Think Outside the Bubble on the SAT and ACT

With the release of prep books targeted at the redesigned SAT, I've been taking a lot of practice tests lately. The first time I sat down to do a test, I had a funny moment: very early on in a section, I'd answered three questions in a row with the same letter, and I thought to myself, "Can that be right?" Then, I reminded myself that I wasn't just filling in bubbles but answering questions. I did a quick review of the questions, grounded myself in my answers, and kept moving. In all of the practice tests I've taken since then, I haven't thought twice about the bubble sheet. You shouldn't either.

When taking a test, you are answering questions. The answers to these questions have nothing to do with the patterns on your bubble sheet.

It's easy to get into your head about the questions, and it's just as easy to get into your head about the bubble sheet. Rather than considering the "patterns" among answers, you are better off attending to each question individually.

On the redesigned SAT and in some sections of the ACT, there are only four answer choices, so repeat answers will happen. In fact, there's a 6.25% probability that an answer will repeat three times in a row for any given three questions. When you consider that each SAT section is made up of as many as 50 sets of three consecutive questions, the probability that at some point in the section there will be a chain of three like answers skyrockets.

To give another example of weird-but-true bubble behavior, in an official ACT (the answer choices of which alternate between ABCD and FGHJ), there is a series that incorporates the answer pattern "HAHAHA" (in one of my student's words, "Is that some sort of joke?").

Situations like this are funny and strange, but not worth overthinking. Furthermore, there are innumerable bubble sheet patterns that could pique your suspicions: AAAA, ABAB, ABCDABCD, etc.

You don't want to play the pattern-hunting game. It will drive you crazy.

One way to prevent overthinking the pattern on your bubble sheet, while also maximizing efficiency and improving bubbling-accuracy, is to circle the answer choices in your test booklet and then bubble in all of the answers for the facing pages before turning to the next page. Be sure to double-check your bubbled-in answers against the ones you've circled in your answer book after completing your first pass through a section.


Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test. Using her unique "Test Prep for the Whole Person" approach, she works with students from across the country to reach their potential, in the test room and in life.