you, but make sure you’re careful while doing it. In our opinion, the best way to ensure that you’re being careful is to talk to yourself: as you figure out an answer in the test booklet and transfer it over to the answer sheet ovals, say to yourself: “Number 23, B. Number 24, E. Number 25, A.”
General Hint 3: Pace Yourself
At the very least, aim to look at every question on the test. You can’t afford to lose points because you didn’t have the time to look at a question you could have easily answered. You can spend an average of forty-eight seconds on each question, though you’ll probably breeze through some in ten seconds and dwell on others for two minutes. Knowing how to pace yourself is a critical skill—and these three guidelines should help:
Don’t dwell on any one question for too long.
If you’ve spent a couple minutes laboring over the question, you might just want to make a note of it and move on. If you feel the answer is on the tip of your tongue, it might come more easily if you just let it rest and come back to it later. Not only is it demoralizing to spend five minutes on a single question, but it also eats up precious time in which you might have answered a number of easier questions.
Nail the easy questions.
As we said in the previous chapter, the test questions get progressively harder as you go along. Nonetheless, there will be some tough ones thrown in right at the start, and you’ll find giveaways right up until the end. If you dwell too long on tough questions, you jeopardize your chances of looking at every question and gaining points for the easy ones. Remember: you get as many points for answering an easy question as a difficult one, and you get a lot more points for five quickly answered easy questions than for one hard-earned victory.
Skip the unfamiliar.
If you encounter a question you can’t make heads or tails of, just skip it. Don’t sweat too hard trying to sort out what’s going on. If you have time at the end, come back to it and see if you can make an educated guess. Your first priority should be to get all the easy questions, and your second priority should be to work through the questions you can solve with some difficulty. Unfamiliar material should be at the bottom of your list of priorities.
General Hint 4: Set a Target Score
You can make the job of pacing yourself much easier if you go into the test knowing how many questions you have to answer correctly in order to earn the score you want. So, what score do you want? Obviously, you should strive for the best score possible, but also be realistic: consider how much you know about physics and how well you do, generally, on SAT-type tests. You should also do a little research and find out what counts as a good score for the colleges you’re applying to: is it a 620? a 680? Talk to the admissions offices of the colleges you might want to attend, do a little research in college guidebooks, or talk to your guidance counselor. Find out the average score of students admitted to the schools of your choice, and set your target score above it (you want to be above average, right?). Then take a look at the chart we showed you before. You can score:
800 if you answered 68 right, 7 wrong, and left 0 blank
750 if you answered 58 right, 12 wrong, and left 5 blank
700 if you answered 51 right, 13 wrong, and left 11 blank
650 if you answered 43 right, 16 wrong, and left 16 blank
600 if you answered 36 right, 19 wrong, and left 20 blank
Suppose the average score on SAT II Physics for the school you’re interested in is 650. Set your target at about 700. To get that score, you need to get 51 questions right, which leaves you room to get 13 wrong and leave 11 blank. In other words, you can leave a number of tough questions blank, get a bunch more wrong, and still get the score you want. As long as you have some idea of how many questions you need to answer—bearing in mind that you’ll likely get some questions wrong—you can pace yourself accordingly. Taking practice tests is the best way to work on your pacing.
If you find yourself effortlessly hitting your target score when you take the practice tests, don’t just pat yourself on the back. Set a higher target score and start aiming for that one. The purpose of buying this book and studying for the test is to improve your score as much as possible, so be sure to push your limits.
General Hint 5: Know What You’re Being Asked
You can’t know the answer until you know the question. This might sound obvious, but many a point has been lost by the careless student who scans the answer choices hastily before properly understanding the question. Take the following example:
Two positively charged particles, one twice as massive as the other, are moving in the same circular orbit in a magnetic field. Which law explains to us why the less massive particle moves at twice the speed of the more massive particle?
(A) Coulomb’s Law
(B) Conservation of angular momentum
(C) Hooke’s Law
(D) The ideal gas law
(E) Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
The hasty student will notice that the question is about charged particles, and see “Coulomb’s Law” as the first answer choice. Without further ado, the student answers A and loses a quarter of a point.
A more careful student will not just read the question, but will take a moment to understand the question before glancing at the answer choices. This student will realize that the question ultimately deals with particles moving in circular orbits, and the relative speeds of these particles. Whether or not these particles are charged is irrelevant: you’re facing a problem of rotational motion, not of electric forces. Once you’ve recognized what you’re dealing with, you will have little trouble in correctly answering B.
General Hint 6: Know How to Guess
ETS doesn’t take off 1 /4 of a point for each wrong answer in order to punish you for guessing. They do it so as not to reward you for blind guessing. Suppose that, without looking at the questions at all, you just randomly entered responses in the first 20 spaces on your answer sheet. Because there’s a 20% chance of guessing correctly on any given question, odds are you would guess right for four questions and wrong for 16 questions. Your raw score for those 20 questions would then be: .
You would be no better off and no worse off than if you’d left those twenty spaces blank.
Now suppose in each of the first 20 questions you are able to eliminate just one possible answer choice, so that you guess with a 25% chance of being right. Odds are, you’d get five questions right and 15 questions wrong, giving you a raw score of: .
The lesson to be learned here is that blind guessing doesn’t help, but educated guessing does. If you can eliminate even one of the five possible answer choices, you should guess. We’ll discuss how to eliminate answer choices on certain special kinds of questions in Physics Hint 5: Eliminate Wrong Answers.
Guessing as Partial Credit
Some students feel that guessing is like cheating—that guessing correctly means getting credit where none is due. But instead of looking at guessing as an attempt to gain undeserved points, you should look at it as a form of partial credit. Suppose you’re stumped on the question we looked at earlier regarding the charged particle moving in circular motion in a magnetic field. Though you don’t know the correct answer, you may know the answer isn’t the ideal gas law, because the question doesn’t deal with gases in any way. Suppose you also know that the answer isn’t Hooke’s Law, because Hooke’s Law deals with force exerted by a spring, and there are no springs in this question. Don’t you deserve something for that extra knowledge? Well, you do get something: when you look at this question, you can throw out C and D as answer choices, leaving you with a one in three chance of getting the question right if you guess. Your extra knowledge gives you better odds of getting this question right, exactly as extra knowledge should.
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