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How To Tackle Hard Questions On the SAT

A frequent tactic on the SAT is to skip difficult questions - or to do them last, assuming there's time. This tactic may work if your score goal is 1000. Otherwise, it's terrible advice. If you want a 1500, you'll have to succeed on difficult questions as well as easy ones in order to reach your target goal.


So how should you tackle harder questions? After all, there is a kernel of truth in the "traditional wisdom": easy questions are a surer bet than harder ones. You don't want to miss out on easy questions because you got bogged down in difficult questions.


Today we'll discuss the 'hard start' method, a technique suggested by famed neurologist Barbara Oakley. I've amended Ms. Oakley's approach over time to fit the SAT specifically, tweaking it periodically so that it's as effective as possible, and I've seen it yield fantastic results with hundreds of students.

Dealing with hard questions: the method

The way to deal with harder questions is slighly different for the math, reading comprehension,and the writing and language sections of the SAT. However, the general idea is the same. Let's start by looking at the method for the math section, and then consider what to do for the reading and the writing sections as well.


The math section method For the most part, questions on the math section are unconnected. There may occasionally be a set of two questions based on the same graph or collection of formulas, but that's the exception rather than the rule.


For the math section, I recommend going through the questions in order. When you encounter a difficult question, don't skip it. Rather, start solving. If about 30 - 40 seconds have gone by and you still have no idea how to solve it, choose an answer, mark the question somehow so that you'll remember it later, and move on. Do the same thing if 30 - 40 seconds have passed and you think you know how to solve it, but believe it will take a long time.



This is because every question on the math section of the SAT is designed so that it can be solved in less than a minute. If you think a question will take more than two minutes to solve, it's an indication that you've found a way that you can solve the question, but not how you should solve the question. (If almost every question takes you more than 2 minutes, you are simply unprepared.)


How should you answer the question? Well, if you were able to eliminate some of the answers, choose a random answer from those remaining. If you weren't able to eliminate any of the answers, fill in a random letter that you chose beforehand. Always stick with the same letter - filling in different letters every time you guess may actually hand you fewer correct answers.


Never move on from a question you worked on without filling in an answer. The SAT doesn't punish you for wrong answers, and you may very well forget and / or run out of time to return to this question later on. When you've run through all the questions - either solving them, or solving them halfway - return to the questions you marked. Oftentimes, the solution will now become apparent, or at least seem easier.


The neurological basis for this method There are two main reasons why this method works.


Firstly, you don't have time to waste on the SAT. Solving this way allows your brain to do two things at once. When you begin a difficult question, and then stop and move to an easier question, your conscious brain starts working on the easier question. But, subconsciously, the gears of your mind still work on the difficult one. By the time you consciously return to the difficult question, your brain will often have figured it out.


Secondly, your mind is essentially taking a break. When we learn, we learn best when difficult tasks alternate with easier ones; the mind works more effectively when it gets frequent small breaks.


On the math section, we don't have eons of free time with which to take little breaks between hard work; so, the easier questions serve as "breaks." During more difficult questions, our brain works hard. In order to allow it to continue on with the difficult work implicit in the question, we need to give it a few minutes of easy work, and only then continue on with the more difficult question.


Note that if we were first to solve the easiest questions, and only then move on to the difficult ones, we would have lost our opportunity to alternate between difficult questions ("mental work") and easier questions ("breaks.") That is, we'd be working in a manner which - from a neurological perspective - is ineffective.



What NOT to do

I will reiterate this point because it is important. On the SAT, do not skip difficult questions. On the other hand, be careful not to get bogged down in difficult questions and end up working on them for 2 or 3 minutes - this is an ineffective use of your mental energy.


Instead, work with the way your brain works so that you can harness its resources in the most effective possible manner. Work a little on the most difficult questions, just enough to dip your toes in the water. Choose a temporary answer, move on to easier questions, and then return.


Reading Comprehension questions: a slightly modified version of "hard start"

I recommend my students answer reading comprehension questions in the following manner:


On the SAT, you have 5 passages in total. Here is the order in which you should answer them:


For the questions in each passage, answer them. Again, do not skip difficult questions in order to answer the easiest first; do them in order.


Before moving on to the next passage, return to all the questions you've marked in the current passage, and try to address them again. This is in order to eliminate attention residue.


What is attention residue?

Attention residue is a concept introduced by business professor Sophie Leroy, in 2009.

It refers to the neurological effect that occurs when you switch from one project to another in the middle, without having finished the first project. The 'residue' in 'attention residue' refers to the attention left over in the project you just left. You then start the new project with less attention, less mental energy, and eventually, a lesser performance.


Think of each passage in the reading comprehension section as a "project". Unlike the unconnected questions of the math section, questions in a single reading comprehension passage are linked. In keeping with the idea of attention residue, that means we should "finish" a passage as much we can, before moving on to the next one.


But we also want to allow our subconscious brain time and breathing room to work on difficult questions. The solution is a hybrid. Instead of returning to the difficult questions at the end of the entire segment, return to those of each passage when you're finished with the passage.


This way, there is some element of finality with each passage. The questions that you're still unsure about, leave marked, and return to them at the end of the section.


This may sound time-consuming. However, if you're answering the questions in the manner that you should, it will move briskly, and you shouldn't have a time management problem on the SAT.



Writing & Language questions: a slightly modified version of "hard start"

For the Writing & Language section, I'd recommend going the same route as the math section. That is, solve all the questions at least partway, including the difficult questions - don't leave them for the end. Then, return to the marked difficult questions only after you've finished the entire section - not after every passage.


It's true that Writing & Language questions, similarly to reading comprehension questions, are divided into questions based on discrete texts. However, here the texts are not as important. Very often, large parts of them could go unread, and it wouldn't make a difference in your ability to answer the questions. Therefore, the issue of attention residue is not as important.


On the other hand, the easy questions on the Writing & Language section tend to be easy indeed. The Writing & Language section of the SAT has the dubious distinction of having questions that are divided into categories - either extremely easy and obvious, or extremely unclear and confusing. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground.

What this means in the context of our article is that "easy" questions on the Writing & Language section don't serve as much of a break. If you try to return to difficult questions at the end of each text passage, your brain won't have had much of a breather, and barely any time to continue working on it subconsciously as your conscious self was busy with other things. Instead, wait until you've finished the entire section, and then return to all the difficult questions of the passage.

In order to receive notifications when a new post is published, and keep up to date on the most effective ways to maximize your SAT / ACT score, try signing up to TovaKrakauerCoaching.com. It's totally free, and signing up takes two seconds. Just click on thered sign-up button at the top of the home page and enter your name and email. For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning,

Tova