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You Can and Should Write in Your Test Booklet

October 20, 2020

Ever been told you cannot write in your test booklet?

If I had a dollar…

If I ever have the honor of teaching you in a College Prep Genius class, I can guarantee you this: I will ask you if you’ve ever been told you cannot write in your test booklet.

I can also guarantee that anywhere from a couple of hands to most of the class will shoot their hands up.

This one piece of erroneous advice is without doubt the culprit for countless lost points on these important tests. This is not a trivial issue and could prevent you from getting into the college of your dreams (or from even getting in at all) and it can stand in the way of you winning valuable scholarship money. This kind of misinformation can cause you to score low on SAT, ACT and other similar tests.

Let me set the record straight: Not only are you allowed to write in your booklet, I encourage it and it’s not just me. The test-makers encourage it too. (links below)

Think with your pencil

I use the phrase “Think with your pencil.” And here’s why. It’s far better to crystallize your thoughts on paper than solely working out problems in your head. Rather than sift through all the ideas that constantly come and go, you can clear your mind, clear the fog, gain some clarity and simply write your ideas, or working, down. This strategy is also referred to as brain-dumping. There’s a great benefit to it that I know you’ll appreciate: When you work out problems on paper, you release your mind to move on to the next question. 

These high-stakes, high-stress exams require you to answer questions in machine-gun rapidity. Noting things down as they occur to you will safeguard you from careless errors. Silly mistakes happen when your mind skips over something that could be instrumental in your understanding. In stressful exam conditions, you need to stack all the odds in your favor. Just note it down in your test booklet. Besides, nobody scores your graphite meanderings. 

How to think with your pencil

To simply read a paper is to use only one representational system of your brain—the visual system. There are several main learning systems and you will generally show a preference for one over the others: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Reading/Writing (which is a subset of Kinesthetic). The more systems you can engage in, the better the learning retention. In an exam situation, you can use this to your advantage by engaging Visual and Kinesthetic (and to a minor extent the Auditory system if you subvocalize when you read). 

In all sections of your paper, use your pencil to markup, circle or underline the important parts in the question itself. Where you have multiple choice questions, cross out the wrong responses as you encounter them, to reduce your options. There is only ever one correct answer. If there are two that are very similar (or ostensibly the same answer where you cannot tell the difference), then that usually means they are likely both wrong.

To use your pencil will keep you from zoning out, help you maintain your purposeful focus and aid in memory retention. Pencil your wisdom in the margins.

When you read purposefully with your pencil at-the-ready, you will avoid the need for multiple re-readings of the same material. 


You’ve used your pencil. Now let’s briefly mention its partner, the eraser. Nowhere is it more important to avoid stray pencil marks than on your bubble-in answer sheet. You could risk losing points. Keep anything outside of answers to your test booklets.

Process of elimination is key

An incredibly useful strategy in every part of your test (except maybe for the essay) is to physically cross off those answers that are definitely wrong, first, and as you encounter them. If you don’t set those answers aside, you will have to hold the workings and reasoning in your head in order to check your work. That’s a heck of a lot of potential clutter. Not only that, to have to read and reread wrong answers wastes precious time. If you ever go back to check answers and if wrong answers are marked, you can quickly revisit your process and not have to rework everything from the beginning. 

Resolve to resolve

What this mark-up strategy is invaluable for is avoiding something called “decision fatigue”. Once an answer is excluded, it can be dumped—and out of your awareness—for good. Otherwise your mind could be plagued by indecision and way too many options. “Resolve to resolve,” is what I like to say. Your mind will stay fresh, sharp and alert.

You should use the mark-up strategy for all parts of your test, Math, Reading, Writing and the Essay.

Easy does it

Mark-up is helpful to locate the “low-hanging fruit”—or the easy marks, through a process of elimination. Give questions a ten-second once over. If you don’t know how to answer it quickly and correctly, mark it and move on. Come back to it later. If you have the opportunity to take a few passes through the test, you’ll continually knock off the easiest questions first. 

A solid strategy

A very important strategy is to have a specific way for you to denote the difficult questions, the ones you need to go back and review if you have time. Make it unique. Maybe an asterisk. What I like to do is to draw an open circle. When I go back for review and I am satisfied I have the answer—and so I know not to revisit that question yet again—I fill in the circle to make it solid. 

Write notes to help you, not to explain your rationale. Your booklet gets discarded so don’t waste time showing your work.

Your annotation system means you can always be gainfully busy checking and improving your score.

Tips summarized:

  1. 1
    Identify the low-hanging fruit, the easy questions you can knock off.
  2. 2
    Use a process of elimination to identify fewer options as your final answer. Then work only on those.
  3. 3
    Mark those questions you cannot initially do quickly. Most people use an asterisk. I use an open circle that I fill in once I answer that question to my satisfaction.
  4. 4
    Go back and review questions unsure of or answered, until there is nothing more you can do, or you run out of time.

OK, so they are the overarching strategies for the whole test. Let’s look at solid tactics for the different sections. 

Prime your brain for the Reading passages

Seems crazy but don’t read the passages first. Read the questions. Underline the key words—especially comparative terms—in the questions before reading the passages. The questions will prime your brain to look for the right information on the first scan and detailed read of your passage. When answering your questions, you’ll be able to skip up to 75% of the passage. That’s a great timesaver. 

  • It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. Pick up your pencil, follow these steps and you will be successful.
  • Scan the passages. They appear intentionally banal. This will challenge your ability to stay focused and find the clues.
  • Mark the specific line references you find in the questions by circling or using chevrons (> and <) and the line number. You will need to revisit those lines.
  • Highlight important phrases and words. Be judicious. There is such a thing as too much highlighting.
  • Jot important concepts down in the margins.

