Ellen’s Choice: Applying my rules of Effective Time Management to the SAT, Part 3: Mix and Match!

Ellen’s Rules For Effective Time Management, Part 3

5. Mix up your subjects.

Spending all day working on the same project can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Mixing up your subjects helps the brain to stay engaged, since it can’t fall into the trance of working on the same thing for hours. If you’re writing a paper and starting to feel annoyed or frustrated with it, take a break and work on your math for a bit. You’ll sit back down to the computer feeling refreshed and relaxed, even if you haven’t stopped for more than fifteen minutes at a time all day.

6. Make the delineations between subjects clear and firm.

When mixing up your subjects, keep them distinct and separate from each other. Take a short break between subjects, or place the rest of your notebooks on the other side of the room so that you’re forced to get up and move around in order to change subjects. Give your brain several minutes to clear and reorganize for the next subject before you dive back in.

The same goes for organization—if you’ve got six subjects all sharing the same notebook, use dividers or get a five-subject spiral notebook to keep them all separate. If you use a three-ring binder, be very picky about where you put your notes. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to sort through your notes and handouts, punch holes in anything that needs it, and arrange them in the correct places in your binder. Keep everything you need for a certain subject in one place. It’ll only take a few minutes per day, but you’ll be rewarded with a much more manageable notebook and far less time spent sifting through loose-leaf paper looking for the prompt for your essay or that one sheet of notes about summations.


These rules apply to the SAT too, though they now apply differently since the SAT’s 2016 Redesign. Before the redesign, the SAT was comprised of nine short sections that alternated subjects between math, verbal, and writing. That format synched up nicely with rule #5, keeping you on your toes by shifting subjects frequently. Not so with the new SAT. Now it more closely resembles the ACT, with one longer section for each subject. So you can’t really mix up your subjects in the same way, rather, you should be practicing staying focused for a solid hour of question-answering on a given subject.

Rule 6 still applies, though, because you will still need the ability to switch subjects quickly. Generally you are given between 2 and 5 minutes’ break in between sections on the SAT, and you’re often not allowed to leave the testing room during that time. So it becomes extremely important to learn to clear your mind quickly and reset for the next subject. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, whatever you feel you need to do to let go of the previous section and recenter your mind for the next one. If you can, get up and walk around the testing room (or out in the hall if you’re allowed) for a minute or two; shaking the kinks out of your body helps to clear your mind. Try a quick observation exercise – see how much you can see, hear, smell, or feel about your surroundings. Opening up your awareness will help to get you out of the test for a moment. Try not to get too distracted, though – you’ll want to rest your mind while you can and prepare for the next section.

Stay tuned for part 4: Procrastination Sucks!

Ellen’s Choice: Applying my Rules for Effective Time Management to the SAT, part 2: Break Time!

Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 2

3. Know when it’s time to take breaks.
Spending a good chunk of time on one subject is good; it helps you settle into a rhythm and lets your brain get into the correct frame of reference for the subject. But there exists a horizon beyond which no progress can or will be made. It’s the point at which your brain has become over-saturated with the current material, and if you continue on you’ll just end up working yourself into circles of frustration. In paper writing, it’s the point at which anything you wrote would make sense to you regardless because you’ve been reading the same few paragraphs to yourself for hours. In math, it’s the point at which you will just end up confusing yourself more and more as you try desperately to work it out. When that moment arrives, you know it’s time to take your break.

I don’t care how much work you have, there’s always enough time for a fifteen-minute break. The trick is making sure that that fifteen minutes doesn’t turn into two hours. Stick to your schedule, take your breaks when you need them (and take one every couple of hours even if you don’t think you need one), and you’ll stay refreshed and energized much longer.
And on those days when you’re fortunate enough to have plenty of time to finish something, take advantage of the time to take more breaks. Feeling confused about that one paragraph in your paper you can’t seem to get right? Stop writing and go take a walk. Let your mind forget completely about your paper for an hour or so. Then come back and you’ll have a much better idea of how to progress. Sometimes, especially with paper-writing, you just have to give it time to process.

