Managing Your Time on the SAT or ACT
Last updated August 17, 2023
When it comes to the SAT or ACT, every second allowed for the test matters. Check out these tips to help you manage your time!
General tactics to manage your time on both the SAT and ACT
Bring a silent wristwatch
While your test site will have a clock, and your proctor should write the remaining time of each section on a whiteboard, we recommend bringing a non-beeping watch with you (Note: smartwatches, fitness trackers, or other wearable technology aren’t allowed in the test center). This ensures that you have enough time to answer the questions in each section to the best of your ability.
Be familiar with the instructions ahead of time
Knowing what to expect ahead of time can put you at ease during the test. We recommend taking free SAT and ACT practice tests to study AND familiarize yourself with the instructions and time breakdowns. This can save you valuable time on the actual day of the test.
Don’t spend the same amount of time on each question
Allocating your time equally to spend x minutes on each and every question might seem like a great strategy. However, it’s important to remember that some questions and sections will be more difficult than others. Try getting the easiest questions out of the way first, and spending a bit more time on the harder ones.
Use all the time you’re given
If you finish all the questions in a section with time left to spare, go back and check your answers! Pay close attention to any questions where you made educated guesses. You might just be able to eliminate another answer or two, further increasing your chances of success.
Know your target score
Unless you’re aiming for a perfect score on each section of the SAT or ACT, you don’t have to answer all the questions on the test. If you get 80% of the questions on an SAT section right, for example, you’d achieve a 650 — a solid score. In other words, you could leave one-sixth of the questions blank, get a few questions wrong — and still walk away with a 650. If you’re not looking for an 800, it might be in your best interest to increase your accuracy by spending more time on fewer questions.
Strategies for the SAT
Know how many questions are in each section
It can be difficult to manage your time if you don’t have a sense of how many questions you’ll have to complete in each section. You don’t have to memorize this chart, but try to be generally familiar with the composition of each section.
SAT Reading Test
If you are finding the first paragraph of a passage difficult to understand, consider skipping the entire passage and coming back to it later if time allows. This is called “prioritizing the passages.” Within a set of questions about a passage, skip the hardest questions until you have had a chance to grasp as much of the passage as possible. By the time you circle back to a difficult question after having done the other questions in the set, you may find it easier.
SAT Writing and Language Test
If you find yourself struggling with this section, plan to skip some of the questions you are having the most trouble with and come back to them later if you have time.
SAT Math Test
During the first pass, don't spend more than a minute or so on each question. Prioritize remaining questions in ascending order of difficulty, and leave the most difficult questions for last. If you come across a question that you know you will need to spend more time on, put a big fat circle around it in your test booklet and skip it.
Strategies for the ACT
The ACT places special emphasis on time management and using critical thinking to narrow down multiple choice questions to the best possible answer. While studying is important to secure a strong ACT score, time-management skills and strong decision-making can compensate for any holes in knowledge. Here are some ACT test-taking strategies to help you get your best score!
Know how many questions are in each section
ACT English Test
With only 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, you must answer a question every 30 seconds. Give yourself eight minutes per passage to help you keep track of time! If you maintain this pace, you’ll get through the entire test with five minutes to spare.
Use the questions to inform how you read each passage
This means, read the 1st question, and then look for the answer in the passage. Look at the 2nd question, and then look for the answer in the passage, etc. This will decrease the amount of re-reading you have to do and help prevent any confusion.
Plug in answers to see if they make sense
Correct answers in the English section will usually have a straightforward meaning and clear sentence structure, so if you plug in A, B, C or D and only A seems to provide a clear, grammatically correct meaning, that’s probably your answer.
ACT Math Test
The key to the math section of the ACT is time management, since you’re given 60 minutes to complete 60 questions. The topics covered in this portion of the test are pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. All are randomly placed, with random difficulty. However, each section increases in difficulty—the first three sections have predictable difficulty with the 1st being easiest, 2nd slightly harder, 3rd slightly harder, etc.
You may find yourself getting stuck in the numbers and lose sight of the main point. Don’t recalculate all the data or get lost in numerical details. Focus first on the questions you feel most confident about answering. Getting the easy-medium difficulty questions out of the way will help guarantee you’re only guessing on the more challenging questions.
ACT Reading Test
Time-management is an essential part of taking this section. You’re given 4 long passages (750 words) and 10 questions per passage, and only 35 minutes to complete them all. This means you might find yourself speed-reading.
There are 4 types of passages in this section: literary fiction, social sciences, humanities (philosophy, religion, etc.), and lastly, natural sciences. Skip around the reading section and tackle the type of passage you feel most comfortable with first. This way, if you end up running out of time, you’ll have completed the sections you’re most likely to get a correct answer in.
Save the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage for the End
The Conflicting Viewpoints Passage requires an entirely different strategy and way of thinking. It'll break you out of your focused mindset of reading graphs, tables, and other visuals. The Conflicting Viewpoints passages include two short essays that have differing viewpoints. You will have to read the entire passage to answer the questions. Be sure to save this passage for the very end - try to make sure you have at least five minutes to attempt it. If you only have three minutes or less when you get to this passage, skip reading, jump to the questions and try to go back and skim to answer as best you can.
ACT Science Test
Unlike the reading section, questions in the science section will almost always direct you to a specific part of the passage. Don't read the whole passage unless absolutely necessary to answer the questions (which it shouldn't be for the Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages). Some passages will require you to comprehend the entire passage and draw conclusions to answer some questions, so be sure to answer those last.
ACT Writing Test (Optional)
This optional, 40-minute section of the test measures your writing skills. The test gives you one writing prompt that describes a complex issue and presents three different perspectives on that issue.
You will need to thoroughly read the prompt and write an essay that shows your perspective on the issue. In your essay, you should write about your perspective and how it compares (or contrasts) from the perspectives given in the prompt. You can agree or disagree with any of the perspectives, or completely make up your own. What’s most important about the essay is that you can clearly state your perspective on the issue and make a case through your writing about why it’s important. If you can accomplish this, your chances of getting a higher score will increase.
We recommend writing both your introduction and conclusion first, before diving into your body paragraphs. While your body paragraphs will contain the most important information, having your introduction and conclusion paragraphs done first will help you structure your essay and the points you want to make within it. You should spend somewhere between 5-10 minutes on both the introduction and conclusion.
Be sure to pace yourself while writing the essay. Don’t rush through it - you might forget to write about important points or arguments you want to make.
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