ACT and SAT Timing Tips

  • Posted By: Celena Alduenda
  • December 13, 2019
  • 0 Comments

Timing is everything. This age-old saying is applicable to so many things, especially standardized testing. One of the main purposes of standardized tests is to compare a large group of students, and the timing restriction is a critical component of achieving that comparison. The clock may seem like an unforgiving obstacle, but just like any other aspect of the test, you can learn the skills to master it.

First things first. Let’s look at the breakdown of the ACT and SAT.

ACT

Section Time per Section Questions per Section Average Time Spent*
English 45 minutes 5 passages + 75 questions 36 seconds/question
Mathematics 60 minutes 60 questions 60 seconds/questions
Reading 35 minutes 4 sections + 40 questions ~180 seconds/section
~35 seconds/question
Science 35 minutes 6-7 passages + 40 questions ~90 seconds/passage
~37-40 seconds/question
Writing (OPTIONAL) 40 minutes 1 prompt N/A

*Average time spent is based on dedicating the same amount of time to each passage and question, which will not always be the case. Some passages and questions require more time, while others require less. The average time spent should be used as a guideline, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

SAT

Section Time per Section Questions per Section Average Time Spent*
Reading 65 minutes 5 passages + 52 questions 180 seconds/passage
~58 seconds/question
Writing and Language 35 minutes 4 passages + 44 questions ~48 seconds/question
Math (No-Calculator) 25 minutes 20 questions ~75 seconds/question
Math (Calculator) 55 minutes 38 questions ~87 seconds/question
Essay (Options) 50 minutes 1 passage + standard prompt N/A

*Average time spent is based on dedicating the same amount of time to each passage and question, which will not always be the case. Some passages and questions require more time, while others require less. The average time spent should be used as a guideline, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

Now that we know what we are dealing with, let’s look at some ways to master timing.

1. Be proactive, not reactive.
It’s simple: the more you prepare, the better you’ll perform. Test-taking is a skill that can be learned, so approach it as such. It’s equally important to know what is being tested as it is to know how it is being tested.

Practice, practice, practice.
Make sure you practice as you perform. That is to say, when you are taking a practice test, try to simulate test day as best as possible. Take practice tests timed in a quiet environment with no distractions, i.e. cellphone, music, people, food, etc. It’s always a good idea to take at least one full-length practice test in a single sitting to simulate test day and build stamina.

Make a game plan.
Know what to expect for each section to avoid wasting time during the test.

2. Pace Yourself
Effective time management is all about pacing. The tables above are a great reference for approximately how much time you should be spending on each question. For example, if you spend 2-3 minutes per math problem on the ACT, you need to pick up the pace a bit.

Note of caution: Some questions require more time, while others require less, so use your judgment. If you spend two minutes on an ACT math problem but are able to solve it, then that is an effective use of time. But if you spend two minutes on a math problem and ultimately end up guessing, that time could have been used more effectively.

Use a watch.
A watch is the best tool for keeping pace. Just make certain your watch does not beep or have an alarm.

Note of caution: If your watch makes noise during the test, you will be dismissed from the testing center and your answers will not be scored.

3. Assess each question based on difficulty
After reading each question, quickly categorize it based on difficulty (easy, medium, hard) and answer accordingly. To get started ask yourself, do you know the answer? Use the guide below to help you answer easy, medium, and hard questions accordingly.

Easy
If you know the answer or know how to solve for the answer, answer the question.

Medium
If you don't know the answer or exactly how to solve for it, but there's a chance you can figure it out, spend some time working on the question, but if necessary, make an educated guess.
Pro tip: In the test booklet, mark the question with an M so you know to come back to those medium questions first.

Hard
If you have no clue what the answer is or how to solve for the answer, make an educated guess and come back later if time permits.
Pro tip: In the test booklet, mark the questions with an H so you can come back to these hard questions after you have answered all the easy and medium questions.

Bottom line, increase your score by giving yourself enough time to answer the questions you know.

4. Don’t be afraid to skip a question and come back later.
If you start working on a question and hit a wall, don’t waste time and, more importantly, don’t lose confidence. Skip it and come back. Sometimes you just need a break and some fresh eyes. Just don’t forget to fill in an answer on the bubble sheet! This is a vital step because (1) you don’t want your answers to get off track on the bubble sheet and (2) you want to make sure you answer every question in case you don’t have time to go back. Also, make sure you mark the question in your test booklet so you know to come back to it if time permits.

Never spend too much time on any one question
Don’t spend too much time attempting to answer a hard question— you could be using that time to solve a couple of easy questions. Each question is worth the exact same amount of points, so don’t waste time on the hard questions if it takes time away from the easy ones.

If necessary, make an educated guess. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so guessing can only improve your score. With that in mind, when you’re approaching the end of the test, fill in every answer.

Remember, standardized tests are designed so that only a handful of people actually answer all of the questions correctly. This means the questions are difficult and, more than likely, you won’t know how to solve all of them. Don’t let that discourage you. It’s simply the nature of a standardized test.

Now that you’ve learned some timing tips, it’s time to practice!