Pacing Yourself on the SAT and ACT
“How can I improve my speed on the SAT/ACT?” is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear from students. It’s a tricky question to answer without knowing specifically how a student approaches test-taking because we all read and calculate at different rates. However, there are general strategies anyone can use to improve performance speed on test day.
Tips for Pacing Yourself on Standardized Tests
1. Take multiple timed practice tests
When preparing for any standardized test, you must familiarize yourself with the directions and the timing. Knowing the ins and outs ahead of time will allow you to get a feel for how you perform under the time limit on each section. Once you are familiar with the timing, you can map out your individualized strategy for tackling the questions.
2. Know when to move on to the next question
Since the clock is always ticking during a standardized test, maintaining a steady pace is one of your best bets to finish on time. Try not to get hung up on any single question for too long. Circle any questions you get stuck on and return to them after attempting all the others. Remember, each question is worth the same number of points, so your goal is to get as many of them correct as possible.
3. Bubble answers on your scantron after each page
Bubbling your scantron after every single question is time-inefficient. Instead, transfer your answers to your scantron after each page or in groups of five. However, this technique requires a little practice, so try it out on a few practice tests before the real thing.
4. Use the process of elimination to make educated guesses
Since there are no penalties for incorrect answers on the SAT or ACT, you should never leave any question blank. Use the process of elimination to narrow your answer choices down to two or three and then select among the remaining choices.
5. Modify your pace per section
Each section of the SAT and ACT has a specific number of questions and a distinct time limit, so you can’t expect to utilize the same pacing from section to section. Depending on the allotted time and your particular academic strengths, tailor your pacing accordingly.
Section-Specific Pacing Strategies
If you have taken practice tests, you should know which passages are easier for you to tackle. Flip through the passages before beginning and start off on the right note, by beginning with one that feels accessible to you. Also, take brief margin notes as you read to reduce the amount of time you may need to reread portions of the passage.
Unlike the reading section, you don’t need to read the entire passage first. Answering each question as you encounter it in the passage is often the most efficient approach. Brevity is often preferred on the correct answers to grammar questions, so be on the lookout for wordy and/or awkwardly phrased answers.
Math questions occur in order of difficulty, so spend less time on the questions at the beginning of the section. Certain concepts may come to you more naturally than others, so use your level of mastery to strategize effectively throughout this section. Save any difficult or time-consuming questions until the end.
Outline your thesis and main points before you begin writing. Doing so will help you stick to a coherent structure and give you a sense of direction as you write. Try not to get hung up on the introduction and conclusion. Instead, invest in your body paragraphs with supporting evidence and original insight.
Pacing on standardized tests is critical to your individual success and overall score. I often stress the importance of both speed and accuracy when preparing for a standardized test. Developing a feel for how long each section takes you is one of the first hurdles you need to clear on the journey to reaching your ideal score. Practice with a stopwatch or lap timer to truly hone in on how long certain questions and sections take you to finish, and make a conscious effort to improve your speed by recognizing patterns on the test. Streamlining your test-taking process will contribute to your overall pace, so use the tips and strategies mentioned here to find your method of completing the test in an efficient manner.
Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."