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Getting to 170 - tips and thoughts


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I was recently fortunate enough to score 170/170/6.0. Rather than set out some kind of plan, I’m going to go through some of the things I did and thought about before and on test day. Hopefully this helps those of you trying to get from the mid-160s to “perfect.”


Preparation – My preparation took about 2 weeks from start to finish. By far the most important part of that was taking practice exams. I did the Powerprep tests, the free Kaplan test and the free Manhattan test. I got 170Q in my Powerprep benchmark, and between 164 and 168 on all the other sections in the other tests, including Powerprep II two days before the real thing (if I remember correctly, 168Q and 166V). I also practiced vocabulary by printing out the 15 word lists at majortests, wrote down the words I didn’t immediately know on separate pieces of paper, and memorized those words over the course of a week. This ended up being pointless in terms of actual word knowledge on the exam, but was useful for getting in the right frame of mind as well as about thinking about synonyms and the underlying meaning of words. I didn’t do any formal essay preparation but during each practice test set up a full outline for each writing prompt (thesis, 3-4 supporting points with 1-2 examples each, conclusion). I also read through 15-20 prompts in the official question bank and mentally thought about how I might frame a response.


Key concepts for test day:


No surprises – There is no way to plan for every topic, vocabulary word, or eventuality. However, the free practice tests do a great job of hitting all the main points and reminding you of knowledge you may have lost over time. In the practice tests I made an error calculating the height of an equilateral triangle and had forgotten how to calculate a combination. By test day I had re-internalized square root of 3 as the height of the unit triangle and n!/k!(n-k)! and didn’t need to do any serious thinking about questions involving those concepts if/when they came up. Patterns also emerged about what kind of questions are asked in each reading comprehension section and what general ideas are important to think about when reading each passage.


After each practice test, don’t just analyze what you got wrong. Analyze what tripped you up, what surprised you, what confused you. Which questions did you get right but ate up a lot of time? What was it about those questions – the underlying concept or the way it was asked? Either one of those issues is fixable. Was it just really tricky? If so, that’s the kind of question you want to be able to dedicate extra time to on the test. This is not necessarily a time-consuming process, or even one that has to happen formally. But if you’re going to get a 170, you need to expend effort getting the answers right, not overcoming fundamental problems with the test’s structure or concepts.


Speed is more important than accuracy – You need both speed and accuracy to get a perfect score, but without speed, accuracy is pointless. It’s that simple. You should be familiar enough with the concepts (“no surprises”) to get some kind of proper answer down for each question in 60-90 seconds. Only after you have done that should you move into “accuracy mode.” You should have about 8-10 minutes on each section to go back and check your work. On the essays, get your thesis and supporting statements down immediately – within 2-3 minutes. Any more time than that spent conceptualizing your response is time you don’t spend actually responding.


The one exception to speed being more important than accuracy – reading the question. The one time you get to slow down (or rather, have to slow down) is while figuring out what they are asking you. On test day I read each question, painfully slowly, two or three times. Then after making my initial answer I re-read the question, again painfully slowly, before finalizing my answer and moving on to the next question. This is less a test-taking trick than a critical part of getting the right answer.


Corollary about timing – The verbal and quantitative sections are very different when it comes to pacing. All the math questions should be taking you about the same amount of time. Even if the concept is easy, the question needs to be precisely understood, calculations need to made, and those calculations need to be checked. My average time ranged from 1:25 (difficulty 2) to 1:45 (difficulty 5) in the math section. By contrast, I spent almost exactly twice as long on each reading comprehension question as the non-reading ones (~1 minute average for sentence completion and picking words vs 2+ for reading comprehension).


Get lucky – Hard work begets luck, but the fact is that every test taker has a range of possible outcomes on a given day. It’s often out of your control and not worth thinking about when you encounter a new concept or things otherwise go bad. At the same time, enjoy it when you get a set of questions that seems very easy. I work in politics and got a major reading comprehension passage about the Supreme Court. It was great. The more you know and the more you prepare, the more often that’s going to happen.


A clear head – Above all, if you want to get a 170, this is the most important thing for you to have on test day. I’m not really into meditation but I spent a good 60 seconds before each section with my eyes closed, trying to relax and clear my head. I wore earplugs to block out all outside noise. If you are ADD (like I am), turn on the hyperfocus. Treat the test like a game. It’s a game that’s winnable when you have no surprises, pace yourself properly, and get lucky.


I firmly believe that anyone who gets a 165+ on a practice test can get a 170. A lot of things need to go right, but many of those things are within your control. Good luck!

Edited by DC1020
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