Online SAT and ACT Tutoring Tips: Handwriting and Filling in Bubbles

When you take the SAT or ACT, you will be taking a pencil and paper test.  This means that you will be scored based on marks that you are making with a pencil – marks that are often made in a rush or that are sloppily erased.  On top of this, there is an essay component that will rely on your handwritten paragraphs (sign up for your online ACT and SAT tutor today).

Because of this, students are often concerned with how they are filling in answer options and how neatly they are writing.  This should not be a factor in a standardized test; you should be graded on how well you can correctly answer questions, analyze information, and compose arguments – not on how effectively you can color in bubbles.

Luckily, these standardized tests have been well optimized over the years in how they are graded.  Errors on multiple-choice bubbles are not a common issue, and handwriting is less important than you might think.  However, there are things that you absolutely should know before taking one of these tests.

First, you should know how to bubble in your answers and how to avoid making a personal mistake when doing so.  Below, see examples of correct and incorrect marking of a multiple-choice answer:

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Now, this visual may be frustrating since the only “complete” mark is a perfectly colored circle that was done by a computer.  However, you should pay more attention to the “incomplete” marks than the artificial “complete” one.  While they give 8 examples, there are really only three things worth noting that are relevant.

First, your pencil must be creating a mark that is dark enough.  The tests require a number 2 pencil for this reason, but you can still create light marks with a number 2.  So, don’t lightly shade in answers.  You don’t have to press particularly thought – so this is not a common issue for students with the correct pencil unless they are unusually faint when writing.  A good rule of thumb is that, after marking an answer, you should no longer be able to easily read the letter in the circle.

Next, you must fill in a majority of the bubble.  No, you don’t have every speck of white space colored in, but you do need to get most of it.  You also don’t need to be perfectly inside the lines or erase any bits that are outside.  Make sure that most are filled in as neatly as you can while still being quick and efficient with time.

Finally, you have to fill in the center of the circle.  If you mark answers in a circular motion starting with the outside, then you should be especially careful that you continue to the center.  If you don’t mark the middle of the circle, the test grading is much more likely to fail to read your response. Importantly, these notes apply to erasing answers.  Yes, you can erase an answer after you marked it if you want to change it to a different answer.  Usually, erasing is effective at making the mark light enough to not register during grading and doesn’t require especially hard erasing.  The only exception is if your eraser is smearing the mark rather than removing it.  If this happens, you want to raise your hand to get the attention of a proctor to hopefully get a new eraser.  To avoid this in the first place, bring more than one pencil/eraser and test the erasers beforehand.

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Now we can talk about the essay.  Anxiety about filling in multiple-choice bubbles is common among students, but not enough are worrying about their handwriting.  Readers will be reading and scoring your essays based on the content.  To do that, they need to understand what you are writing.  Adding to the problem is that the essay has a time limit that is often constraining.  This causes students to write faster and often messier.

The good news is that the graders are exceptionally good at reading bad student handwriting.  For example, the writing shown in the picture above would almost certainly be legible enough for a reader to understand and grade effectively.  So, if you have bad handwriting you don’t need to stress about changing your entire writing style for this test.

The bad news is that poor handwriting can confuse readers and distract from your overall presentation.  While it is true that grading is supposed to ignore the neatness of your work, it is also true that the highest scores are very difficult to achieve and may vary from grader to grader. Your writing should be effective and informative, but to earn the best scores it should also flow nicely and follow a clear progression.  If a reader is having to frequently stop to decipher your writing, or follow your arrows, or skip past spots you scribbled out, or read extra interjections you put in the margins – then they probably aren’t following the message of your essay as smoothly as you might have hoped.

To avoid this, you just need to think about a few things when writing.  First, make some effort to write neatly.  This usually just entails being conscious of writing each letter of a word.  Writing tends to become indecipherable when letters run together or are skipped.  Next, avoid messy editing.  Please don’t scribble anything out – it’s distracting and makes your work look unprofessional.  Instead, erase nicely if you can, or use one, clear straight line to cross out what you want to be removed.  Finally, make sure you have a good outline or plan for your essay before you start writing to avoid needing to put in extra sentences later.  Inserting a word or sentence is okay, but make sure you do so neatly and clearly.

In summation: fill in your bubbles dark enough but don’t stress about making it perfect, erase answers as best as you can and bring an eraser that won’t smudge, write your essay neatly but don’t worry about it so much that it slows you down, and make any edits in a neat and professional way. 

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Michael C. is currently an online private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.