Your best scores on test day depend heavily on effective management of one of your most precious resources: TIME. As anyone who has ever been forced to leave the last ten or twenty questions on a test section blank, these exams are not designed for relaxed—or even comfortable—pacing. The designers of the SAT and ACT fully expect many test takers to run out of time. How can you make sure that you don’t suffer that fate on test day?
The non-Math sections of both the SAT & ACT are passage-based, requiring students to grasp the essential elements of a block of text, tables, graphs, and/or figures. Those who spend too much time with a passage miss the opportunity to answer all the questions. On the other hand, those who skim too lightly risk a superficial or flawed understanding of what the passage was written to say. Your right-size time management strategy accounts for the twin tasks of understanding passages and answering questions.
The most effective time management strategy allows an individual to allocate the right amount of time to the right amount of questions to achieve an optimal score. Going too fast often leads to careless errors on otherwise easy questions, while going too slow denies access to a certain number of questions. Students contending for the highest possible scores will work at a pace that maximizes both total number of questions and time per question.
The key to mastering time management on the SAT & ACT is to first learn the most effective strategies for answering each question type and then practice those strategies, ideally through high-quality proctored tests using official material. In reading as in all other skills, deliberate practice makes perfect. Refine your test day time management strategy by learning to use all the time allotted—and no more—for each passage and its related questions. Consider how much time you might spend on each passage in each section:
SAT: 5 passages with 52 questions (10-11 per passage) in 65 minutes = ~13 min per passage
ACT: 4 passages with 40 questions (10 per passage) in 35 minutes = ~8.75 min per passage
SAT: 4 passages with 44 questions (11 per passage) in 35 minutes = ~8.75 min per passage
ACT: 5 passages with 75 questions (15 per passage) in 45 minutes = ~9 min per passage
ACT: 6 passages with 40 questions (6-7 per passage) in 35 minutes = ~6.67 min per passage
Some differences concerning pacing and emphasis on reading between the two tests should jump out:
- Clearly, the ACT places more value on passage-based reading across a wide variety of passage types.
- The ACT also demands greater reading speed: you’ll have nearly 50% more time to attack SAT Reading passages than the ones on ACT Reading.
- ACT English may allow more time per passage than SAT Writing and Language, but consider the number of questions per passage: the SAT permits an average of 47.7 seconds per grammar question, while the ACT only allows an average of 28 seconds per question.
Take these differences in pacing into account when choosing the right test for you and when preparing for it. While most students we work with take both the SAT & ACT, they face a major time management adjustment when switching from one to the other. If you find you don’t have enough time to get to all the passages, adjust your pacing to allow enough time for the ones you can get to. But keep practicing: just as runners know that race after race can shave precious seconds off their time, time trials on test passages can improve speed, comprehension, and accuracy.