Imagine you’re given the task of picking as many apples from a particular apple tree as possible, in a short amount of time. You know that none of the apples on the tree are any more or less delicious than any of the others, but of course the higher up they are, the harder they are to get.

Are you going to climb right to the top to get the most difficult apples first? Not if you want to get the most total apples. I guess if it’s important to you to brag to your friends that you got the highest apple, you might do that. But if that’s what you want to brag about to your friends, maybe it’s time to look at your life, and look at your choices.

In the SAT math section, the questions go roughly in order from easiest to hardest, but each question is worth the exact same amount of points. There’s no bonus for getting the hardest ones right. So if you’re skipping questions early to get to questions late, or if you’re rushing through the easy ones to get to the hard ones at the end, you’re doing it wrong. You’re spending precious time on questions that are very difficult without having given enough thought to questions that are much easier. If you prioritized your time differently, you’d probably see a higher score.

To go back to the apple tree example, skipping early questions or rushing to get to the hard ones faster is like climbing to the top of the tree before you’ve picked all the easier apples towards the bottom — the ones you can reach from the ground without climbing at all. You’re risking your entire day’s work by doing so. You might get fired from your apple picking job for being insanely inefficient. How will you feed your famished children?

Let’s look at this one more way to really drive the point home. Every test’s scoring table is slightly different, but you can usually break 700 with 48 raw score points. There are 54 raw score points available (that’s if you get every question right), so you can actually skip 6 questions (or get 5 wrong) and still get your 700 if you’re perfect on the rest.

Do you understand what that means? That means you can get a kick-ass score without ever tackling the two hardest questions in each math section! And if you stop rushing to get to them and sweating through them and often still getting them wrong, you’ll probably make fewer mistakes on the easier questions.

This is a subtle point, but it’s a huge factor in whether your math score is going to see an impressive improvement. If you really want your score to go up, start prioritizing the easy points. Once you’re consistently getting all of those (seriously, nothing difficulty 3 or under wrong ever), then you can start to worry about the hard ones.

Some tutors and courses assign students “target numbers” to try to hard-code this concept into their prep. They’ll say, for example, that you should always skip the last two questions in each section (well, #8 and #18 in the Grid-In section) and use the time that saves you to work on easier questions. Don’t be obstinate! It’s good advice! They’re not trying to limit your score, they’re trying to maximize it. Unless you’re already breaking 700 (or whatever your “target score” is), getting the easy questions right more often is the easiest path to a better score.

Conclusion: Don’t worry if you don’t finish the hardest question or two in a section if you’ve made sure you got the easier ones right. That’s a good trade-off and you increased your score by doing so. I’ll say it once more: You’ll increase your score more by getting fewer easy ones wrong than you will by getting more hard ones right. So slow down, work carefully, and bask in the glow of your score report when it arrives and proves me right.

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