Students ask this all the time – they’ve heard that the scoring penalizes us for getting a lot of questions wrong in a row.
That’s true, to some extent – there is something of a “penalty” built in if we get 4+ questions wrong in a row. The test writers don’t want us to spend, for example, 65 minutes doing the first 2/3 of the questions really carefully (in hopes of boosting our score very high) and then blowing the remaining questions. They prioritize steady performance over the length of the entire test, so they’ve built safeguards into the algorithm to ensure that we can’t “game” the test, essentially.
So… how do I avoid getting a bunch of questions wrong in a row?
Here’s the thing. You can’t avoid that – not in the way that you mean.
The only real way to avoid getting a bunch of questions wrong in a row is to make sure you don’t mess up your timing so badly that you get other questions wrong just because you’re rushing.
But that’s not what people mean when they ask me about this. Instead, they mean something like, “I’m pretty sure I got the last two wrong – I just outright guessed on the last one. Now, how do I make sure I get the next one right?”
You can’t. You can never “make sure” that you get any particular question right. If you could… well, then you wouldn’t need any help, right? : ) Nobody on the planet, not even the best test takers, can guarantee that they’re going to answer any particular question correctly.
So what do I do when I know I’ve just gotten a couple of questions wrong?
You’re going to hate my answer. You ignore it. You don’t even think about it in the first place.
You hate that answer because you feel like you have no control – and you’re right, we can’t control this at all. That’s why we shouldn’t waste a single second thinking about this. Don’t even track whether you think you’re getting something right or wrong in the first place. You try the question in front of you for some reasonable amount of time. If you just can’t do it in the expected timeframe, then you find a way to make a guess and move on. Spending more time on a question that’s too hard results in wasted time with no benefit – and, probably, other questions wrong elsewhere because you’ve used up precious time on something you’re likely going to answer incorrectly anyway.
This sentence gets its own paragraph because it’s so important: spending more time (above the rough average) does not actually increase the chances that you’ll get something right!
But then how do I get better?
Expect that you are not going to be able to answer everything.
Know how to make an educated guess wherever possible.
Acknowledge when a problem just isn’t going your way and, when needed, make a random guess without wasting a single second longer.
Change your response to the thought, “I have to get this one right.” Have you already read this other article, But I Should Know How To Do This? If so, then you’ll remember that we talk about changing your response to the “but!” feeling. (If not, go read it right now.)
The same thing applies here – I’m not telling you that you can’t think, “Oh, I need to get this one right!” You may find yourself thinking that. But when you do, change your reaction. Instead of spending extra time and stressing yourself out, tell yourself, “There’s nothing I can do to guarantee anything. If I keep going down this path, my score is going to go down. If I can do this one, great. If not, I’ll guess without losing time on it and move on.”
By the way…
I want to tell you something that I’ve observed hundreds, if not thousands, of times when reviewing practice test score reports. A student spends some extra time on 2-3 decently hard questions in a row. The best case scenario occurs: she actually gets 2 or maybe even all 3 right. She’s not sure she did, though – she thinks she probably got 2 or all 3 wrong.
Then, she starts getting some even harder questions (since she did perform well on those earlier ones), and she spends even more extra time, both because she thinks she got the earlier ones wrong and because these new questions are approaching the stratosphere.
At this point, she is significantly behind on time and she’s in danger of blowing the entire section (or maybe it’s already too late). And note that this is the best-case scenario, because she answered those earlier questions correctly!
Key Takeaways for the “I have to get this one right!” feeling
(1) You can’t “make sure” that you answer any particular question correctly. If you know how to do it, great. Be systematic and try to avoid traps and careless mistakes. If you don’t, there’s nothing you can do.
(2) Wait, that’s not totally true! Here’s what you can do: make sure that you don’t lose time on this problem that you can’t do. Make sure that you don’t stress yourself out thinking that you “should” have gotten that one right. Either reaction will affect you later in the section and might cause your score to go down. Just guess and move on.