Ever drawn a connect-the-dots picture? You start off with a blank page splattered with numbered points, and you draw lines from point to point in numerical order to construct some sort of picture. It’s the kind of thing you do to keep the kids entertained while you’re babysitting on a Friday night.
Most students approach the SAT like a connect-the-dots picture. They assume the simplest and most obvious course of action: answer the section’s questions, one after the other, in numerical order. Why is this a bad idea? You’re not necessarily getting the easiest questions done first. Since all questions on the SAT are worth one point each, regardless of their difficulty level, you want to do the easiest questions first, the ones you’ll most likely answer correctly in the shortest amount of time. Some easy questions might appear later in the section, and you’ll never reach them if you spend your time stuck on hard questions that appear earlier in the section.
One of my best friends in high school had trouble with test-taking. She would answer a test’s questions in numerical order, like anyone else, but when she came across a tough question, she absolutely had to answer it before moving onto the next one; skipping questions would drive her crazy. She knew the material well, but she would often perform poorly on tests because she’d stay stuck on a few problems for too long and never end up finishing.
Luckily, most of us accept that we can skip around when answering questions on an SAT section, once we realize the critical importance of skipping. Still, it can be surprisingly easy to loose track of time when you’re stuck on a frustrating problem, and the timer may go off before you realize that you haven’t even looked at the second half of the section.
So what do you do? You choose your battles wisely. You skip around to find and answer the easiest questions first. Naturally, it would help if you knew exactly where to find the easiest questions in each section. This is why order matters: SAT questions are not randomly organized in any particular section.
The only section whose questions are consistently ordered in ascending difficulty is the Math section. The easiest questions can be found at the beginning of the section, the medium-difficulty questions at the middle, and the pretty damn hard ones at the end. In this case, and this case only, answering the questions in numerical order (but still skipping over a few sticky ones) isn’t such a bad idea.
But don’t be fooled! The College Board will sometimes throw in an easy question or two near the end of the section, and often only the best test-takers will have managed their time well enough to reach the end of the section and recognize an easy question nestled between two challenging ones. Also, for math sections with grid-in questions, grid-ins tend to be more difficult than multiple choice, since you can’t use a process of elimination strategy and must produce an answer from your calculations alone. Nevertheless, the first few grid-in problems will still be easier than the last multiple choice problem. Keep this in mind.
The Writing section is organized in three parts, based on the section’s three types of questions. The first 10 or 11 questions are Sentence Correction questions, where you’re expected to correct the underlined portion of a sentence that contains a grammatical error. The next 18 or 20 questions are Sentence Error questions, where you’re expected to simply identify the error in a sentence. The last 5 or 6 questions are Paragraph Correction questions, where you’re expected to modify specific grammatical errors or sentence structure to improve an entire paragraph in a given passage.
Sentence Errors are easier than Sentence Corrections because you’re expected to only identify the error, not correct it. Paragraph Corrections are harder than Sentence Corrections because a paragraph has more material to analyze than a single sentence. Approach the Writing sections by answering the easiest questions first: jump to the middle part to work on Sentence Errors, then jump back to the first part to work on Sentence Corrections, and finally jump to the last part to work on Paragraph Corrections.
The Critical Reading section is unusual. Although it also has three types of questions that split the section into three distinct parts, these three parts are organized in different ways. The first 6 or 8 questions are Vocabulary questions, where you’re expected to fill in the blank in a sentence with the correct vocabulary word. Vocabulary questions are organized in ascending difficulty, like the math section, so the first questions will be the easiest and the last questions will be the hardest. The next 4 questions are Short Passage questions, and the last 10 to 14 questions are Long Passage questions; the only difference between the two is the length of the passages.
Passage questions are organized – oddly enough – according to the appearance of the answer in the passage. You’ll most likely find the answer to question 13 at the beginning of the passage and the answer to question 21 at the end of the passage. This is great – now you know exactly which parts of the passage to read for each question! As a general approach, work on Vocabulary questions first, then approach the Passage questions, since a single sentence is much less material to work with than an entire passage.
In the end, good test-taking involves not only content knowledge but also familiarity with test conditions. Honestly, it’s incredible how much your knowledge of the SAT’s peculiar features as a test – such as unique organization of section questions – can quickly help you improve your score.