Few words evoke more panic during a standardized test than the proctor’s mandated warning: Five minutes left. Some test takers are jarred out of their micro-slumbers, wasting precious resources by resting their heads on their desks instead of working through problems. But the shock to the system delivered just by hearing someone speak after a long period of focused silence increases exponentially in intensity for those testers who clearly don’t have enough time to answer all the remaining questions in the section. How do you make the most of that limited time?
Your goal going into a test is to master the content, strategies, and state of mind needed to earn as many points as you need in the time you have. But all is not lost if you lose track of time. Stay calm and implement a Five-Minute Drill to make the most of a bad situation on any section:
Time management matters so much on Reading sections because you don’t earn any points for actually reading. But despite the bad advice you may hear from others, reading every passage properly is the path to maximum points. When you’ve got a full passage and all of its attending questions in front of you with only five minutes left, you simply won’t have time to read the passage. Instead, scan the questions for those with line number references. You can often go back and focus on portions of the passage to answer those questions correctly. You may not understand the thesis of the passage, but enough context can deliver quick points. Also prioritize questions asking about the meanings of words or phrases in the test, as these are context-driven as well.
Grammar questions on standardized tests often fall into two different categories. Many test simple mechanics, such as grammar and usage, punctuation, and sentence structure. Others test rhetorical skills like organization, structure, and style. Rhetorical questions are often much wordier and involved than mechanics questions, so skip them in order to answer as many of the simple mechanics questions as possible.
The Math sections of most standardized tests are designed to allow an average of one minute or more per question. However, question difficulty on these tests usually progresses from easy to hard, which means that problems later in a section often require more time on average to solve than the earlier ones. Thus, even if you have five questions remaining with five minutes left, you may not have enough time for all of them. Once that warning comes, quickly scan the remaining questions. Difficulty is relative, so you may spot some problems that are easy for you even if they’re tough for others. Instead of tackling questions in order, maximize points by working on the ones you can answer quickly and accurately.
The Science Test on the ACT is really just a subset of reading that emphasizes graphical and scientific literacy. However, questions for each Science passage tend to progress from easy to hard. Always answer at least the first couple of questions per passage. If you have two passages left at the five minute warning, you’ll be better off answering the early questions for each rather than trying to answer all of the questions on one.
We always stress the importance of outlining your essay thoroughly before you start writing in part because an effective outline will keep you on track even when you are running out of time. The five-minute warning is your signal to complete the paragraph you are currently working on and write a full conclusion. Structure is an essential element of any essay, so those without a true conclusion won’t be able to earn the highest scores. Luckily, a concluding paragraph only needs two sentences–a summary of the thesis and a larger context/call-to-action–to be effective. Don’t skip this easy step.
If you are taking a test like the SAT or ACT that implement rights-only scoring, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by answering every single question. Once you’re down to about 30 seconds left, fill in an answer for every remaining question. Don’t get fancy: just pick a column and bubble answers down the line. You must do this before time is called, because if you are caught working on a section after that, your test will be invalidated and you’ll be ejected. Nobody wants that.
Of course, you can avoid the imperfect results of these five minute drills by developing better time management techniques for test day. Some easy steps to a less stressful experience include wearing (and using) a watch and perfecting your pace through proctored practice tests. Combine these essentials of time management with excellent preparation, enough sleep, and a great breakfast before your exam, and you’ll make the most of every moment on test day!