By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge.
In childhood we were taught that slow and steady wins the race. But is that always true? Imagine this: You are in a restaurant poring over the menu. You think you want a burger, but then you are given time to consider. You hem and haw … and end up with a Cobb salad that you didn’t want.
It’s been drummed into our heads that taking your time will always trump flashing a quick hand. After all, the tortoise beats the hare, right? We were taught to take as much time as we can for a test, carefully consider each question, and budget time to go back and check the answers.
But the truth is that taking your time can sometimes hurt you. It can lead to second guessing, which is a real phenomenon that causes some nervous test takers to choose the wrong answer after initially choosing the correct one.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell calls this phenomenon “analysis paralysis.” In his best-selling book Blink he demonstrates how spontaneous decisions are often better than carefully planned and considered ones. The ability to assess information quickly is a technique he calls “thin-slicing”—and he postulates that the primary instinct is usually the correct one.
But don’t just take his word for it. The College Board—the governing body for the SAT—published a study “The Impact of Extended Time on SAT® Test Performance,” in which the authors report that providing additional time offered “little or no advantage to low-ability students” and that “too much [time] may be detrimental.”
So, full speed ahead?
Slow down there, buddy!
Many critics complain that the timed element of the SATs (for example) are unnecessary, unfair and simply a function of convenience for The College Board. And they feel that this benefits those who have a particular ability for alacrity and is unfairly biased against those who might still reach the correct conclusion, albeit at a slightly delayed pace.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing discusses why standardized tests present bias, and the role timing plays in this. Howard Gardener, professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard, also speaks out about this timing discussion, saying that timing tests “speed and glibness” rather than actual scholarship. In their view, tests should be untimed in order to benefit students who work at a slow and methodical pace.
Does it even matter?
However, results of a number of studies on the effect of timing and speed on test-taking point to the fact that timing does not much affect individual results across the spectrum of those who are speedy or slow.
In 1997, while looking at the difference between timed GRE essay tests, Donald E. Powers and Mary E. Fowles looked closely at this subject and found that there was no appreciable difference in comparative tests: “These studies have typically shown very high correlations between performance on more speeded and less speeded versions of a test. Allowing more time normally results in better performance for everyone, but usually no particular subgroup benefits disproportionately from additional time.” The paper goes on to say that those who claimed to be slow test takers and those who identified as “fast” did not demonstrate much variance in scoring no matter how much or how little time they were given.
So what should I do?
Whether you identify as a fast or slow test taker, the answer is the same: Study, and study hard.
Let’s revisit Gladwell and his concept of “thin slicing.” One thing that he notes here is that in order to make the best spontaneous decisions, it’s important to have expertise—that is to build unconscious intelligence. Expertise makes it possible to develop unconscious intelligence to the point where the answers you choose instinctually are also the correct ones.
Go over practice tests, budget your time and learn the pattern of testing. Studying properly and over a protracted period of time will mean that you will not have to worry as much about timing. If you are prepared, then you will be able to take the test at a leisurely pace and not have to concern yourself with whether you are moving too fast or too slow. The scholarship is as much in the preparation as anything. Be ready and you will always win the race.
About the Author
Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s and EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.