Dispatches from the Test Prep Team: Timing

Dispatches from the Test Prep Team is a series of posts on the ESC blog intended to help you improve your test prep skills!  This week, we will focus on timing.

Time time time time time. There is never enough time on the SAT. Or so it seems. Have you ever tried to think about the problem of time from a mathematical point of view? Let’s try and see what insight it might provide.

Let’s assume that we wish to finish each passage and it’s 10-11 questions in an average of 12 minutes so that we can have five minutes left over at the end of the passage. Out of those 12 minutes, a fair time for reading the passage I think is about 5 minutes, which would leave 7 minutes for your questions. Utilizing 5 minutes to read means reading at an average pace of 2.6 words a second, and utilizing 7 minutes to complete the questions means completing the questions at an average pace of 38-42 second per question.

Try and read the following 3 words in exactly 1 second (not less, not more)

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Isn’t that slow? So here’s the question: How is it possible that reading at such a slow pace results in finishing the passage in 5 minutes, yet students in general read at double or triple the pace and still struggle with finishing the passage in 5 minutes?
The answer: we have to account for the amount of rereading that you have to do because you are distracted or because you had a hard time understanding the passage.

How about the questions? Many students may believe that 38-42 seconds is an impossibly short amount of time to answer an SAT question. Except on average, students only need 15-20 seconds to read a question and its answer choices. In other words, you should be saving at least 20 seconds for every question if you know the answer immediately after reading the question and the answer choices.

Incidentally all this means that if you were perfectly efficient, then you should be able to finish reading the passage and answering all the questions in a little more than 8 minutes. So, in fact, the SAT is incredibly generous with time. It gives you 50% more time than you actually need.

Most students run out of time the first time they do a practice test. And then they logically make the fatal mistake. Students think, “If I’m running out of time, then the solution must be to try and do everything faster.” While this seems logical, it in fact makes things worse. Rushing makes it harder for us to understand the passage. Not understanding the passage means I have to reread which makes us nervous. Being nervous distracts us and makes the passage even harder to understand. You end up in a vicious cycle.

So how do we break the cycle? Is the solution really just to read slower? No. Your goal should not be to “read quickly,” or “read slowly,” or even to “memorize details.” Your goal should be to read for deep understanding. The better you understand the ideas, the better you will remember the passage. The better you remember and understand the passage, the easier the questions become.

So read ACTIVELY! Be ENGAGED with what you read! Fake INTEREST in what you are reading. Give it a try. The next time you do a practice set, read your passage closely analyzing the ideas in each passage. Think about what information you were given, what purpose the information serves, how the information is connected to the other information in the passage. Dissect and digest the passage. See how such a small change in perspective really changes how confident you are about the answers to the questions. See how rarely you end up going back to the passage.
Good luck!