Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

Autopilot – Don’t Set a Course for a Lower SAT Score

Karl Schellscheidt

free sat test videoMost good students cruise through their first SAT or the PSAT feeling pretty good about their performance. When they receive their scores, however, many are shocked and dismayed. Autopilot is probably what happened. Learn how to avoid losing altitude by understanding how to avoid careless errors on easy questions.

Autopilot: Don’t Set a Course for a Lower SAT Score (transcript)

Karl Schellscheidt: The topic I’d like to discuss is autopilot. Autopilot is not a good thing for the SATs. Autopilot is when a pilot reaches cruising altitude and puts the plane on cruise control autopilot and can have a cup of coffee or have a sandwich and relax momentarily. That is definitely not what you want to do when you’re taking the SATs. Let me tell you how I think autopilot works on the SATs:

I think what happens with a lot of kids is they’ll sort of get themselves into a groove. When they see a problem they think, “I can get this one. This is no problem. I’ve seen this kind of stuff before. This is the same stuff that I do in school and I get all amazing grades in school.” Let’s say they get this pretty simple algebra problem and they put themselves on autopilot. They know exactly how it’s solved, they’ve done it a million times, and so they just kind of cruise through the problem not being ultra-aware of what they’re doing. They wind up getting the answer at the end, let’s say it’s x=7 and answer choice A is 7. And the kid’s happy and they’re like, “This is perfect. Let me answer A and move on. I’ve got to keep cruising through this test.”

And so what they do is they answer A and they move on, but sometimes the answer is not actually A, 7. The answer is 49. Why is the answer 49? Because the question was “find x squared.” And so what happened to the student is they saw a question, they put themselves on autopilot because they’ve done this kind of question a million times in their algebra class, and the question always in the algebra class is “find x,” and so they found x. Sure enough, it’s going to be one of the answer choices, trust me on that one. And they forgot that the question on the real SATs is “find x squared” and they forgot to square the 7 to get 49; 49 was the correct answer.

The student who goes on autopilot during the SATs is typically a very good student in school. They take the PSAT or the SAT, they get out of there, and they feel pretty good. They get their score report a few weeks later and they are shocked at how low their score is. And for most of those kids it’s not an indicator that they’re dumb. It’s an indicator that they were on autopilot for way too many questions, where they just kind of went through the motions and they weren’t really thinking about the challenge of the test. They weren’t really thinking that, “There could be subtle tricks in here. There could be little things that would throw me off and if I don’t look for them I’m not going to see them.”

I’d also like to acknowledge that kids get tired. When you go through a four and a half hour exam, you are certainly going to be tired by the time you walk out the door at the end. So one of the things that I tell students to try to do to cope with that situation is that if you need a little break during an SAT section, take your break between number 7 and number 8. Don’t take your break during number 7 or during number 8. And I think you know what I mean when I say that.

Again, if you need a little break, if you need 10 seconds to just close your eyes and take a few deep breaths and take a chill pill and tell yourself it’s all going to be okay, do it after you’ve finished a problem. But once you begin a problem, you have to commit yourself to working through that problem as sharply as you can, throwing everything you have at it until you get to the final answer and then move on to the next one. And once you begin that next problem, commit yourself to working through without a break until you feel you’ve gotten the answer or you need to skip it and move on.

And so again, the SAT is no place for autopilot. I think you know what the concept is now. Keep it in mind and that will help you maximize your score.
Karl Schellscheidt

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