Tips from an Irvine SAT and ACT Tutor: Common Problems


For the math/quantitative: The two most common problems I see with the math sections are wasting too much time on a few problems, and giving up on questions because they look unfamiliar. When you review your practice tests, are you running out of time? Were there some questions you never even got to look at? Or, do you find that some questions were much easier than you thought after you see the solutions? You might benefit from these tips – book your private Costa Mesa math tutor today.

First, if you aren’t finishing the whole math sections, you need to learn to prioritize. If you’re spending 5+ minutes on one question, you are likely wasting your time. There might be a much easier question that you know how to do later in the test, but you didn’t give yourself the time to get to it. If you are going to guess, you want to be speculating on the questions that you know you can’t solve, not just the one you never got a chance to look at. You should always be getting to the end of the whole section, even if that means skipping a lot of questions that you think are harder or will take too long.

The next tip is to have confidence in your math ability. Believe it or not, you very likely have learned every topic on the math/quantitative sections of these tests. Many of the questions are purposefully worded and structured in a way to confuse you. The test-makers are seeing if you can look at an atypical question and figure out how to apply your knowledge to solve it.

Making Things Click

Frequently, I’ll have students look at a math problem and say “oh, I never learned this.” Then, when we go over how to solve it, everything clicks and they realize that they had learned the necessary skills. Have confidence in yourself and remember that these tests are not using any outlandish or highly advanced mathematics.

For the reading/verbal: We’ll have three tips for these sections from three more common problems. The first common problem is running out of time. These are timed exams, and if you are a slow reader, that could be a huge problem in the reading sections. There are many strategies for students who run out of time that are dependent upon each individual’s skills. Here are some you can try: Finding passages that look simpler/more familiar and reading them first. It’s better to run out of time on the harder sections than to guess on easier ones.

Never read any passages, only skim them. If you are spending too much time reading, then you can’t afford to read it. Many of the questions will ask for details that will require you to go back to the passage anyway. Read only a couple sentences so you have the main idea, then go to the questions and head back to the passage to scan for any needed details.
Read the questions first. A common tip that some students find effective is to read the questions before the passage so that they know what to look for when they’re skimming. This can help you read faster if you have an idea of what details you can ignore.

Don’t Give Up

Aside from running out of time, another common problem is giving up on a passage before you even get to the questions. The topics of the essays, excerpts, and articles on these tests can be very unfamiliar. Whether it’s about some moment in history you’ve never learned, a scientific process with complicated names, or a work of art from a different place and different time – it is likely that you will encounter reading topics that you have never even heard of.

This is done on purpose. Like in the math section, the test-makers are seeing if you can use your knowledge to extract some meaning and answer questions about something that seems confusing. You don’t need to know anything about the topic, you just need to find the details and keywords to answer the questions.

This leads to the next problem, which is when students do use their prior knowledge. You may be reading a passage that you do know about and have opinions on. The final tip is to make sure that you are objective and literal: unless the question asks you to, don’t make assumptions about the author or the characters in a passage. Also, you must distance yourself and your opinions from what you are reading. You can only use what is written in the passage to answer the questions, and many times there will be answers that are seemingly obvious to you but are false based on the text you just read.

These are just a few of the many test-taking tips that can be valuable for standardized tests. Again, these tips are not relevant to everyone, but they may be useful to you. It is important to identify problems first before looking for solutions. If you aren’t confident in doing that yourself, it can usually be beneficial to seek out an expert to help you locate and solve your individual problems with the test.

Read part one here.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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