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Budget Your Time on the Writing Section of the PSAT/NMSQT

The writing section of the PSAT/NMSQT comes last, after you’ve endured (suffered through) two critical reading and two math sections. Writing is the longest section of the exam, both in minutes (30) and number of questions (39). With less than a minute per question, many test-takers hear the proctor yell, “Stop!” before they’ve finished. Your strategy must include time management, according to these guidelines:

  • Not all questions require the same amount of time. The exam opens with 20 sentence-improvement questions, then 14 error-recognition questions, and finally 5 paragraph-improvement questions.

    Most people can zoom through the error-recognition questions quickly. Paragraph improvement typically gobbles up the most minutes, with sentence improvement somewhere in between. Of course, your reaction time to each type of question may be completely different. Check out the third bullet for advice on tailoring your time budget so that it emphasizes your strengths and minimizes any weaknesses.

  • Order of difficulty” is less clear in the writing section. In most sections of the exam, the questions appear in order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest. Therefore, you’re probably used to answering everything at the beginning of a section. The writing section, though, covers a very wide range of topics — every possible way to mangle (crush, twist, deform) the language.

    You can’t easily rely on order of difficulty in sentence improvements, and error recognition is only slightly better. Paragraph-improvement questions follow the order of the sentences in the selection. Best tactic: Forget about order of difficulty. Do what’s easiest for you, and hit the hard problems later.

  • Measure yourself. You’re not “most people.” You’re unique (one of a kind). As you practice each type of question, time yourself. How long do you typically take to answer a sentence-improvement question? Are you fast or slow when it comes to paragraph improvement? How many minutes do you need for error recognition? Make a profile and update it as you become more familiar with PSAT/NMSQT writing.

    Remember, you don’t have to answer the questions in order. Start with your strongest section, move on to your next strongest, and then finish up with the hardest type of question. Your score will be higher if you get all the paragraph-improvement questions right, even if you have to skip a couple of sentence-improvement problems.

  • Don’t hesitate to guess. With so few minutes, you may have to guess or skip some questions entirely.

By the end of the exam, you’ll be enervated (exhausted). A question that takes you 10 seconds to answer when you’re fresh and vigorous (energetic) may require 30 seconds later in the morning. Budget your time with this fact in mind.

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