Once again, these rules apply to studying for standardized tests just as much as any other subject, but with a slight twist. My rule of thumb for studying for a standardized test is to simulate test conditions as much as possible as often as possible during the studying process. For a standardized test, this often means timed drills. Before the big SAT redesign of this past year, the SAT was comprised of nine sections averaging 30 minutes each, which meant practicing staying focused for 30 minutes and then quickly switching subjects. After the redesign, though, it works much more like the ACT, with fewer sections that are much longer, keeping each subject confined to one section. Now, the strategy is to practice maintaining concentration for an hour at a time. Take the first of the two points above. That horizon beyond which no progress can be made? We want to train that horizon to happen after the section is over, not in the middle of it. So practicing with a timer, noticing when your personal point of no return is, and adding just a few problems each successive time can help to extend your concentration past the end of the section, when it’s okay to stop thinking about it.

The second of those two points is important as well, though once again, on test day you don’t get to choose when you take breaks. You’ll be given a short break, possibly two, between sections at a predetermined time in the test. Training yourself to shrug off the previous section and start the new one with fresh eyes is important, because strictly speaking you’d want to take more breaks than the test allows you. Learn to give yourself a tiny break, even if it’s just five seconds with your eyes closed, to help re-center in between sections on the test. Even within a given section – if you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t struggle with finishing in time, that gives you more time to take mini-breaks. Take a moment between passes through the section or after a particularly daunting problem to shake it from your mind. No use dwelling on question 13 when there’s 45 more of them and you won’t get any new information from mulling it over and over.

Stay tuned for part 3: Mix and Match!

Ellen’s Choice: Applying my Rules for Time Management to the SAT

Way back in 2010, one of my first blog post series on WyzAnt took the form of a five-part series on rules for effective time management.  For the next few Ellen’s Choices, I’ve decided to go back through these rules and apply them to the world of preparing for the SAT (or any standardized test).

So let’s begin with Part 1: All-Nighters Are Evil

Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management

1. Never pull an all-nighter.
2. NEVER pull an all-nighter!

Seriously! I mean it. All-nighters are downright useless. Besides the fact that this concept breaks almost all of my other rules for effective time management in one go, all-nighters cause fatigue, stress you out, and just end up producing sub-par work. You can’t write well when you’re tired, and staying up all night studying just means you’ll be yawning all the way through the test the next day. If you haven’t learned the information on the test by the night before, you’re not going to learn it in one fatigue-inducing night of sleep-deprived cramming. If your paper isn’t written by the night before, then it’s not going to be a good paper, regardless of how late you stay up to finish it. Moreover, even if you do manage to retain something, depriving your brain of the rest and reorganization that sleep provides means it will be that much harder to recall it during the test when you need to. Bottom line is, your brain works best when it’s well-rested, so don’t deprive it of the one thing it needs to help you succeed.

This rule works well for prepping for any standardized test. Many times I’ve had a student come to me saying, “I’m taking the test next weekend and I just realized I need help!” Unfortunately, standardized tests don’t function like regular school tests, and just knowing the material covered won’t necessarily get you the score you’re looking for. To really do well on a test like the SAT, you need to know how to take the test itself – strategies and tricks for pacing yourself and figuring out the desired answer even when you don’t know the material in question. And to get used to those strategies and tricks, you need to practice. Prepping for the SAT involves leaving yourself enough time to practice taking the test repeatedly, so that you can analyze your performance and figure out where to focus your efforts to increase your score. If you haven’t gotten to your target score by the night before your test date, cramming won’t change that. In fact, most SAT prep books mention this specifically, recommending that you take the night before the test to rest and refresh yourself with something you enjoy – go see a movie with friends, have a nice dinner out, read a good book. Just don’t stay up too late; you need to get a good night’s sleep before your early test date the next morning!

Stay tuned for Part 2: Take Breaks!

Extra Exposure on WyzAnt!

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled weekly posting for a special update!

A few weeks ago I was asked by the WyzAnt team to write a pair of articles offering an overview of the SAT Writing section and the SAT Essay. Those articles have just gone live on WyzAnt’s “Lessons” page! You can check them out at the links below:

SAT Writing Overview
SAT Essay In-Depth

The articles have a byline linking to my profile page on the site, so it’s great exposure for drawing new students to me. If you’re here, you don’t really need to use WyzAnt – you can just contact me directly at the email in the sidebar. But it’s still a great chance for you to experience a taste of my teaching style, so enjoy!