In World War I, French doctors had to come up with a new system to deal with the unprecedented numbers of casualties that resulted from the ceaseless stutter of machine guns and explosion of shells characterizing trench warfare. Working in aid stations behind the lines, they divided the battlefield wounded into three categories:
- Those likely to live, regardless of the care they received
- Those likely to die, regardless of the care they received
- Those for whom immediate care might mean life instead of death
They called this system “triage,” which came from the French verb trier: to separate, sort and select. Facing thousands of wounded and having very little time to do their jobs, the doctors concentrated their life-saving efforts on the men in the third category, leaving those in the second to die. It was a cruel system resulting from a cruel war.
Although an admittance test such as the SAT or the GRE can’t really be compared to war, you can learn a lot from war’s necessities. When you sit down with your test booklet or face your computer screen, you’ll have too little time to deal with too many questions. You’re going to need to sort the questions into three categories:
- Those you can do in a breeze and almost certainly get right
- Those that will probably stump you no matter how much time you spend on them
- Those that you will probably solve if you take a little more time
Test prep triage will require you actually to spend most of your time on questions in the first category. Even the easiest math problems won’t solve themselves. If you try to rush through them, you’re very likely to make a careless mistake and turn a sure survivor into a wrong answer. Missing questions you should have gotten right is not only heartbreaking, it’s the surest way to blow your score.
You’ll need to devote the rest of your effort to the questions in the third category. Based on an accurate assessment of your strengths and the results of practice tests, you’re going to have to decide, and decide quickly, which ones these are. If you pace yourself properly and keep your nerve, you’ll probably get these more difficult questions right.
How about the questions in the second category? How much time should you spend on them? The answer is: zero time – not even an extra three seconds. Taking time away from the questions in categories #1 and #3 is like giving precious and very limited blood plasma to the mortally wounded – and if you do that, you’ll really blow your score. Even though it might distress you to do so, you have to let these questions “die.”
Some people have a very hard time with that. A while ago, I had a returning student, John, who needed to score a 700 on the math section of the GRE in order to be admitted to engineering school. On the GRE, the more questions you answer correctly, the harder the questions get – and vice-versa. That’s called a CAT, or a Computer Adaptive Test. Supposedly, in the questions the computer chooses for you, it adapts the test to your level of ability. What it really means, though, is that you have to adapt to the computer. You can’t go back to answer skipped questions. And so with each question that pops up on the screen, you have to ask yourself: can I do this? And if I can, how much time will it take? On the math section, you’ll have an average of about 96 seconds for each question. If you feel compelled to take significantly more time than that – perhaps as much as two or three minutes – you’ll be robbing yourself of precious time that you’ll need for the later (and perhaps more solvable) problems.
John, a bright and a highly motivated executive in a big corporation – and something of a perfectionist – did feel compelled to take too much time answering the most difficult problems. He doesn’t like to give up, and he found it very hard to click past the problems that he felt he might be able to do. He spent way too much time on them. He wound up doing the worst thing possible on this kind of test: he ran out of time and didn’t finish, leaving potentially easier problems unanswered. He never even got the chance to see what they would be. And so he bombed the test (by his standards), scoring a 620.
Now, John is nothing if not tenacious and adaptable. We talked about his test. I told him that he needed to take it again, and he did. The second time around, he paced himself impeccably. He didn’t need to skip many questions, as he had worked very hard to master the material and is really very bright. On this attempt, he even finished with a little time to spare. At the end of the test, the computer instantly flashed out his score: a 780. He could hardly believe that, and he waited until he received official notice from the Educational Testing Service before telling me the great news. In one of the ironies of employing the best test-taking techniques, by giving up a little of his perfectionism, John racked up a nearly perfect result.
You can’t always do this well on these difficult tests. But you can, and should, discipline yourself to practice test prep triage and to carefully manage your time if you want to achieve your highest possible score.