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Managing Your Time on the SAT or ACT

Last updated March 1, 2021

General tactics to manage your time for both SAT and ACT

Bring a silent wristwatch.

Yes, your test site should have a clock, and your proctor should write the remaining time on a whiteboard if possible, but it’s Murphy’s Law that things will go wrong if they can. Bring a non-beeping watch along to protect against that possibility.

Be familiar with the instructions ahead of time.

Knowing what to expect on the test ahead of time can really put you at ease during the test. Take the free practice tests and do enough practice problems to understand the instructions. It’ll save you precious minutes come test day.

Don’t spend the same amount of time on each question.

Allocating your time equally to spend x minutes on each and every question might seem like a great strategy. However, it’s important to remember that (except in the critical reading section) questions go in order from easiest to hardest on the SAT. Answer the earlier questions more quickly, saving time for the trickier questions towards the end.

Use all the time you’re given.

If you’re lucky enough to finish all the questions in a section, don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs! Go back and check your answers. Pay close attention to any questions where you had to make an educated guess. You might just be able to eliminate another answer or two, further increasing your chances of success.

Know your target score.

Unless you’re aiming for a perfect score on each section of the SAT, ACT you don’t have to answer all the questions on the test. If you get 80% of the questions on an SAT section right, for example, you’d achieve a 650 — a very respectable score. In other words, you could leave one-sixth of the questions blank, get a few questions wrong — and still walk away with a 650. If you’re not looking for an 800, it might be in your best interest to increase your accuracy by spending more time on fewer questions.

In order to secure your Detroit Promise, you need to score 1060 on the SAT and a 21 on the ACT.

Strategies for SAT

Know how many questions are in each section

It’s hard to manage your time if you don’t have at least a sense of how many questions you’ll have to complete in each section. You don’t have to memorize this chart, but try to be generally familiar with the composition of each section.

Reading Test:

If you are finding the first paragraph of a passage difficult to understand, consider skipping the entire passage and coming back to it later if time allows. This is called “prioritizing the passages.” Within a set of questions about a passage, skip the hardest questions until you have had a chance to grasp as much of the passage as possible. By the time you circle back to a difficult question after having done the other questions in the set, you may find it easier.

Writing and Language Test: 

If you know from experience that time is tight for you on this part of the SAT, then plan to skip a handful of the questions you are having the most trouble within each passage and come back to them later if you have time. Always keep in mind that there are easier questions waiting for you towards the end!

Math Test:

During the first pass, don't spend more than a minute or so on any question. If it's going to take longer, put a big fat circle around it in your test booklet and skip it.

Prioritize remaining questions in ascending order of difficulty. That is, leave the most difficult questions for last. On the Math Test, go back to the beginning of the sections because that is where the easier questions are likely to be found.

Strategies for ACT

Know how many questions are in each section

English Test: 

With only 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, you must answer a question every 30 seconds. Give yourself eight minutes per passage to help you keep track of time! If you maintain this pace, you’ll get through the entire test with five minutes to spare. Most students miss the last questions because they run out of time.

Math Test: 

You sometimes get stuck in the numbers and lose sight of the main point. Don’t recalculate all the data or get lost in numerical details. Focus on the main ideas of the passage. Try to refocus your attention by looking at the questions first, figuring out exactly what you need to answer the question, and then going back and looking for only that information.

Reading Test:

Save the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage for the End. This passage takes the longest because there are no visuals. Instead, Conflicting Viewpoints passages include two short essays that have differing viewpoints. You have to read the entire passage to answer the questions. The Conflicting Viewpoints Passage requires an entirely different strategy and way of thinking. It'll break you out of your focused mindset of reading graphs, tables, and other visuals. So be sure to save it for the very end. Try to make sure you have at least five minutes to attempt it. If you only have three minutes or less when you get to this passage, skip reading, jump to the questions and try to go back and skim to answer as best you can.

Science Test: 

Don’t get stuck dissecting the experiment or the scientific terms. Do not overthink the passage content. If you find yourself trying to fully understand the experiment and then realizing you didn't need to (which you shouldn't), you are getting stuck. Focus on the questions asked, read the questions first, and don't read the whole passage unless absolutely necessary to answer the questions (which it shouldn't be for the Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages).

Writing Test: 

Spend at least five minutes on the introduction and conclusion. While the body of the essay is important, you want to start and end on a high note. Write your introduction first, spending somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes on it. You should start writing your conclusion with about 10 minutes left. One of the things exam scorers look for is a conclusion, so if you don’t leave time to write one, your score will suffer even if the rest of the essay is amazing. Try to spend five minutes or so on the conclusion.

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