August 24, 2019

Timing Rules for the SAT and ACT

Update: I've added additional comments to the Timing Rules table.

The easiest way to avoid making "stupid mistakes" on the SAT and ACT is to slow down. Skipping steps and not reading questions carefully tend to lead to small mistakes. You can slow down if you have a way to keep track of time.

For example, on SAT Critical Reading, you have 13 minutes per passage (65 minutes for a total of 5 passages).

That means that if you know the multiples of 13, you can check the clock and make sure that every passage is finished by its appropriate multiple of 13 minutes. That means you need to have read the passage, done the questions, double-checked, and bubbled within the 13 minutes that you’re allowed.

Passage 1: 13 minutes
Passage 2: 26 minutes
Passage 3: 39 minutes
Passage 4: 52 minutes
Passage 5: 65 minutes

If you find that you can't finish the Reading section even with the timing rule given above, you can choose to skip the passage type that's hardest for you. For example, it's okay to skip the 1800's-era passage and to spend 65/4=16 minutes per passage instead of 13 minutes. If you do this, choose "D" for all of the questions in the passage you're skipping and don't even bother to read that passage.

Whenever you do a problem, whether it's math, grammar, and reading, read the question carefully, but don’t stare at it for more than 10 seconds. If a method for solving the problem doesn’t become apparent within 10 seconds, look at the answer choices and try to eliminate some. For about a quarter of the questions, you can eliminate three of the four choices immediately.

Math

Show all your work on math problems. Speed increases come from using fewer steps, not from skipping steps. (For example, solving a 3-4-5 triangle using ratios is faster than using the Pythogorean theorem. We don’t skip any steps, but we do solve the problem in one step instead of five.) Small mistakes come from either mis-reading the problem or by skipping steps. If you show all your work, you’ll know immediately if you re-read everything that you solved for the right variable and plugged the numbers in correctly.

When you’re done, read the problem carefully a second time. Doing this catches about 90% of small mistakes, including ones that involve setting up equations incorrectly, solving for the wrong variable, or forgetting to convert units (for example, hours to minutes). Double-check to make sure the problem was set up correctly, that you plugged the right variables in the right places, and (importantly) that you solved for the correct variable.

If you have a lot of time, do each question two or three different ways if it looks like there’s an easy opportunity to do so. Doing this will eliminate almost all small mistakes and nearly guarantee an 800 on the Math section.

I personally like to circle the variable I'm supposed to be solving for when I first read the question, solve the problem, and put a vertical bar next to the question when I've read it a second time. This allows me to mentally be finished so that I can move on to the next question. (If I've solved a problem two different ways, I also place a check mark next to the question to remind myself not to double-check it if I have time at the end of the test.)


Doing the Math section very quickly and going back to double-check very quickly doesn’t work. That’s because the test is purposefully designed to be difficult to interpret, and if you try to go through the problems too quickly, you’ll mis-read them. Even though you’re double-checking, you’re likely to mis-read twice if you’re in a rush. Again, it makes more sense to slow down and be careful than to rush through and double-check later.

Bubbling

Work on two pages at a time and don’t bubble until both pages are finished. This will (1) minimize the distraction of moving from the test page to bubble sheet and back again and (2) reduce errors from accidentally bubbling in a question that was skipped and then being off by one.

If you want, you can print each practice test out onto double-sided pages and put the pages in a binder. Your test will then have two pages that face each other, just like the booklets you'll be using on test day.

Timing Rules

The table below has timing rules you can use for each section of the SAT and ACT. If necessary, you can modify the rules if you plan to skip a passage or to go faster in order to spend more time on difficult material.

Section Total Time Number of Questions Time for each set of 10 questions Comments
SAT Critical Reading 65 minutes 52 questions 13 minutes Instead of checking the clock every ten questions, give yourself 13 minutes per passage. If there's a passage type that's particularly hard for you, try finishing the others in 12 minutes so you can spend 17 minutes on the difficult one.
SAT Grammar 35 minutes 44 questions 8 minutes Since this section of the test has four passages (11 questions each), you can give yourself 8 minutes per passage with 3 minutes left at the end of the test to check your bubbling.
SAT Math (no calculator) 25 minutes 20 questions 12 minutes

SAT Math (calculator) 55 minutes 38 questions 14 minutes

ACT English 45 minutes 75 questions 6 minutes

ACT Math 60 minutes 60 questions 10 minutes You have one minute per question on this section.

ACT Reading 35 minutes 40 questions 8 minutes Give yourself 8 minutes per passage. The science-related passage at the end is hardest for most people, but note that 8*4=32 and that you have 35 minutes to finish the test, so you actually have 11 minutes, not eight, to finish the final passage.
ACT Science 35 minutes 40 questions 8 minutes


In order to use these rules effectively, you need to have your own timing device. Most test centers don't have digital clocks, and even if you're good at reading analog clocks, there's no guarantee that the clock on the wall is going to to be in sync with the proctor's timing device, which will probably be his phone.

Finally, remember that these timing rules are designed to make the test less stressful for you. If you forget your watch or find it inconvenient to check the time, you can still do very well if you've practiced a lot and know that you can work quickly enough.

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