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Beating the SAT Clock

ClockThis post was written by Lucas Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh, a leader in SAT Prep. For more SAT resources, check out Magoosh SAT vocabulary flashcards and the Magoosh SAT Blog!

Do you remember that kid in grade school who, after finishing any little worksheet or quiz, would slam his pencil down on his desk and yell, “Done!”? He was a suck-up, sure, but it was hard not to envy him a bit, even if you hated it. (And if you were that kid, I hope you have since stopped doing that. It’s not cool in high school, I promise you.) That kid is just loving the SAT; now, he gets to put his pencil down and watch everybody else squirm 10 times during the test — after each and every section.

But if you’re not that kid, and most of us aren’t, you might have one of the most frustrating problems on your hands: the ability to ace the test, but not the pacing. And when that’s the case, it’s time (no pun intended) to revisit your strategy.

How exactly you can save time depends on the section of the test you’re working on as well as your own personal weaknesses. There are a couple places that are especially easy to improve on, though, that are worth pointing out here.

If you’re having trouble with pacing on SAT math, then here’s the most important tip you’re going to get: answer the easy ones first. That might sound relatively intuitive, especially because SAT math is ordered from easiest to hardest on the test, roughly speaking, but what it really means is that you will almost definitely skip questions. Say you read through a tough question on inequalities and you don’t even know where to begin. Skip it. Does the question look like a logic puzzle rather than anything you’ve ever done in math class? Skip it. Now keep in mind that I’m not advising you to leave these answers totally blank. You’ll want to circle the questions and come back to them after you finish the easier questions. This strategy is important because every question on the SAT is worth the same number of points. There’s no point in spending five minutes laboring through a single hard question if you can answer two or three easier questions correctly in the same amount of time.

How about the writing section? The SAT essay is one of the most common sources of timing problems. After all, writing a solid five-paragraph essay in 25 minutes is nigh impossible, especially when we’re talking about hand-written essays.

The key is to plan well. Students rarely believe this — many want to jump straight into writing without planning at all — but it’s true. The trick is that planning starts well before test-day. You’ll want to know exactly where you might draw examples from, because good examples are absolutely key to getting a high score. If your essay is swimming with vagueries and never locks in on a concrete example of your point, you simply will not get a perfect score, or possibly even a good one.

You’ll want a list of stories that you know well and have many facets. History and literature work especially well. You might, for example, know The Giver well, having just read it, and be well-versed in important Civil Rights figures, such as MLK Jr. or Malcolm X. Once you have a list of 5 or 6 sources you could draw from, you should consider a number of SAT prompts and how you might create examples using your list of sources.

Then, on test day, you’ll simply do that same thing again: at the very beginning, before you write, mentally sift through your sources for two or three good examples to back up your opinion on the answer to the question. Spending a couple of minutes thinking of that before writing ends up being a huge time saver, because you always know what’s coming next. You don’t have to wonder all the time where, exactly, your essay is leading you.

Saving time = a longer essay, and generally speaking, a longer essay = a higher score.

There are, of course, other ways to improve your speed on the SAT, but those two are a good place to start, since they tend to bring results quickly. Try them out and see if you can shave a few minutes off your essay or a math section!

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