When I teach active reading for standardized tests, two types of students immediately stand out.
- Those who consider it a badge of honor to complete a standardized test without ever writing in their test booklet.
- Those who simply don’t know how to effectively write in their booklets and avoid doing so altogether.
This article is designed to give you concrete tips on how writing in your test booklet can work to your advantage and help you achieve your desired score.
Ideally, writing in your test booklet functions as a safeguard against making careless errors or silly mistakes. I can’t count how many times I’ve come across students who have missed out on easy points because they glossed over a key point. Part of your test strategy should be to engage with the test booklet as much as possible. No one is scoring your booklet, so use it to your advantage. Mark it up as much as you need to facilitate your process of getting as many correct answers as possible.
First and foremost, you should physically eliminate definitely wrong answer choices as you work through a standardized test. It will save you time and help you focus solely on the remaining answer choices. This applies to all sections of both the SAT and ACT. However, give extra attention to writing in your test booklet on the Math and Reading sections.
Why you should ALWAYS write on the Math section:
Sure, you can use a calculator for some of the questions, but on the SAT there’s an entire section in which you can’t use a calculator. Of course, you could use mental math for some of those problems, but isn’t it much more reassuring to calculate your answers in the space provided? That way, just in case a thought interrupts your process, you can return to what you’ve written on the page and get back on track.
Speaking of thoughts interrupting your process, here’s . . .
Why you should ALWAYS write on the Reading section:
Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced a lapse in concentration while reading one of the many SAT/ACT passages ✋ “The passage was boring…”, “The passage was too hard to understand…”, “The passage was…” — you get the point. Actively engaging with the passage can mitigate potential problems with your progress. Here’s how:
- UNDERLINE the topic of each paragraph (often the first sentence)
- *STAR* the main idea of the passage
- [Bracket] vocabulary in context words and any other important words
- Write brief notes (3-5 words) in the margins after each paragraph
Furthermore, you should underline key terms in the questions themselves, so you know what to focus on and where to look for clues in the passage. These strategies will minimize careless mistakes and keep you concentrated on the task at hand (even when the passage is about quantum astrophysics 😉).
Not writing in your test booklet can be a detriment to your success. Neither the SAT or the ACT allows you to use scratch paper, so mark up your booklets to your heart’s desire. Take ownership and do what you need to do to maximize your score.
Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."