The Variable Section: Becoming an SAT Guinea Pig

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This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Emma Chomin at Veritas Prep.

You’re three hours into the SAT, and your energy is just about depleted. You’re reading a question about geometric solids for the third time and you keep checking out somewhere around “the figure below.” Now for some mildly frustrating news: If the section you’re working on is 25 minutes long, there’s about a 17 percent chance that you’re exerting all of that effort on a problem that will have absolutely no bearing on your score.

You might be working on the unscored “variable” section of the SAT (also called the “experimental” section). All you know about the section is that it’s 25 minutes long. It won’t be a second essay, but it could be a math, critical reading, or writing multiple-choice section.

“But wait!” you say. “I’ve taken official practice tests and scored them myself. I don’t remember any unscored sections!” If you’ve taken practice tests from the College Board’s “blue book” or the official practice tests provided with Veritas Prep’s SAT 2400 courses, you may have noticed that they contain nine sections each: the essay, two writing multiple-choice sections, three math sections, and three critical reading sections. You might also have noticed that the sections are numbered as though there are 10 of them and the test skips a number. For example, you might finish Section 5 and move on to Section 7. That’s because the practice tests are only simulating the scored portions of a genuine SAT. Yes, that means the real thing will take even longer to complete than the practice tests you’ve taken (3 hours, 45 minutes instead of the 3 hours, 20 minutes you’re used to).

Some people suggest “tricks” to figure out which is the experimental section so that a student can skip it completely, which, if successful, would give her a much-appreciated 25-minute “break” during the test and wouldn’t affect her score. Unfortunately, these tricks don’t work. There’s nothing you can do during the test to identify and avoid the experimental section. By the end of the test, you’ll be able to figure out which type of section it was. For example, if your test had four math sections, you’ll know that one of the three 25-minute math sections was experimental. But because each subject also has at least one scored 25-minute section, you won’t be able to tell when you’re working on the unscored section.

What’s the Point?

So why do you have to do 25 minutes’ worth of extra work that doesn’t even count? You’re acting as a test subject for future tests. The College Board wants to test questions for future versions of the SAT on a population that’s similar to the population that will take those future versions. This helps the creators of the test assess the difficulty of individual questions and sections, and identify questions that are poorly worded or unintentionally confusing. The College Board also looks at demographic data to ensure that any questions on which different gender or ethnic groups scored substantially differently aren’t included in a future test. Including an experimental section on official administrations of the SAT helps the College Board create a fairer test.

How to Use the Experimental Section to Your Advantage

There’s no getting around the experimental section, but the one thing you can change is your mindset. If you finish a particularly tough section and are feeling less than stellar about the rest of the test, take a deep breath and chalk it up to the experimental section. Before the next section, tell yourself: “Self, that weird, confusing critical reading passage might not have mattered anyway! I’ll still get an awesome score if I keep going.”

If you go into the rest of the test with that mindset, you’ll feel more motivated to keep plugging away and score as well as possible, rather than demoralized about a section that might’ve sapped your confidence.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? Take advantage of Veritas Prep’s free SAT resources including free SAT video lessons!

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