Test Prep

How to Manage Your Time While Taking the SAT or ACT

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Knowing the test material is one thing – but what about your test-taking strategy? Do you have a plan to manage your time efficiently on the SAT or ACT? Regardless of which test you'll be taking, here are our tips to help you successfully get through all the questions on time.


Know the Directions

Each section will have a set of directions at the top, before the questions begin. You should already know all of these directions by heart so you don't waste a precious second reading them. Don't worry – the directions are pretty standard and easy to remember after you've run through some practice questions. Check out the SAT directions by looking over the free practice tests offered through the College Board website. ACT directions can be found on the free practice test offered by the ACT website.

Memorize the Math Formulas

While the ACT doesn't offer you any basic math formulas to reference as you're working on the math section, the SAT does. But you may as well pretend it doesn't exist. That's because if you don't already know those basic math formulas offered up on the SAT, you could waste precious time glancing back at them. You should memorize all of those formulas (and more, especially for the ACT), and also know how to apply them.

Bring a Watch

Since you won't be allowed to keep your phone on your desk, any basic, digital watch will do. You don't have to actually wear it. Sherri Graf, founder of Imagine College Coaching, recommends setting the timer on your watch before you start each section so you can keep track of how you're doing on time. This can also help you feel less stressed about your pacing. But be sure you know how to set the timer before test day -- otherwise the watch will become more of a time-waster than a time-saver.

Mark up Your Test

Yes, you can write on your test, and you should. Make any notes you like – no need to keep it all in your head. Work out the math, underline keywords in reading passages and questions, outline your essay, make stars by questions you will come back to, and cross out answers as you eliminate them. Whatever helps you figure out the answers faster!

Go for the Easy Questions First

Because each correct answer has the same value, regardless of how easy or difficult it is, Graf advises students to go for the "low-hanging fruit first. In other words, for each section, do the questions that you are confident about first. Then go to the next hardest questions, and do the hardest questions last. If needed, you can guess on those last questions before running out of time."

Show up Prepared

To enjoy a test-taking experience that is as stress-free and smooth as possible, get all your materials together the night before the test. You will need to bring two or three freshly sharpened pencils (and maybe a small pencil sharpener), a printed out admission ticket (because you can't just show it on your phone), your photo ID, a watch (optional), an approved calculator, some snacks and a drink for your breaks. Also, make sure you already know how you're getting to the test center in the morning! Once you've got your materials ready to go for the morning, be sure to get a good night's sleep.

Dress Comfortably

Choose your test day outfit wisely to avoid any distractions. Test rooms are usually kept cold – if you get cold easily, bring layers, even if it's warm outside. You can wear your lucky shirt or jeans, but whatever you wear, make sure it's comfortable and won't bother you during the test.

If you're still feeling nervous about surviving test day, Graf has this additional advice: "An athlete spends years developing a specific skill, but when competition day comes, the athlete can help herself to be successful on that day by eating healthy, getting plenty of rest, showing up prepared and on time and reminding herself of all she did to be ready for this day. In the same way, knowing the directions for each test section, having a general game plan and strategy, and being prepared both mentally and physically on test day will help the student succeed on the SAT or ACT."