One of the biggest stressors on standardized testing is timing. On both the SAT and ACT, standard complaints are “I wish they gave us more time” or “the section is too long.” So how can you be sure to get your timing right without adding to the innate stress of taking an important test? Breaking your practice down is essential in getting yourself in position to overcome time stress. The same way you can’t hit a homerun until you practice for a single, you can’t ace the entire test until you starting acing it in pieces.
Within each test section, you will see parts that make up the whole. For instance, on the ACT English test, the 75-question full test is broken down into five individual passages with 15 questions each. This gives you the opportunity to practice the test passage by passage rather than to worry about the whole 45-minute shebang right off the bat. While, of course, you will ultimately have to master the test all at once, beginning your practice in pieces will help you get a handle on timing step by step and without undue anxiety. Within each section, you can practice as follows:
ACT English: Give yourself nine minutes per 15-question passage. This way, you can master the section passage by passage, which will eventually lead to overall, full-section mastery. Working within this timeframe will help you to get a sense of timing, how long to spend on each question, and when to simply put a guess and move on so that you can finish in time.
ACT Math: Within this 60-minute, 60-question section, you obviously have exactly one minute per question if you break it down technically. However, knowing that the second half of the math test generally contains problems that will take longer to solve is key in budgeting your time accordingly. So, preparing to spend, say, 30 seconds each on the first-half “easier” algebra questions, and a minute on the second-half “harder” geometry and trigonometry questions may be your best bet. This knowledge of the nuances of the section will help you become an expert timer.
ACT Reading: This is a section of movement and decisiveness in which you must read four approximately 90-line passages and answer ten questions per passage in only 35 minutes. This breaks down to around eight minutes and 45 seconds per passage. While this may sound challenging, it is doable with practice and with strategies such as knowing when to guess, understanding how to read for literal information and not deep meaning, and working to never get bogged down on one particular question. Working each passage individually and striving to finish in 8:45 in practice can lead to success in the section as a whole.
ACT Science: Much like the ACT reading, the test’s science section requires digesting a lot of information in a short amount of time: 52 seconds per question, to be exact. Within this, you will run into chunky paragraphs of scientific info as well as graphs and charts. Again, working in the timeframe given on each individual passage and mastering the art of knowing when to guess and what not to get stuck on are keys to acing this section. You will learn as you do your break-down practice that, often times, the information you need is more in the graphs and less in the text, helping you to learn exactly how and where to budget your time. Doing this passage by passage can help you to build to a level of confidence in what can often be a stress-inducing section.
SAT Reading: Unlike the ACT’s reading test, the SAT reading test is, comparatively, a bit of a slog. Clocking in at just over an hour, the test requires stamina and effective pacing. Giving yourself around 13 minutes per passage will enable you to begin understanding how long you can take reading and when it’s time to hit the questions, answer, and move on to the next one. Similar to when you take the ACT, you will most likely hit your stride as far as how to read without overthinking or overanalyzing as you continue to practice each passage individually, and this will lead to mastery of timing for the complete, 65-minute test.
SAT Math: With 80 minutes to complete 58 questions, you have about a minute and twenty-five seconds per question. We’re not suggesting that you time each individual question as you practice, but rather that you have a good, general sense of how long to take. So, if you started the section at 12 o’clock and you look at your watch and it’s 12:10, you should probably be on at least the seventh question if you are budgeting time effectively. It’s this kind of time awareness practice that can get you comfortable with your pace as you move smoothly and confidently through the section without ever having to scramble to answer questions.
SAT Writing and Language: In this 44-question section, you have around 11 minutes per 11-question passage. Some students finish this section with time to spare, in which case they are best served by taking a break rather than rushing back over 44 questions and potentially second-guessing and changing right answers to wrong ones. By setting your timer for eleven minutes as you do each passage, you begin to gain an individual-passage mastery that will lead to full-section success.
As you practice your tests in pieces to begin, we recommend using Google Timer on your phone or computer. Set the timer for nine minutes, for instance, and attempt one ACT English passage. Look at the timer every so often—but not obsessively—in order to really get a sense of how long you are taking and what adjustments you need to make going forward. Often, students are surprised at their speed, though they feel they are moving too slowly. Indeed, anxiety can lead to speed and carelessness. The only way to know for sure is to start small by breaking down your timing practice, and building up to taking the full test with a solid and confident knowledge of how quickly to move and how to get through the sections with maximum accuracy.
Written by Phil Lane
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