How to Avoid Running Out of Time on the SAT, ACT

With enough dedication and practice during test prep, students can work through every question when they take the SAT or ACT. In fact, proper time management can often mean the difference between a satisfactory test score and an outstanding one.

Excelling on college admissions exams necessitates an efficient use of time as much as it does content familiarity or problem-solving skills. Consider applying these four time-management techniques to maximize your score on the SAT or ACT:

— Practice creating outlines for the essay section.

— Dedicate just 60 seconds to each math question.

— Skim passages and question stems first, then reread as needed.

— Go with your gut on the language sections.

Practice Creating Outlines for the Essay Section

One central key to the essay component on either test is organization. By reserving a few moments at the beginning of the essay section to map out a rough response, you can end up saving yourself many more moments at the end. Taking a little time to plan can also ensure you do not run out of ideas or get sidetracked midway through your response.

Start your studying by finding several official essay prompts, at least three. Then allow yourself five minutes to outline a response for each. Every outline should begin with a strong thesis statement that clearly declares your position. Each outline should also indicate three pieces of supporting evidence for your argument.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

Once your rough outline is complete, composing your essay is a matter of simply connecting and fleshing out the pieces.

Dedicate Just 60 Seconds to Each Math Question

When you take ACT or SAT practice tests, be vigilant about following the time limits for each section. For math in particular, try completing each section in five fewer minutes than you will have on test day. If you can adapt to a shortened time frame during the test prep stage, you are more likely to finish on exam day when anxiety may cause you to slow slightly.

Another strategy for the math section is to advance through questions no matter the outcome. Allow yourself one minute per math question and move on regardless of whether you arrive at an answer. One way to calibrate your inner clock is by practicing with the free online activity How Long is a Minute?

Since there is no guessing penalty on the ACT or SAT, your best bet is to select an answer choice even when you cannot eliminate any. You have a 20% chance on the ACT and a 25% chance on the SAT of getting a math question right by guessing.

Guessing may leave you feeling uneasy, but spending five minutes on one math question implies you will be leaving four others blank if you run out of time. Do the arithmetic — it is not a good trade. Instead, circle the questions you skip or guess on and come back to them later if you can.

[Read: How Colleges Use SAT, ACT Results.]

Completing practice exams can also help you with an essential step in test prep: getting to know your nemesis. The SAT math sections are arranged in roughly ascending levels of difficulty, with the final three to four questions of each section being the most difficult.

If you consistently miss those last few questions on practice tests, simply view them as “extra credit” on the official exam. If time remains after you have answered everything else, see if you can find solutions to the harder questions. If you can answer at least one, consider it a bonus. Remember that your goal is not to get a perfect score, but to get your best possible score.

Skim Passages and Question Stems First, Then Reread as Needed

From a time management perspective, reading comprehension is the most difficult section of either test. Most students run into difficulty with the reading section because they read each passage closely before ever looking at the questions.

The problem with this technique is that many test-takers waste time examining sections of text that are not related to any exam questions. Even when students do a careful initial read, they find they cannot recall the passage well enough to answer the questions on their own. Thus, they must revisit the passage to scan for evidence that leads them to an answer choice. The result is that most students end up reading the same passage multiple times, which translates to an immense loss of time.

A more efficient use of time, especially for slower readers, is to first skim the passages to get the gist of their content. Then scan the questions, looking for ones that refer to particular lines of text. These question types are easy to identify because they contain numbers and usually start with the phrase, “In Lines X-Y,…” Do these detail-oriented questions first.

[READ: 3 Steps to Take After the ACT, SAT.]

By the time you have answered the questions about specific lines of text, you will have a better sense of the overall passage from having revisited it. For this reason, main idea questions are best answered last, a strategy that also happens to work well on ACT Science.

Go With Your Gut on the Language Sections

If you are a native speaker of English, you already have an advantage on the ACT English test or the SAT Writing and Language section. In fact, you can correctly answer a significant number of these questions just by listening to your instincts about English grammar.

Always go with your gut on these question types. If an answer choice immediately sticks out to you as being ideal or egregious, listen to your inner voice rather than overthinking it. The fact that students have so little time for language questions — about 36 seconds each on the ACT and 47 seconds each on the SAT — should also indicate to you that you are not meant to spend too much time analyzing them.

Practice these time management tips for each section of the tests, and you will likely find yourself moving through them more quickly than before.

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