Standardized Test Prep: The Importance of Stealing Time

Posted by Mac Staben on 9/25/13, 9:08 AM


Let Zen Frog be your spirit guide, and he will lead you to SAT nirvana. 

To keep the SAT (or any standardized test) from turning into a competition over who has the largest bladder capacity, the College Board allows a certain number of breaks for students to stand up, walk around, and grab a snack to keep them going during the four-hour testing extravaganza of the SAT. At Cambridge Coaching, we believe that taking advantage of those opportunities by exercising, eating, and relaxing is nearly as crucial to a good SAT score as is memorizing the difference between an adverb and an adjective.

Judiciously using the break periods to relax or do jumping jacks definitely refreshes students and restores mental and physical energy.  But relaxation during the SAT need not be limited to those official breaks.

Carving out tiny 15-20 second chunks of time in the middle of a test clears the head and lets students face the next block of questions with as much vigor as they attacked the first.

I first realized how much fatigue harmed performance while tutoring a student on the SAT math section. On this section, questions get progressively harder from the first to the last (unlike the Critical Reading section). She aced questions from the middle of the test when she saw them individually, but when she tried problems of the same (or even easier) difficulty immediately after she had just done 10 questions, she made mistakes that cost her points she deserved. Together, we planned a strategy for taking breaks at key points to regroup. Almost immediately, she started getting those moderate-difficulty questions she had missed before right. Since then, I’ve refined this strategy.

Test-takers should find convenient points (problems 8,12, and 16 on the math, between the vocab and passages, and between long passages on the English, and after each format change on the writing) and use these natural break points to relax.

I ask my students to put down their pencil, sit back in their chair, and close their eyes. Then, they breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth four or five times before picking up the pencil and starting the test again. A break like this takes only about 20 seconds and helps

The SAT (like college and, well, life) fatigues students and everyone needs to know how to steal a few seconds when possible to maintain performance. The brain can’t do anything for a long time, so choose break points. I’ve highlighted a few places that seem suited students I’ve worked with, but feel free to choose your own. Sitting back and breathing doesn’t take too much time and most students suffer more from silly mistakes than time limits. From my experience, students who have trouble finishing spend too much time on a couple difficult questions because their mind wanders. You're not wasting time, you're stealing time. And stealing time from the SAT helps fight daydreaming and maximizes your efficiency.

stealing time

Just remember this movie (it's easy to remember because no one's ever heard of it). 

The point is this: work smarter, not harder, on the SAT, and you will stop missing questions simply just because they come near the end of a section.


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Tags: study skills, SAT, high school