Juniors who plan to take the SAT should definitely take advantage of at least one of these opportunities. To help you prepare, The Princeton review will be offering free practice SATs, both in-person and online, throughout the month. Additionally, I’ll be posting proven SAT tips right here on this blog.
Today’s advice—adapted from The Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT, 2011 Edition—concerns the various difficulty levels of SAT questions. How is this useful information? Most importantly, it will help you to manage your time. Additionally, it will allow you to feel comfortable picking the obvious answer on easy questions. When you get a hard question, however, it will tell you to avoid the obvious answer like the plague.
Order of Difficulty
If you have already taken a practice SAT, you may have noticed that the questions seem to get harder as each section progresses. This is not an accident; ETS purposely arranges the questions this way. Why? There are a couple of reasons.
First, starting students with easy questions can lead to a false sense of security. Chances are, after nailing the first three or four questions you start to think that you’ve got the test beat. That’s exactly when ETS starts throwing some traps into the questions for the unwary or the overconfident.
Second, the hard questions are at the end of the section, when you have less time left. Knowing this, you may rush through the beginning of the section, making careless mistakes, just to get to the difficult and frustrating questions at the end.
Easy, Medium, Difficult
Think of each section as being divided into thirds. A third of the questions should be easy. Most test takers get these questions right. Another third of the questions are of medium difficulty. Nearly half of the people taking the test get these questions right. The final third of the questions are difficult. Very few test takers answer these questions correctly.
The Math sections always follow this order of difficulty; thus, in a 20-question Math section, the first seven questions are easy, the next six are medium, and the final seven are difficult. Sentence completions follow a similar pattern. However, most of the other question types are all jumbled up—they follow no particular order of difficulty.
You Have to Pace Yourself
There are some very difficult questions on the SAT that most test takers shouldn’t even bother to work on. Within the difficult third of every group of questions, almost no one taking the test will get certain questions right. Rather than spending too much time on these questions, you should focus your attention on questions that you have a better chance of figuring out.
Because most test takers try to finish every section, almost every test taker hurts his or her score. After all, when you rush, you make mistakes. The solution, for almost anyone scoring less than 700 on a section, is to slow down.
Most test takers could improve their scores significantly by attempting fewer questions and devoting more time to questions they have a better chance of answering correctly. Slow down, score more.
How Will This Help My Score?
Knowing the difficulty level of a question can help you in several ways. Most importantly, it helps you make the best use of your time. Although in terms of difficulty the questions are definitely not created equally, each and every single question earns you exactly one point. ETS wants you to waste your time on the difficult questions, while missing easy points. Don’t play their game.
Make sure you SLOW DOWN and focus your energy on the easy and medium questions before trying the difficult ones. Your job is to get the greatest number of points in the least amount of time. Don’t rush through the questions that you’re more likely to answer correctly. Get those points. Then with the time you have left, try the difficult questions (those will be loaded with ETS traps!).
Furthermore, understanding the difficulty level of a question can help you to figure out ETS’s trap answers. To do this, we first have to delve into the mind of a typical SAT test taker.
The Importance of Feeling Good
The SAT is a timed test, and ETS doesn’t give you a lot of time to work through every question. Plus, there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety associated with taking the test. In a situation such as this, many students rely on a sense of what “feels” right when answering questions. The problem is, in many of these cases, ETS is hoping you’ll fall for a trap.
Should You Ever Pick an Answer That Feels Right?
Well, that depends on the difficulty level of the question. (See, this whole discussion was leading somewhere.) Consider this:
- On easy multiple-choice questions, ETS’s answers seem right to virtually everyone: high scorers, low scorers, and average scorers.
- On medium multiple-choice questions, ETS’s answers seem right to high scorers, wrong to low scorers, and sometimes right and sometimes wrong to average scorers.
- On hard multiple-choice questions, ETS’s answers seem right to high scorers and wrong to everyone else.
When doing an easy question, you can trust your gut. But once you hit the medium and difficult questions, the answer that “feels right” may no longer be the best answer.