The idea is to be able to go back and review the passage while you’re answering the questions, or to have the capacity to take up the same train of thought if, with free time, you return at the end to review your answers.

There are five types of questions: Passage, Citation, Vocabulary Use, Chart and Command of Evidence. At College Prep Genius, we teach you how crucial it is for you to label each question and then answer them in a specific order that will improve your efficiency and likelihood of success.


Math problems and pencils seem destined for each other. Remember however, that many of the questions don’t need full working out to find the right answers. Sometimes it will be as simple as eliminating the obviously wrong choices.

  • There will be times when you are not allowed to use your calculator and use of mental arithmetic is your only option. Don’t work out answers on a calculator if you don’t need to.
  • You may be given ‘scratch paper’ but the booklet can always act as one.
  • Note down formulas and acronyms at the top of your paper.
  • Keep focus and avoid mistakes by writing down even the simplest of things. Just as with the Reading section, if you have to go back to review a difficult question, you’ll be able to pick up where you left off. If you encounter a difficult problem, then some amount of working will help you review it later.
  • When you’re given a diagram, mark it up with all the data that you’re given within the question. Many drawings are often not to scale so proportions derived by your intuition won’t necessarily be correct. If a drawing is not scaled correctly, redraw it.
  • With Math, it’s a balance between fully working the solution on paper and recording just enough to be able to go back to eliminate the need to start again from scratch. If solving for an unknown, try substituting a number that is not 1 or 2 to test your approach.

There are a limited number of question-types you can and will be asked. At College Prep Genius you will learn how to approach each and every one of these. There are specific strategies that will see you power through by being quickly able to identify the type. Use your pencil to note what strategy you need to solve it. For example, when you note TRLTR it will remind you that besides underlining the relevant clues, you could use The Road Less Traveled Rule when you respond to a question about travelingThe last bullet-point is therefore:

  • Use your learned acronyms to set your mind straight on your path and knock off your answers with purpose.


In this section you also have very limited time per question. Without factoring in reading time, you have 36 seconds on the ACT and 47 seconds on the SAT. There simply is no way to finish on time. You need a system.

Rule number one is to always eliminate wrong answer choices. Often there are very long sentences and the subject and verb are hard to find so the best advice from CPG is to cross out prepositional phrases to help you find if they agree or not.

Here’s another hint: By marking one of the 13 recurring grammar problems, it is easier and quicker to find the correct answer. For example, if the underlined part of the passage contains the words, “not only” then circle it and find the answer choice that contains, “but also”. As you can see, there are rules you can learn to set you right.


You will handwrite your essay using the provided four lined, blank pages. Print your work or use cursive, but either way, just make it legible. You cannot use a mechanical pencil or write in ink or you will score a zero. A great strategy is to write your essay and on a second or third pass (when you’re checking it) resolve to devote a pass wholly to swapping out lazy or ordinary words. Erase selected words and pop in some smart-sounding synonyms.

While making notes is a great strategy, any stray marks anywhere in the test booklet will be marked. So, don’t write or doodle in the margins.

It’s worth remembering that the SAT essay is optional, but you will learn a reliable essay template at College Prep Genius to make it a shoe-in. You should always write the optional essay for many reasons (which is not the subject of this article). A planning page is provided for the SAT essay section. Mark that up in whatever way you like. Just rub out stray marks in your essay booklet for both tests.

What if someone at the test says you can’t mark your test booklet?

If you are in any doubt as to the permitted use of the test booklet, or you think others (such as the proctor) at the exam might be unsure, then be prepared. Download and print the official information found in the College Board tweet, and have it ready to present. The official College Board Student Guide notates several times: “Use the test booklet for scratch work.” You will also find information that states, “you will not receive credit for anything that you write in your test book.” 

Remember, mark-up your paper, cross out what you deem to be the wrong answers and transfer your chosen answers to the answer sheet.

It is worth knowing that detailed several times within the proctor’s test-administration document is that students can use the booklet, so feel free to reference that if it becomes necessary.

Something is awry if you’ve been asked to write your name on the cover of your booklet but told not to write inside. If for some reason, you are told not to, or were prevented from writing in your booklet and it affected your score, then call SAT or ACT immediately. At the very least, you could be offered a refund or a future free test. You can also contact fairtest.org.

What happens to your notes?

Once the SAT or ACT exam is finished, the booklet is thrown away. This is the only scratch paper supplied to you, so… Mark it up. Scribble. Annotate. Use it to your advantage. Jot down key information. Feel confident that your workings and notes will not be recorded or marked. You must, however, remember to transfer your answers so they can be counted.

International testing

If you happen to be taking the test in an international center, then know there may be an exception to the booklet writing rule. This is quite normal and has more to do with booklet availability. You can request to write in the booklet if you do so before you sit the test. Make sure you do. Not being able to write in the booklet puts you at great disadvantage.

A final word

Notes are not allowed at the test, so you need to be armed with strategies guaranteed to work. Don’t just show up and expect to prevail. Your abilities of logic and critical thinking are being put to the test. College Prep Genius teaches you ways to beat the tests and champion these essential skills. One way is to teach you our own clever acronyms. They will remind you of the strategy for every type of question you will encounter. You’ll learn and get practice using the strategies and tools we teach you. You will learn recommended order of question-type approach so you can maximize the time you have and the score you can achieve.

Bottom line is this: Where you have space on a test booklet to annotate math calculations; where you can make distinctions on any type of question to clarify your understanding; where you can mark-up answer choices to eliminate wrong options to leave you to declutter your mind; where you can organize your thoughts and expedite an efficient test experience to maximize the questions you can accomplish (and therefore improve your score); you should always make it your business to make marks and notes on your booklet. Thinking with your pencil, marking-up your booklet—is a strategy you must use for your test-success.

Wishing you all the best for your success!

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