Last Minute S.A.T. Strategy

03/12/2009 06:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

1.4-million high school students take it each year. Parents spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, preparing their offspring for it. It is the biggest boogeyman most teenagers will ever face. It's the S.A.T. test. The greatest number of high school juniors take the test in March, so they know if they need a retake in May, in anticipation of those college applications going out in the fall.

After all the preps and angst, it comes down to test day. Students must arrive at specified test sites by 7 am, not to re-emerge until as late as 1pm. Will all the preparation go out the window? Will a playbook of test-taking strategies prove worthless? What does a student really need to remember before filling in circles on that bubble sheet? I put that last question to a man who is paid to figure out the answer. His name is Ed Carroll and he analyzes tests for the Princeton Review, one of the biggest test prep companies in the U.S.(

"Write everything down," says Ed. The biggest mistake kids make when taking the test is not writing on the page, not crossing out bad answers, not underlining sentences in the reading, not working the math on paper, according to Ed. "They think by working things out in their head they'll save time, but they end up making more mistakes," declares the master test taker.

Don't rely on a calculator. Many students arm themselves with two calculators, fearful the first will conk out just as the math section starts. However, for the S.A.T. math questions, "a calculator is either irrelevant, only mildly relevant or only useful for the last step of the problem." advises Ed.

The reading answers are hidden in plain sight. You don't have to do any creative reasoning or extrapolation. The answers to each of the questions are contained within the reading passages. Look for them and you will find them.

Answer questions in order. With rare exception, the easiest ones are first and get progressively harder. Remember a student is only penalized for wrong answers and these are more likely to occur among the questions at the end of the section. Not finishing should be less of a concern than an incorrect answer.

Only use educated guessing. Don't guess if you haven't a clue which choice is correct. Do guess if you have eliminated several of the choices and can improve your odds to 50-50. Once again, remember you are penalized for a wrong answer, not for skipping a question.

Write a no-frills essay. "By far the biggest part of a student's essay score is based on the logic of their argument," asserts Ed. He says a student should just worry about three things on the essay: answering the question, using an organized structure, and presenting a logical argument with examples. Even if a student starts to write immediately, he or she has only 25 minutes total to craft the piece. The teachers who score are not looking for 5-dollar vocabulary words, perfect spelling and pinpoint accurate grammar. They are expecting the student to answer the question with basic essay organization and logic. It's a simple format state your position, support it with two or three examples and summarize your conclusion.

It's no time to start drinking coffee. Sometimes students who never had a sip before, decide on the morning of the test to load up on caffeine, usually in the form of coffee, sometimes energy drinks, to gain an edge. Such unaccustomed intake is more likely to make a student nervous and shaky than to sharpen acuity. "That's just stupid," groans Ed, "and the same goes for high doses of sugar."

This one's for parents. Make sure your kid gets to the test location well ahead of time and doesn't have to rush in and take a seat at the last-minute. Insist they go to bed at a reasonable time the night before, even if you have to take away the car keys. Give them a protein rich breakfast in the morning and a snack with some staying power to take with them. Then kiss them good luck and don't put any more pressure on them than they already have. It's too late anyway. The rest is in their hands.

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