Sunday, May 01, 2011

“Provide The Answer” vs. “Pick The Answer”

Understanding the essential difference between “Provide the answer” and “Pick the answer” tests – and the radical differences in preparation and approach that they require as a result – is critical to maximizing one’s performance on standardized tests like the SAT1/2, PSAT, and SSAT.

On “Provide the answer” tests (the vast majority of tests you’ve taken thus far in school):
  • your task is to provide the correct answers;
  • your focus should be on precision and thoroughness (accurate, complete answers);
  • hard questions are worth more points than easy ones;
  • 90% (or more) of your score depends on subject knowledge and 10% (or less) on test taking strategies;
  • you DO need to answer every question on the test to score well.
On “Pick the answer” tests (like the SAT1/2, PSAT, SSAT):
  • your task is to pick the right answers (i.e. fill in the right bubbles);
  • your focus should be on approximation and speed (general, fast answers);
  • hard questions are NOT worth more than easy ones;
  • 50% of your score depends on subject knowledge and 50% on test taking strategies;
  • you DO NOT need to answer every question on the test to score well (in fact, most students will score much higher by deliberately avoiding the most difficult questions).
Think about it ...

If you’re earning one point on every question, would you rather spend your time answering four very hard questions or eight easy ones (it will take roughly the same amount of time in each case)?

You’d earn twice as many points by skipping the four super-difficult questions (if necessary) in order to get the eight easy questions right, than you would by skipping the eight easy questions just to answer the four hard ones (even if you're able to answer all the difficult questions correctly – which is doubtful, at best)!

So ...

On standardized tests, get all the “easy points” on the scoreboard right away. Do the easy questions first, and skip the worst for last (or not at all). If you don’t get around to the really tough questions, you’ll still have earned the highest possible score you were capable of that day, without the risk of wasting valuable time and energy on impossibly difficult, unproductive questions.

And that, of course, is what it’s all about!

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UPDATE 6/1/19:

Most standardized tests calculate raw scores equal to the number of correct answers given. On these tests, it's important to answer EVERY question, even if you have to guess. However, most students should still avoid the hardest questions! The technique I recommend here is called "Skip Guessing:" Simply eliminate answers, if possible, and then quickly guess (I recommend the "Last Letter" strategy: after eliminating, choose the answer closet to the end). Whatever you do, be sure to answer every question; you'll get some of your guesses right, just by luck.

As of this update, some standardardized tests (e.g. the SSAT and SAT Subject Tests) still deduct a fraction of a point for each question answered incorrectly. On these tests, it's best to skip entirely (i.e. do NOT answer) any difficult questions on which you cannot confidently eliminate at least two out of five (or one out of four) answer choices.


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