How to Focus and Pace Yourself on the SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

To get the best results on the SAT, you need to focus on what you are doing and pace yourself throughout the test. You also need to start off on the right foot.

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 in bubbles with a 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! The proctor can send you home, scoreless and SAT-less, 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 in real life, but not during the SAT.

Stay focused during the SAT

Keep your eyes on your own paper, except for quick glimpses at your watch, so you can concentrate on the task at hand. If you glance around the room, you may see someone who has already finished. Then you’ll panic: Why is he done, and Im only on Question 2? You don’t need this kind of idea rattling around in your head when you should be analyzing the author’s tone in Passage III. Also, wandering eyes open you to a charge of cheating.

If your eyes want to run around sending signals to your brain like I glimpsed Number 15, 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.

If you skip a question, be careful to skip that line on your answer sheet. When you choose an answer, say (silently, to yourself), “The answer to Number 12 is (B).” Look at the answer sheet to be sure you’re on Line 12, filling in the little oval for (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 bubble in add to your score.

Pace yourself during the SAT

The SAT-makers do all kinds of statistical calculations to see which math questions stump most people and which are relatively simple. The test-makers place questions more or less in easy, medium, and hard order. The reading-comprehension and writing/language passages follow the order of the passage itself.

As you move through a section, you may find yourself feeling more and more challenged. When 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.

If you’re stuck on an early question, take a guess, mark the question, and come back to it later. This way, you’re sure to reach all the later questions that you’re able to answer. Also, during the last minute of each section, bubble in an answer to every remaining question, perhaps choosing one letter and sticking with it for every blank. With no penalty for guessing, you may as well take a shot!