One of the common questions I get is, “How do I stop making silly mistakes on the SAT?” and it usually comes from a frustrated or disappointed student whose score is being sabotaged by silly mistakes. Let me tell you that it’s okay to feel helpless; it’s natural and SAT isn’t a piece of cake so go easy on yourself!
Part of the problem is that students are looking for the wrong thing. When they ask me this question they expect me to hand them a pill that will cure this problem of theirs but that does not exist. This problem doesn’t leave you alone in an instant; it’s a long term approach of familiarizing yourself with the questions you get on the test and practice. I repeat, practice!
The first thing you have to realize is that most stupid mistakes aren’t a result of stupidity or carelessness. They’re a result of you not familiarizing enough with the various question types.
You think that stupid mistakes are just, well, stupid but that’s not the case. Even if you knew how to solve the questions that doesn’t mean you didn’t need more practice or that better preparation wouldn’t have helped. Remember that when you’re really good at something, it’s almost impossible that you mess up. When you deeply understand the concepts you’re being tested on, you know what to look for and what answers to avoid. This helps you avoid any ‘silly’ mistakes on test day because you develop a sixth sense when it comes to the questions. Mastery is the ultimate solution and the only way you can master SAT is by practicing. I cannot teach my students carefulness.
Other than practice, discipline is important as well. Make sure you focus on the material you’re learning instead solving practice exams while watching T.V thinking “Oh, its okay I’ll solve it properly on test day.” Let me assure you, you can’t just go through the motions during practice and then magically show up at your best on test day. How you do the practice tests are how you’ll do the real tests. Most students are unwilling to work through this period to develop habits that will help them on test day. They go through practice tests carelessly and don’t bother to read the questions more than once. This makes the actual test very hard for them to solve.
Before I go into the details of each section, let me give you a general overview of how to start. In the beginning, don’t worry about timing yourself. Just work on a single section at a time and focus on doing it the right way. Feel free to look up things as you go along, but don’t get distracted. All your attention should be on the test. There’s no point in calculating time when you don’t even know what to do.
Read the entire question even if it is long and boring.
Underline all the values given and all the questions asked
Write down short steps as to how you’ll solve the question. This will help you with a basic solving error for example using the wrong value at a certain step.
Draw neat and accurate diagrams so you understand the scenario that is being talked about in the question. This helps you know when you’ve misjudged the length of a side or a size of an angle.
After finding an answer, read the question again and check whether you’ve solved the right thing.
The SAT Math section has two types of questions: Grid-ins and MCQs (13 Grid-ins and 45 MCQs)
It is necessary that you carefully grid-in your answer. Sometimes students tend to grid the answer incorrectly in a hurry so make sure you’re careful. I suggest practicing gridding-in your answers in practice tests.
For MCQ type questions, make sure you evaluate all the options instead of just picking out the option that looks correct to you.
If being thorough means you run out of time then you need more practice. The SAT gives you enough time to complete the exam so practice to minimize time lost.
Officially, Collegeboard breaks down the math section in 4 categories:
19 Heart of Algebra questions (linear equations, systems of linear equations, and inequalities)
17 Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions (ratios, proportions, percentages, units, quantitative data, probabilities)
16 Passport to advanced math questions (equivalent algebraic expressions, quadratic equations, exponential functions, other nonlinear equations and functions)
6 Additional topics in Math questions (basic trigonometry, the geometry of area, volume, lines, angles, shapes)
It is absolutely essential that you practice all these topics thoroughly and have an in-depth understanding of every concept.
How you read a passage is the key to this section. I have a blog on how you should approach a passage. Write down short summaries alongside each paragraph while reading so you know what information each paragraph provides and minimum time is wasted trying to look for the answer.
Be thorough with all the options given to you. Know why the correct option is correct. Similarly, know why the other three options are incorrect. This may cost you a lot of time in the beginning but with ample practice, you will develop this habit and end up not only saving time but being sure that you’ve picked the right option. So when you’re 70% sure about the right choice at least you’ll be 100% sure about the wrong ones. Do this for all the questions, not just the hard ones.
Cross out the options that are “most wrong” and get them out of the way.
Try to answer the question in your head before going through the options. This is the single most common habit of students who have achieved high scores.
Try not to answer the questions based on what you remember from the passage. Go back to the lines that contain the answer for confirmation. Remember, everything is written in the passage. You must back your answer up with reasoning from the passage.
Read the passage carefully and do not skip lines thinking they aren’t useful.
There are certain question types when it comes to the Reading section of the SAT exam:
Be careful when you come across these words. In real life, these words ask for your opinion but in SAT they don’t. It’s actually a comprehension question that requires you to get back to the passage and read again. In these questions, the answer isn’t straightforward but there is plenty of evidence present.