Why Would ETS Design the Test Like That?
Simply put, they want you to get an average score. If ETS put too many easy questions on the test, then lots of students would get great SAT scores. Sounds pretty good, right?
Well, if you worked in a college admissions office, you might not think so. If almost every student had scores in the 700s for math, reading, and writing, you wouldn’t be able to use those scores to make decisions. The colleges would lose faith in the SAT and ETS just wouldn’t allow that.
By the way, if ETS put too many hard questions on the test and everybody got really low SAT scores, the colleges would have the same problem. ETS always wants to make sure that there are just enough easy questions to get most students into the average range and just enough hard questions to keep most students from exceeding the average. Pretty twisted, isn’t it? So, how do you avoid being average?
Meet Joe Bloggs
The average test taker always goes with his or her gut when taking the SAT. We’ve seen this average test taker so often that we’ve decided to give him a name: Joe Bloggs. Joe is the quintessential (good vocabulary word) American high school student. He has average grades and average SAT scores. There’s a little bit of him in everyone, and there’s a little bit of everyone in him. He isn’t brilliant. He isn’t dumb. He’s just average.
And he’s ETS’s dream student. He always does what ETS expects and gets an average score as a result.
How Does Joe Bloggs Approach the SAT?
Joe Bloggs always trusts his gut. Regardless of the difficulty level of the question, he picks the answer that feels right. And of course, he ends up getting most of the easy questions right, about half of the medium questions right, and almost none of the difficult questions right. That makes ETS very happy because they can give Joe an average score.
Here’s an example of a hard question. Let’s see how Joe tackles it:
20. Graham walked to school at an average speed of 3 miles an hour and jogged back along the same route at 5 miles an hour. If his total traveling time was 1 hour, what was the total number of miles in the round trip?
- (A) 3
- (B) 3 1/8
- (C) 3 3/4
- (D) 4
- (E) 5
Which Answer Did Joe Pick?
Question 20 is one of the hardest questions in the math section. Most students get it wrong and, of course, that includes Joe. Can you guess which answer Joe picked? Joe picked answer choice D because it just felt right. Joe read the problem so fast that all that registered was that Graham went to school at 3 miles per hour, returned at 5 miles per hour and that Joe is supposed to find the number of miles in the round trip. Joe figured all he really had to do was to average the two speeds and ETS was waiting with answer choice D. Poor Joe. Does he really think that ETS is going to let him go to a really good college for doing something that easy?
So, what was wrong with Joe’s approach? Well, since Graham took the same route to school and then back home, the distance had to be the same. Joe’s method, however, assumed that Graham spent half his time going to school and half of it returning home. That can’t happen if the distance is the same, right? Graham would have spent less time jogging home. Joe went too fast, made a bad assumption and fell for the ETS trap answer.
The Joe Bloggs Principle
When you take the SAT a few weeks or months from now, you’ll have to take it on your own, of course. But suppose for a moment that ETS allowed you to take it with Joe Bloggs as your partner. Would Joe be of any help to you on the SAT?
You Probably Don’t Think So
After all, Joe is wrong as often as he is right. He knows the answers to the easy questions, but so do you. You’d like to do better than average on the SAT, and Joe earns only an average score (he’s the average test taker, remember). All things considered, you’d probably prefer to have someone else for your partner.
But Joe might turn out to be a pretty helpful partner, after all. Since his hunches are always wrong on difficult multiple-choice questions, couldn’t you improve your chances on those questions simply by finding out what Joe wanted to pick, and then picking something else?
If you could use the Joe Bloggs principle to eliminate one, two, or even three obviously incorrect choices on a hard problem, you could improve your score by guessing among the remaining choices.
What If Joe Bloggs Is Right?
Remember what we said about Joe Bloggs at the beginning: He is the average test taker. He thinks the way most people do. If the right answer to a hard question seemed right to most people, the question wouldn’t be hard.
Joe Bloggs is right on some questions: the easy ones. But he’s always wrong on the hard questions. You can use him to your advantage.