Avoid Running Out of Time on the SAT, ACT

Simulate test conditions during SAT and ACT practice to become comfortable with the exam time limits.

When taking the SAT or ACT, manage the clock and remember that the goal is to get your best possible score, not a perfect score.
When taking the SAT or ACT, manage the clock and remember that the goal is to get your best possible score, not a perfect score.

With enough practice and time, students can work through every question on the SAT or ACT. In fact, time management is often the major difference between a good test score and an excellent test score.

Studying for the exams is often as much about understanding how to efficiently use your time as it is about memorization or problem-solving skills. There are three rules of thumb to help you maximize your chances of success on the SAT or ACT.

[See five tips for designing a test prep timeline.]

1. Create an outline to maximize writing time: The key to the essay component of each test is the effective organization and succinct communication of ideas. The allotted time is simply not enough to communicate anything but the simplest and most direct ideas.

Start your studying by finding a list of essay prompts and allowing yourself five minutes each to outline a response. Every outline should contain a strong thesis statement that clearly declares your position as well as two to three pieces of supporting evidence.

Completing the essay is then simply a matter of connecting the pieces. Practicing this approach makes the process flow smoothly, and the five minutes spent organizing your thoughts will allow you to write proficiently.

[Find ways to break through a test score slump.]

2. Spend one minute per math question: When you take practice tests, be vigilant about following the time limits for each section, particularly math. Better yet, try practicing completing the section with five minutes fewer on the clock. If you can adapt to a shortened test time frame, you are more likely to finish when dealing with the stress of test day.

Another strategy is to keep moving through questions, no matter what. Allow a little over one minute per question, and move on if you are unable to find an answer in that time. For the ACT, take your best guess and move on since there is no penalty for wrong answers. For the SAT, you should only guess if you have been able to eliminate at least one possible answer – otherwise, your score will go down.

It hurts to leave questions blank, but spending five minutes to answer one question means you will be leaving five other questions blank when you run out of time. Do the math – it's not a good trade. Circle the questions you skip or guess on, and come back to them if you finish with time left over.

Completing practice tests can also help you with a key test-taking strategy: 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 plan to count them as extra credit on the actual exam. If time remains when you have answered everything else, see if you can find a solution 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.

[Learn about the differences between the SAT and ACT.]

3. Skim questions first and reread as needed: Reading comprehension is the most difficult section of each test from a time management perspective. Most students run into difficulty with the reading sections because they read each passage closely on first approach before they ever look at the questions.

The problem with this technique is that many test-takers end up reading each passage three to four times once they get to the questions. Most students can't recall the passages in sufficient detail to answer the questions directly, and must go back to scan the passages for evidence to support their answers.

A more efficient use of time, especially for slower readers, is to skim the passages to get a basic sense of the topic and voice. Then, scan the questions and look for ones that refer to particular lines of text. Do those questions first and save the questions regarding the general sense of the passage for last.

By the time you have answered the questions that reference specific lines of text, you will have a good sense of the passage as a whole. Be sure to answer all the questions regarding a particular passage before going on to the next. This strategy applies to the long sections of text in the science portion of the ACT as well.

Overall, remember to simulate test conditions during practice tests. There is no substitute for learning to apply your hard-earned problem-solving techniques under pressure.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.