How Do I Make Sure I Don’t Get More Than (2, 3, 4) Questions Wrong in a Row?

by , Mar 4, 2013

Students ask this all the time theyve heard that the scoring penalizes us for getting a lot of questions wrong in a row.

Thats true, to some extent there is something of a penalty built in if we get 4+ questions wrong in a row. The test writers dont 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 theyve built safeguards into the algorithm to ensure that we cant game the test, essentially.

So how do I avoid getting a bunch of questions wrong in a row?

Heres the thing. You cant 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 dont mess up your timing so badly that you get other questions wrong just because youre rushing.

But thats not what people mean when they ask me about this. Instead, they mean something like, Im 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 cant. You can never make sure that you get any particular question right. If you could well, then you wouldnt need any help, right? :) Nobody on the planet, not even the best test takers, can guarantee that theyre going to answer any particular question correctly.

So what do I do when I know Ive just gotten a couple of questions wrong?

Youre going to hate my answer. You ignore it. You dont even think about it in the first place.

You hate that answer because you feel like you have no control and youre right, we cant control this at all. Thats why we shouldnt waste a single second thinking about this. Dont even track whether you think youre 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 cant do it in the expected timeframe, then you find a way to make a guess and move on. Spending more time on a question thats too hard results in wasted time with no benefit and, probably, other questions wrong elsewhere because youve used up precious time on something youre likely going to answer incorrectly anyway.

This sentence gets its own paragraph because its so important: spending more time (above the rough average) does not actually increase the chances that youll 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 isnt 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 youll remember that we talk about changing your response to the but! feeling. (If not, go read it right now.)

The same thing applies here Im not telling you that you cant 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, Theres 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, Ill guess without losing time on it and move on.

By the way

I want to tell you something that Ive 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. Shes 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 shes in danger of blowing the entire section (or maybe its 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 cant 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 dont, theres nothing you can do to get it right. All you can do is make sure that you don't blow too much time or get too stressed out (which might then cause you to get other problems wrong as well).

(2) Wait, thats not totally true! Heres what you can do: make sure that you dont lose time on this problem that you cant do. Make sure that you dont 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.