Order of Operations

Order of Operations

If you’ve got to paint a fence, does it matter if you start on the left side or the right side? It’ll take the same amount of time to finish either way, so maybe not.

But standardized testing is different from painting fences, and you might be left wondering if there’s an optimal path through a standardized test. Does it matter in which order you choose to approach test content? As we’ll see, the answer is a resounding yes.

I’d like to set our discussion here in the context of the ACT reading section. At 35 minutes, it’s undeniably a quick section, and the fact that its passages are so cleanly divided up into 4 genres makes it all-the-better for our topic at hand. So why exactly does order matter here, when a fence could be painted either way? Let me list out some key points about the ACT reading that make it require a different approach:

  1. Standardized tests have a time limit, and anything not completed before that limit must be guessed.
  2. Students will have individual strengths and weaknesses, meaning certain types of questions or passages will be completed faster than others.
  3. Since time is a vital commodity on the ACT and SAT, it ought to be spent wisely… optimizing for the greatest amount of points earned per minute spent is an objectively more valuable use of your time.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Let’s illustrate it with an example. First, it’s good to know that the ACT reading features four passages, one of each of the following categories: Narrative fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Remember these, as they’ll be important in a bit. Next, I’d like to introduce you to Jane Doe, a high school student who positively despises narrative fiction but does great on the other topics. In fact, let’s say that Jane hates fiction so much that it would take her 30 minutes to work through that one passage, but each of the other passages would take Jane only 5 minutes apiece. We’re going to look at two separate paths for Jane. Path A will be working through the passages in the order 1, 2, 3, and then 4… the order they’re given on the test. Path B will be going 4, 3, 2, and then 1… the exact reverse.

Let’s begin with A. The 35:00 timer begins and Jane starts working. She begins with the fiction–which she hates–and so this passages takes Jane a full 30 minutes to complete. She has 5:00 remaining on the timer. She can use that time to work her way through the social science passage, which she wraps right as time runs out. She has answered 20 questions out of a total of 40.

Now let’s look at route B. Same student, same strengths, but we’ve reversed the order. A 35:00 timer begins as Jane starts working. After 5 minutes, she finishes the natural science. 5 minutes later, she finishes the humanities passage. 5 beyond that, she finishes the social science. She has spent 15 minutes, meaning a full 20 minutes remain for the fiction. That is 2/3 of the time she’d need for this passage, so she’ll get to see around 6 of the 10 questions on that passage before time runs out. She has answered 36 questions out of a total of 40.

Once again, to reiterate: both of those were featuring the same student with the same relative strengths… all we changed was the order, and suddenly Jane went from seeing 50% of the test’s questions to 90%. Significant, right? Now, of course, Jane’s case is exaggerated by design… no real student out there would need 6x the amount of time on one passage than would be needed for another. Regardless, the principle at work here in this extreme case applies in the more moderate cases. On any standardized test, start with what you find easiest, and postpone the slower/tougher stuff for last. Don’t think it more admirable to confront your fears early on… this isn’t a scenario where you’ve got to eat your vegetables before your dessert. If there’s any risk of time running out, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not focusing on the fast stuff.