I recently received a question from one of my students that I believe highlights a very common mistake: "I find that on some sections I finish early and close the section ahead of time – does this mean I'm doing well on those sections?" Here, I'll break down why this sometimes happens, and what it means for you.
Isn't Getting Done First a Great Thing?
Many students are used to high school exams where the genius in the class finishes ahead of time and hands in the test early. These students then get the idea that handing in the test early is a sign of genius, and strive for the same on the ACT / SAT. But it turns out that closing a section early is almost always a huge mistake on the ACT / SAT due to time management. Read on to find out why.
Why Finishing Early is a Huge Mistake
The SAT / ACT are time-pressure tests. This means the creators of the tests on purpose give you much less time than you need to feel no time pressure on the tests. Few, if any, students are smart enough to really finish early. I personally received perfect scores on the SAT and know dozens of classmates who got perfect ACT / SAT scores, some of who are genius mathematicians, and none of these people ever finished early.
Time is gold on the test, and you can always convert time to a higher expected score on these tests (I'll show you how). If you accept this, then it's obvious you shouldn't be handing in the test early: are you getting a perfect score in that section you're handing in early? If not, why aren't you using the techniques below to convert that extra time to a higher score?
How to Convert Time To Score
Okay, you're handing in your math section early, yet you're far from getting a 800. How do you convert that extra time into a higher score?
Strategy #1: Have pacing checkpoints. Finishing early should never take you by surprise. You should be glancing at your watch every 5 minutes, and seeing whether you're "too ahead" or "too behind" in your section. Finishing early means you're "too ahead" – you'll realize this halfway through the section. In this case, slow down on the problems. Employ strategies that trade off time for points: read each question twice, write more neatly, think more about each question, double check your answer. This class of strategies "burns" your free time and harnesses it into extra points!
Strategy #2: Double check each problem. Okay, say you employed the strategy above, and still have a few minutes left at the end. What do you do? Go back and check your problems. I don't mean glancing at them and mechanically saying to yourself "okay, yeah, that was right," but actually redoing the problem a different way. A very helpful trick is to actually mark "questionable problems" with a star while you're doing the test the first time around. Questionable problems are those you aren't sure about but don't want to waste time on the first time through. When you have time the second time around, go to the starred problems first. Oh, and what do you do if you finish a second check? Hand it in early? Nope, check it a third time. Take it from me – there are countless times I've found one serious mistake on a second or third check-through. That's 20-40 points right there, on a single section!
To conclude, never hand in your test early. Manage your time during the first run-through so you never have too much time in the end. If you still end with too much time, check it over again!
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Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.