Time Management for the SAT

Time Management for the SAT

For the entire test, you have 180 minutes to complete 154 questions, (plus 50 minutes for the essay, of course).

This suggests an average of 1 minute and 10 seconds per question, but answering many of these questions requires you to read long passages or interpret complex diagrams. Obviously, you won’t spend the same exact amount of time on each question, but how do you know when to invest your time or when to answer quickly and move on?

The key to time management on the SAT is self-knowledge.

You need to have a very clear grasp of what you can do well (that is, quickly and accurately) and what you struggle with (ie, where you need to take your time so you understand the question and don’t make mistakes). Here’s what to do to develop that:

  • As you review your completed practice sections or tests, keep a log of the types of questions you get wrong or that take you a long time to finish (your lists of strengths and weaknesses). Also, note what types of questions you can do quickly and almost always get correct.
  • Keep in mind that sometimes it’s not the content that may slow you down or trip you up; the way the question is asked or presented—whether in a diagram, equation, or lengthy sentence—can also affect how you handle it. Make sure you note that down in your list.
  • Continue refining this list of strengths and weaknesses with subsequent practice and review.
  • Since every SAT question is worth the same amount of raw points, use your list of strengths and weaknesses to prioritize which questions to do first when you practice and on your actual test. Get the low-hanging fruit (the types of questions you most often get right and can do quickly) first. As you encounter them, mark and return to those questions that you know you need to spend more time on.

In a nutshell, focus on the questions you know you can easily get right first. Doing so will help ensure that even if you run out of time, you will have maximized your correct answers.

A related strategy for time management is knowing how you spend your time on each section of the SAT, because taking stock of how fast or slow you are moving is the first step in establishing your ideal pacing.

You can use a simple lap timer (most smart phones have one built in) to figure this out. Start the timer when you start the section, and hit the “lap” button whenever you finish a problem. When you’re done with the section, you’ll have a list of how long you spent on each question. Use this information to adjust your pace during the test: in general, you should be moving more quickly through the first half of the section than through the second, and no single question should take up more than three minutes of your time. If you find that you are making careless errors in easy questions, this is a sign that you should slow down!

Note: Some test prep services advise students to skim the reading comprehension questions before reading the passage in order to save time. However, this strategy is more complicated and nuanced than it sounds, so we do NOT recommend taking this kind of shortcut unless you can work with a test expert who can coach you to use it effectively.

*This blog post was updated in October 2017.

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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