[Note: This refers to the old SAT. But the underlying point still applies. While you should ANSWER all the questions on the new SAT (since there’s no longer a wrong answer penalty), you shouldn’t SPEND TIME on all the questions. For most kids, focusing on FEWER questions leads to a HIGHER score.]
Sometimes the brightest students have the most trouble on the SAT.
Kids who have been successful at school often have ingrained habits (that work, btw): be intellectually aggressive, always guess when you don’t know, and answer ALL the questions…
These are all good strategies and will serve them well in college and into adulthood. Unfortunately, they work against them on the SAT.
Make no mistake: answering all the questions on the SAT is a bad strategy (unless you are shooting for an 800.)
S. is a typical bright kid. He has good grades but his SAT scores were lower than he expected.
He scored a 540 on the Critical Reading section – answering 41 questions correctly, missing 22 questions, and skipping 4 questions.
The 22 wrong answers was a red flag for me. It suggested that he was guessing too often – making wild guesses instead of educated ones. And it was costing him – he lost 50 points from those wrong answers.
He needed a different strategy.
It took lot of convincing on my part – “Really. I PROMISE that answering fewer questions can lead to a higher score.”
He argued that being aggressive works. That you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And you only lose a trifling quarter point for any wrong answers, anyway.
But what he didn’t consider is how wrong answers have a double-whammy effect. When you wrestle with questions you shouldn’t be answering (or rush through and answer too many questions), you lose a quarter point on that question you get wrong.
But you ALSO lose the POTENTIAL full point on a different question that you could have gotten right if you had enough time to spend on it.
In other words, if you rush through and haphazardly answer 10 questions, statistically, you’d get 2 right and miss 8. That would get a net score of 0 (2 points for the 2 right answers minus 2 points for the 8 wrong answers.)
But, if instead, you focused on answering only 5 of those questions and got 2 or 3 right – you’d get a net score of 2 or 3 points.
Woot! More points, fewer questions, less work.
(It’s really not *less* work – it’s just more *focused* work.)
I did three things to sort out S.’s strategy:
1. Pointed out that he didn’t need to answer all the questions in order to reach his goal score of 600. In fact, he should be deliberately skipping questions.
2. Since he was going to skip questions, it made the most sense to skip the *hard* questions.
3. Explained the difference between a wild guess and an educated guess.
Once I convinced him that wasn’t retreating, but instead was advancing toward a higher score, he finally agreed to try a new strategy.
He earned a 610 on his next test. That’s a 70 point jump overnight.
And it’s even more interesting to look at the details:
- 48 right (7 more than before)
- 6 missed (16 fewer than before!)
- 13 skipped (9 more than before)
He applied the exact same strategy to the writing section. He pulled up his writing score from a 560 to a 630 – that’s a 70 point increase to the 87%.
He got strategic and focused where it mattered. By answering *fewer* questions, he was able to spend *more time* on those questions and rack up more right answers.
S. jumped 140 points into the 82% and 87%. That’s a HUGE competitive advantage at the colleges he’s applying to.
Your SAT strategy
Are you answering too many questions? If you’re missing more than 4-8 questions, then I would say you are. Spend more time on fewer questions and I bet your score will increase, just like S.’s did.
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