I remember taking a short, but very hard calculus test in high school, and watching my friend hand in his test 10 minutes before time was called. I shot him the requisite stink-eye glare, and got back to work, struggling to integrate a function that was giving me absolutely no love. I don’t remember the function all these years later, nor do I even remember if I ended up integrating it successfully or not. What I remember is walking out of the room in my typical post-exam delirium being approached by my speedy friend.

“I failed,” he said, hands in pockets and staring at his feet. “I saw that last problem and it just froze me in my tracks.”


You had ten whole minutes to ruminate on that problem, and instead you turned your test in and put your head down on your desk? And now you’re lamenting your performance?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but sympathy for people who struggle with difficult questions (that’s why I made this site — to try to be helpful), but I can’t muster any sympathy for you if you can’t muster the strength to persevere until time is called.

In fairness to my friend, some functions are impossible to integrate if you don’t know a particular rule, and unless you’re an evil genius you’re probably not going to be able to derive the rule on the fly in 10 minutes. But he still should have kept trying. Something might have come to him. The only thing that’s certain is that nothing was going to come to him with the test off his desk and his head on it instead.

Over my years doing test prep, I’ve watched countless of kids zip through an SAT section during a proctored test and then put their heads on their desks to wait for the next section to begin, especially in reading and writing sections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those kids get through a section with 100% of the questions answered correctly. Much to my chagrin, many of them even leave difficult questions blank!

There’s no shame in getting a difficult question wrong. There is shame in giving up on yourself when there’s still time left in the section. There is shame in not catching silly mistakes that you could have caught if you had been checking your work instead of trying to catch a 5 minute nap. There is no glory in finishing early. There is only the potential for shame.

If you finish a reading section early

Pretend that you’re going to have to defend each of your answers to a room full of people, and find the relevant sections of text that support the answers you chose. If you can’t find support for the answer you chose in the passage, it’s probably not be the right answer.

If you finish a math section early

Check. Your. Work. Do problems a different way than you did the first time. If you did algebra, see if you arrive at the same answer when plugging-in. If you solved a tough question with geometry and the figure was drawn to scale, make sure your answer stands up to scrutiny by guesstimating. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you didn’t make any silly errors by misreading questions. Those mistakes sting the most.

If you finish a writing section early

Go back through and make sure you aren’t seeing errors where there’s really just complex construction. Just because you might choose to say something differently doesn’t mean the way it’s written is wrong. Do a scan to make sure you caught all the dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. Make sure you caught all the comparisons by looking for instances of possessives (Mike’s blog; Sam’s salary; the plight of the Mets fan). Look for lists that you might have missed the first time. Do all your verbs match their subjects? Do all your pronouns match their antecedents?

It ain’t over until it’s over

If you’re trying to maximize your score, there’s really no excuse for quitting on a section early. I don’t care how certain you are about your answers. I don’t care how rarely you make algebra mistakes. I don’t care how boring the passages were. You’re either working on improving your score, or you’re sitting there in the test room doing nothing. Get back to work. You’ll thank yourself when the test is finally, actually over.

Comments (8)

I actually have mixed feelings about telling people to go back and check their work (http://ultimatesatverbal.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-checking-your-work-can-be-bad-idea.html). On one hand, no, you should never just whip through a section in ten minutes and sit twiddling your thumbs for the rest of the time (I made that mistake the first time I took the SAT!), but on the other hand, I’ve seen too many people change right answers to wrong ones because they went back and second-guessed themselves. 

For people who really do have the requisite skills to do well on the SAT, their first instinct is very often correct; it’s only when they over-think that they start to get into trouble. So for my students who habitually change right answers to wrong ones when they go back, I usually recommend that they spend more time working carefully through questions the first time around and make sure they use up all the time they’re allotted that way. 

That’s a fair point, and something I should have addressed in this post. I started this screed as an admonishment of kids who give up too easily, and somewhere in the middle I shifted focus to include kids who finish too early for different reasons. I should go back and edit a bit. 🙂

To clarify: I don’t want kids talking themselves out of correct answers, but I do want them actively seeking justifications for their answers. You’ve mentioned this many times on your blog as well, but it can’t be repeated enough: there’s only one correct answer and it’s correct for a reason. If kids have extra time, I want them finding that reason for every answer they might not have felt they had time to find it for the first time through.

The more tests kids take, the better they get at pacing themselves so that this isn’t an issue; they spend the proper amount of time on each question the first time through.

I left this post out for my son to read last night, and asked him this morning if he’d done so.  He said yes (so I verified 😉 )

(ASIDE: My friend Catherine always says, “How can you tell when your son is lying?”  Answer: “When he opens his mouth.”)

Anyway, it turns out that he DID in fact read the post, and even more importantly, he put this GREAT ADVICE into action today on his math final.  Apparently he finished early (which he’s always done, for every test he’s ever taken since he was a little boy) — BUT THEN, wait a minute — THIS time (first time ever) he went back and checked his math for each of the problems. (OMG. Game changer.)

That would be a “first time ever” as far as I know.

I can’t wait to see how he did now.  According to his calculations, he got an 88% (which would be good for this class because it’s challenging, and the teacher is, um, not so good.)  

So PWN, you are changing lives with your wise words.

(Raising kids is like baking: you put in a little bit of this, a little of that, and hope it comes out well.  This week, he got dash of PWNtheSAT, and I believe it may have served him well.)

I’m waiting with baited breath for the results because a lot depends on this final for him (i.e. what math and science classes he gets into). I’m feeling good though. It can only be good news that he checked his work. Developmental milestone as far as I’m concerned.

I personally would rather focus on preventative measures for this topic. In theory, a student can go back and check his work for errors, but in reality, “checking your work” is not so easy. It’s tough to force yourself to redo a problem, tough to get your head back into a problem when looking back at it, and not good to open up the second-guessing can of worms. A student would be better off doing the problem methodically the first time. If a student is finishing sections early in practice that needs to be corrected before the real test, otherwise, sloppy work habits are perpetuated, as well as the belief that “I can always check it later if I rush and make a careless mistake.”

All fair points. Like so many aspects of the test, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and when working with kids individually I think we all need to tailor our advice to our students if we’re at all worth our fees.

Different people work optimally at different speeds, and sometimes well-prepared students who already work methodically finish early anyway. There’s only so much you can try to slow them down before you’re frustrating them and disengaging them from the task. I work with a lot of top scorers who fit this description, which informs a lot of the advice on this and other pages of my blog. 

At the end of the day, I really just want my students to keep working until time is called, whether they think they’re done or not.

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