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Time Management Tips for the ACT and SAT

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Time management strategies are an important component of preparing for the ACT or SAT. Strengths and weaknesses with subject matter can directly influence how long it takes a student to complete a particular section. Chances are you will have little trouble completing the sections that you are strongest in. On the other hand, you may find yourself struggling to complete the sections that you are weaker in before the clock runs out. Because you can’t go back to previous sections, it’s important to learn how to manage your time effectively within each section of the ACT and SAT. Here are a few steps that you can take before and during the test to help you manage your time more effectively.


Know the Directions

Not having to read the instructions for each section of the ACT or SAT can save you valuable seconds on the exam. Be familiar enough with each section of the test that you can skip the directions and dive right into the questions.


Take Timed Practice Tests

Many of the time-related issues that students face can be resolved by taking practice tests. Get your hands on the Real ACT Prep Guide (the “red book”) or the Official SAT Study Guide (the “blue book”), and follow the time limits as if you were taking the actual exam. The more experience you have with either exam, the faster you’ll be able to move through it. If you’re still struggling to finish a particular section of the ACT or SAT, try the next tip.


Create a Time Budget

One way to budget time is to set a limit on the amount of time that you can spend on each question. Let’s use SAT Reading as an example. The first SAT Reading section that you’ll encounter on the SAT will give you 25 minutes to complete 24 questions. This works out to just over a minute for each question. However, you also have to read the passages, so you should allow yourself around 45 seconds for each question. This leaves you approximately five minutes to skim read the passages. You can experiment with the time-per-question while practicing to find a time budget that suits your strengths and weaknesses. If you find yourself moving through the Sentence Completion questions fairly quickly, then you should shorten your time budget for those types of questions. The time you save can then be put toward the Passage-Based Reading questions.


As you can see, the “time-per-question” system can easily become complicated. A far simpler method is to allow a set amount of time for each subsection. This approach is easiest to illustrate with the ACT. The ACT Reading exam gives you 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. Each passage contains exactly 10 questions. This, in turn, works out to roughly 8 1/2 minutes per passage. The advantage of this approach is that it’s much simpler to reliably budget your time on the ACT. The downside is that it’s harder to anticipate how much time you should budget for each subsection on the SAT, which structures its sections more randomly than the ACT does.


Regardless of which time-budgeting strategy that you decide to employ, the effect should be the same. When you hit your time limit, you should move on to the next question or section. Come back to any questions/sections that you skipped after completing the rest of the current section of the exam. Remember: Some questions/sections will take you less time than what you have budgeted for them. By sticking to your time budget you’ll avoid losing the opportunity to answer easy questions, while giving yourself the possibility of taking a second shot at the ones that you find more difficult.


Use a Test-Timer

Digital test-timers, often sold as “pacing watches,” are essentially digital watches that have been tweaked to help keep students on task during the ACT or SAT. Look for a test-timing watch that comes pre-programmed with settings for the specific sections of the exam that you are taking and that provides additional visual cues for how much time you have remaining in a given section. Equally important is making sure that the pacing watch that you buy has been engineered to meet test room requirements. Your pacing watch should have no alarms, buzzers, or anything else that might distract other students.


What about the Essay?

Many students struggle to complete the SAT and ACT essays on time. To beat the clock on either essay, you need to get used to the idea of making snap judgments. Practice writing the prompts found in the official book(s) until you can come up a position on the prompt and three supporting examples (or two examples and one counter-example) in the space of a few minutes. In other words, you need to minimize the time you spend planning and maximize the time that you spending writing and revising. Planning out your essay in less than five minutes might sound nearly impossible, but the kinds of subjects that the exams ask students to write about are fairly predictable and limited in scope. Furthermore, the ACT and SAT’s threshold for factual accuracy is far lower than that of an actual high school or college writing course. We’ve covered the ACT and SAT essay sections pretty extensively before, so check those posts for an idea of what the ACT Writing and SAT Essay sections really expect from students.


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