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.