Sailing through SAT-Day Morning

SAT-day isn't a good time to oversleep. Set the alarm clock and ask a reliable parent, guardian, or friend to verify that you've awakened on time. If you're not a morning person, you may need a few additional minutes. Then, no matter how nutritionally challenged your usual breakfast is, break out of the box and eat something healthful. Unless it upsets your stomach, go for protein (eggs, cheese, meat, tofu, and so on). Stay away from sugary items (cereals made primarily from Red Dye No. 23, corn syrup, and the like) because sugar gives you a surge of energy and then a large chunk of fatigue. If you think you'll be hungry during the morning, throw some trail mix, fruit, or other non-candy snacks into your backpack. Then hit the road for the test center.

If disaster strikes — fever, car trouble, little brother's arrest — and you can't take the SAT on the appointed day, call the College Board and request that they transfer your fee to the next available date.

Bringing the right stuff

Be sure to have these items with you:

  • Admission ticket for the SAT: Don't leave home without it! You can't get in just by swearing that you "have one, at home, on top of the TV."
  • Photo identification: The SAT accepts drivers' licenses, school IDs, passports, or other official documents that include your picture. The SAT doesn't accept Social Security cards or library cards. If you're not sure, ask your school counselor or call the SAT directly.
  • No. 2 pencils: Don't guess. Look for the No. 2 on the side of the pencil. Take at least three or four sharpened pencils with you. Be sure the pencils have usable erasers or bring one of those cute pink rubber erasers you used in elementary school.
  • Calculator: Bringing a calculator is optional. You don't absolutely need a calculator to take the SAT, but it does help on some questions. A four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator is acceptable. Anything with a keyboard (a mini-computer, in other words) or a handheld PDA (personal digital assistant) is barred. So is any device that needs to be plugged in or that makes noise. If you're the type of person who wears both suspenders and a belt, just in case one fails, bring a back-up calculator and extra batteries.
  • Handkerchief or tissue: Nothing is more annoying that a continuous drip or sniffle. Blow your nose and do the rest of the room — and yourself — a favor!
  • Watch: In case the wall clock is missing, broken, or out of your line of vision, a watch is crucial. Don't bring one that beeps, because the proctor may take it away if it disturbs other test-takers.

After you arrive at the test center, take out what you need and stow the rest of the stuff in a backpack under your seat. Don't forget to turn off your cell phone or beeper, if you have one.

The test proctor doesn't allow scrap paper, books, and other school supplies (rulers, compasses, highlighters, and so on) in the test room, so be sure to leave these items behind. Also, no iPods or other musical devices. You have to swing along to the tune inside your head.

Handling test tension

Unless you resemble Data, the emotionless android from the Star Trek television series (the one with the bald captain), you're probably nervous when you arrive at the test center. Try a couple of stretches and headshakes to dispel (chase away) tension. During the exam, wriggle your feet and move your shoulders up and down whenever you feel yourself tightening up. Some people like neck rolls (pretend that your neck is made of spaghetti and let your head droop in a big circle). If you roll your neck or move your head to either side, however, be sure to close your eyes. Don't risk a charge of cheating. Just like an Olympic diver preparing to go off of the board, take a few deep breaths before you begin the test and anytime during the test when you feel nervous or out-of-control.

You get one break per hour, which you probably want to spend in the bathroom or out in the hallway near the test room. During breaks, stay away from your fellow test victims, including your best friend. You don't want to hear someone else's version of the right answer. ("Everything in section two was a (B)! I got negative twelve for that one! You didn't? Uh oh.") If you like pain, allow yourself to talk over the test with your friends after the whole thing's over — great SAT-day night date talk, if you never want to see your partner again. After you finish the exam, you can obsess about wrong answers until the cows come home.

Starting off

The test proctor distributes the booklets with a vindictive thump. (Vindictive means "seeking revenge," the sort of attitude that says, "Ha, ha! You're taking this awful test and I'm not! Serves you right!") Before you get to the actual questions, the proctor instructs you how to fill in the top of the answer sheet with your name, date of birth, Social Security number, registration number, and so forth. Your admission ticket has the necessary information. You also have to copy some numbers from your test booklet onto the answer sheet. You must grid in all those numbers and letters. Filling the bubbles with pencil is such a fun way to spend a weekend morning, don't you think?

Don't open the test booklet early. Big no-no! You'll be sent home with a large "C" (for Cheater) stamped on your forehead. Just kidding about the forehead, but not kidding about the sent home part. The proctor can can (no, not can-can) you for starting early, working after time is called, or looking at the wrong section.

The proctor announces each section and tells you when to start and stop. The proctor probably uses the wall clock or his/her own wristwatch to time you. When the proctor says that you're starting at 9:08 and finishing at 9:33, take a moment to glance at the watch you brought. If you have a different time, reset your watch. Marching to a different drummer may be fun, but not during the SAT. You want to be on the same page and in the same time warp as the proctor.

Focusing during the test

Keep your eyes on your own paper, except for quick glimpses of your watch. No, we're not just saying so because cheating is bad and you'll get busted. Keeping your eyes where they belong is a way to concentrate on the task at hand. If you glance around the room, we guarantee you'll see someone who has already finished, even if only three nanoseconds have elapsed since the section began. You'll panic: Why is he finished and I'm only on question two? He'll get into Harvard and I won't! You don't need this kind of idea rattling around in your head when you should be analyzing the author's tone in passage three.

If your eye wants to run around sending signals to your brain like "I glimpsed number fifteen and it looks hard," create a window of concentration. Place your hand over the questions you've already done and your answer sheet over the questions you haven't gotten to yet. Keep only one or two questions in eye-range. As you work, move your hand and the answer sheet, exposing only one or two questions at a time.

You aren't allowed to use scrap paper, but you are allowed to write all over the test booklet. If you eliminate a choice, put an X through it. If you think you've got two possible answers but aren't sure which is best, circle the ones you're considering. Then you can return to the question and take a guess.

When you choose an answer, say (to yourself), "The answer to number 12 is (B)." Look at the answer sheet and be sure you're on line 12, coloring in the little (B). Some people like to answer three questions at a time, writing the answers in the test booklet and then transferring them to the answer sheet. Not a bad idea! The answer sheet has alternating stripes of shaded and nonshaded ovals, three questions per stripe. The color helps you ensure that you're putting your answers in the correct spot. Take care not to run out of time, however. Nothing from your test booklet counts; only the answers you grid in add to your score.

Pacing yourself

The SAT-makers do all kinds of fancy statistical calculations to see which questions fool most of the people, most of the time, and which are the equivalent of "How many points are awarded for a three-point field goal?" (That was an actual question on an athlete's final exam in one college, no kidding. Needless to say the athlete was considered a top prospect for the school's basketball team.) After the test-makers know which questions are easy, medium, and hard, they place them more or less in that order on the exam (except on the reading comprehension passages). What this means is that as you move through a particular section, you may find yourself feeling more and more challenged. What this also means is that you should be sure to answer (and grid in) everything from the beginning of a section. As you approach the end, don't worry so much about skipping questions. You get the same amount of credit (one point) for each right answer from the "easy" portion of the test as you do for a correct response in the "hard" section.

When you talk about easy and hard, one size doesn't fit all. A question that stumps 98 percent of the test-takers may be a no-brainer for you. So look at everything carefully. Don't assume that you can't answer a question at the end of a section; nor should you assume that you know everything in the beginning.

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