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Unexpected Situations or Questions on Standardized Tests


Standardized Test Prep MS/HS/College Strategy


Flexible Thinking Verbal Reasoning Abstract Reasoning

Unexpected Situations or Questions on Standardized Tests

If your student is aiming for a score of 30+ on the ACT or 1400+ on the SAT.

Unfamiliar Problems

  1. While some questions will be straight-forward, others are intentionally tricky. Having strategies for those tricky questions can help you choose the best answer.
  2. If you see a problem and have no idea how to solve it, do not panic. Take a deep breath and remember you have planned for this. Helping yourself relax will help you think more clearly.
  3. Decide if you want to tackle the problem now or skip it and come back to it. If you really have NO IDEA about a problem, consider skipping it. Be sure to circle that problem on your answer sheet and the test booklet so you can come back to it. Often when you return to a problem later, you see it from a fresh perspective.
  4. When you decide to tackle the problem, give yourself a maximum time limit and then commit to moving on.
  5. Try to remember a problem you have done before that could be similar. What process did you do in that problem that you could apply to this one? Based on that, what type of answer would you be looking for? (i.e. positive number or negative number?) If a word is unfamiliar, have you seen the root of the word before? Try to draw similarities to something you do know and start from there. Restating the question in your own words can also help.
  6. Make your best guess and then move on so you have time for other problems.

How To Choose The Best Answer

  1. Avoid quickly selecting options A or B because it seems right. Test creators know some students jump to the first answer that looks right so they often put those best wrong answers first.
  2. If the question asks for the BEST answer you will need to consider all options before making a decision. If the question asks for the right answer, you do not need to consider all the answers once you are certain you have the right one.
  3. Cross out the answer letters you are sure are wrong as you narrow down your choices. If you cross out the answers, do this lightly so you can erase if necessary.
  4. After you choose your answer, if there was a second best option, mark it on the test booklet. If you have time to go back and check your work, you will not have to go over all the answers again but can reconsider from a smaller pool of options.
  5. If you used scrap paper, clearly label the question number so you can re-trace your work on the scrap paper if you have time to come back.

Learn When To Pause

  1. If you find that in practice tests you are surprised that you have incorrect answers, you might need to learn when to pause before solving.
  2. Use practice test questions to look for patterns in problems where you were certain you knew the answer and yet it was incorrect. You do not need to pause for every problem, but you will want to give yourself more time on these problems.
  3. When you encounter the problem type, read the question and underline the key words, including any phrases that tend to trip you up. Words like "least", "most", "best" tell you there will be more than one possible answer that could be correct, so these will often require more deliberation.
  4. Force yourself to stop and think about similarities and differences to practice problems: How is this like other problems? What is different? What am I certain of? Where am I uncertain? Would drawing a picture help?
  5. Review all the answers. This will slow you down so you do not jump to a solution. Use the answer choices to alert you to the types of answers you should consider.
  6. Solve the problem. After you solve, review all the answer options again before deciding on your best answer.

Prepare For The Unexpected

  1. Prepare and practice strategies on how to approach unfamiliar or unexpected problems. As you go through practice tests, create specific, step-by-step approaches. This includes having a strategy to know when you will skip a problem and come back to it so you do not spend too much time on any one problem.
  2. When you are practicing a section, mix up the order of problem types, the difficulty level of problems, and handling curve balls. As you grow more comfortable adjusting to uncertainty, you will become more efficient handling the unexpected challenges you might encounter on test day.
  3. Prepare for all the potential scenarios you might encounter on test day. While these scenarios might be low probability, be mentally prepared for exactly what you will do if an unfortunate situation arises.
  4. If you are still deciding which test, keep in mind that the ACT questions tend to be more straight-forward and predictable which can be more comfortable for students with weaker flexible thinking.