2. Vocabulary in Context
These questions may seem simple to most students but they are actually tricky. Students tend to simply define the word and figure out what it means but they ignore the CONTEXT in which it has been used in the passage. You have to pick out a choice that links the word’s meaning to the context of the passage and how it’s been used.
3. Main Idea/ Purpose of the Passage
Usually, this question is the first to be asked and it asks about the purpose of the passage, the main idea, shifts in the passage and the narrative point of view. I suggest solving this question at the end because by then you’d have understood the theme of the passage well by thoroughly reading and answering questions related to it.
4. Charts and Graphs
The graphs and charts in this section are pretty straightforward as compared to the Math section. You just have to make sure you’re reading the values correctly and use your pencil in connecting the readings so you avoid error.
5. Paired Passages/Dual Passages
While solving these passages make sure not to jumble up ideas of both texts and instead, read one passage at a time and solve its respective questions before starting the second passage. Focus on the differences of the ideas mentioned because you’ll most likely be asked about the differences. However, highlight the similarities as well just in case you come across a question asking for them. If a question is about what is supported by both passages, make sure that you find specific support in both passages, and be wary of all the usual trap answers. When asked how the author of one passage would react to the other passage, find out what that specific author said on the topic being discussed in the other passage.
For every grammar question, make a habit of linking a grammar concept with the question so you don’t rely on your ear to check what sounds right. That invites a bunch of mistakes you don’t want to make. If your concept of grammar is well polished, you won’t have a problem making this a habit and answering the question correctly. Certain grammar rules, like punctuation usage, appear far more often than other rules. But because we're going for perfection, you'll need to know even the less-common rules.
In my test preparation at Tutoria, I thoroughly go through the following topics which are most frequently tested on the SAT:
Conventional Expression (aka idioms)
In SAT Writing, most questions have a NO CHANGE option. In Improving Sentences types, A is the answer choice that doesn't change the underlined section. The SAT loves tricking students using these answer choices, because it knows that students who don't know grammar rules won't see anything wrong with the sentence. NO CHANGE is a really easy answer to choose. Be very careful whenever you choose one of these NO CHANGE answer choices. Typically, these are correct answers around 25% of the time—not much more. If you find that you're choosing NO CHANGE 40% of the time, you're definitely not detecting grammar errors well enough.
Aside from grammar rules, the other major category of questions in SAT Writing is what we call “Rhetoric.” These questions concern how to make persuasive arguments and construct logical sentences, paragraphs, and essays. The Collegeboard also calls this "Expression of Ideas."
Unlike sentences with incorrect grammar, sentences in rhetoric questions don't usually have anything technically wrong with them. Instead, the SAT is testing you to find more effective ways to construct the sentence or passage. Here's a rundown of the types, from most common to least:
Ø Sentence Function
o "At this point, the writer is considering adding the following sentence...Should the writer make this addition here?"
o "Which choice most effectively combines the two sentences at the underlined portion?"
o These questions underline a key transition word in between sentences or phrases. You need to pick the transition that makes the most sense.
o Example: "This assertion is not supported by scientific research. For instance, one review published in..."
Ø Logical sequence
o "To make this paragraph most logical, sentence 2 should be placed..."
These questions require you to order the sentences to get the most logical flow.
o These questions underline a word or phrase and ask you to pick the best replacement for them. This is as close to a vocab test as the SAT gets.
o Example: "The reason for Siqueiros's secrecy became clear when the mural was confided." Answer choices: A) NO CHANGE, B) promulgated, C) imparted, D) unveiled.
o These questions are the only ones in SAT writing that deal with graphs and data. You're usually asked to make sense of figures in the context of the text.
o Note - if you don't consider yourself a math person, don't be scared - the graphs are never super complex. But you do need to be able to read graphs and charts quickly.
o "Which choice offers an accurate interpretation of the data in the chart?"
Ø Style and tone
o These questions deal with maintaining the tone of the article - if it's a professional science article, it shouldn't use words like "icky" or "okay."
o Example: "The writer wants to convey an attitude of ___. Which choice best accomplishes the goal?"
Even though questions of a single type look the same, they do vary significantly in difficulty. The difficulty depends on how subtle the answer choices are and the passage context.
Once again, in my prep session at Tutoria, I break down every single Rhetoric skill and have hundreds of practice questions to drill them to perfection.
By now, you should have a good idea of what you need to do to stop making stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes reflect your preparation as a whole. If you know the concepts and you know how to tackle each question, the answers come quicker and you have more time to be thorough. If you’re unprepared, uncertainty inevitably creeps in and so too do the careless mistakes.
Remember that nothing will happen overnight and significant improvement will come with time and thorough study sessions.
While preparing for SAT, I wanted to pull my hair out especially when I didn’t see results. Sometimes, my score would drop from one practice test to the next. I’ve been through what you are right now and I’m here to tell you that it’s worth it. The hard work and all nighters are all worth it, just hang in there! It’ll all be over soon. :)