Managing the Clock on the ACT or SAT

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

By Tim Tibbitts

A student came up to me after one of our recent ACT prep workshops. “I’ve taken the ACT twice, and both times, I’ve run out of time with about five questions left on every section,” he shared, adding, “Do you have any tips about timing?” Did I ever! A hundred ideas came to me at once, and I’m sure I overwhelmed him with my suggestions. So this one goes out to Nikhil from Solon. If you’re out there Nikhil, here’s a more orderly version of my advice for putting yourself in the best position to manage the timing on test day:


[Note: If you receive accommodations at school for ADD or a diagnosed learning disability, you need to make sure to apply early for the accommodations you need when it’s time to take the ACT or SAT. See my interview with accommodations guru Michele Sass.]


Before Test Day

1. The most important factor is familiarity with the test. Both the ACT and SAT are highly predictable tests. What you see on (official) practice tests is what you’re going to see on test day, and the more familiar you are with their content and format, the better prepared you’ll be to work through passages and problems efficiently. Practice, practice, practice!


2. Use time trials. Track athletes use a variety of strategies for working on pace and endurance. For example, in addition to longer, slower runs to build endurance, a miler might do lots of quarter-mile repeats faster than race pace so that on race day her mile pace feels comfortable. Play with the clock in your practice sessions and learn what works best for you. Who says you have to sit down and do a whole section at a time? Set a timer for 8.5 minutes and do an ACT Reading passage. When the clock goes off, see how close you are to finishing, and make adjustments. Reset the clock and do the next passage.


3. Borrow a watch. Notice I wasn’t naïve enough to say “bring your watch.” But seriously, you can’t use your phone on test day, and you can’t guarantee you’re going to have a clear sight line to a wall clock. Borrow Grandpa’s Timex and practice using it for pacing your way through practice tests.


On Test Day

4. Manage your confidence and momentum for optimum performance. For example, who says you’ve got to do the passages in the order they appear? If you turn to the Reading section and the first passage was written in 1637 and is bound to put you to sleep, flip the page and start with a passage you can relate to better. On Math, be bold and fearless about skipping (and filling in a guess) on problems that are going to chew up a lot of time. Job 1 is to make sure you get a shot at every problem you’re likely to get right; you can always come back to the stumpers if you’ve got time left.


5. Cue your pacing by writing times at top of a section or top of a passage. The ACT gives you nine minutes per English passage. If the proctor says “Go!” at 9:04 A.M., glance at Grandpa’s watch and quickly jot “9:04 – 9:13” at the top of the first passage. When you finish Passage I, jot “9:13 – 9:22” at the top of Passage II—or adjust as needed.


Bottom line: The key to successful test prep is not just practice but thoughtful practice. Get to know the test, identify those sections on which pacing is a challenge for you, and work on it.


Tim Tibbitts, an English teacher and writer in Shaker Heights, Ohio, founded The Whole Kid in 2006.

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