[Test Tip Tuesday] Make Your Time on Math Sections Count

juggling time-1

One of the most common concerns I’ve heard from the students I’ve tutored over the past decade has to do with the stressful timing constraints of the ACT and SAT. It’s an understandable fear; the pressure students feel from these tests is immense to begin with, let alone having to perform well on them under tightly timed circumstances. In fact, many students have told me they feel like they’d nail the test if they had even just a few more minutes per section.

This is intentional on the tests’ part. Both the ACT and SAT want to see not just what students know but also how quickly they can apply their knowledge. One can argue (and many have!) about whether this is a fair way to assess students, but it appears that timing will continue to play a large role on both standardized tests and regular scholastic exams for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge this as a challenge and develop strategies to overcome it. 

For many students, the math section exemplifies this struggle. There are timing strategies for individual types of questions that can help students, but I want to step back and discuss how to approach the sections as a whole. However, there are two caveats to consider before we embark on this journey:

  • Every student is different, meaning each student will have their own distinct quirks when it comes to timing, which is why individual help can be imperative.
  • To manage your timing on the math section, you must first acknowledge your relative strength in the subject and set realistic goals accordingly.

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Timing for the ACT Math Section

The math on the ACT is more tightly timed than the math on the SAT,  challenging students with 60 questions in 60 minutes. Early questions are generally easier and increase in difficulty as later questions become substantially harder, although it is not uncommon to find a few exceptions to this rule on any given exam. If you plan to finish all the math questions in this section (you actually might not want to), then I suggest this timing:

Questions 1 to 20: 40 seconds person question

Questions 21 to 40: 60 seconds per question

Questions 41 to 60: 80 seconds per question

However, you might only want to aim to finish all the math questions in the section if you’re planning for an exceptionally high score. Otherwise, you might be better off choosing not to finish all of the ending questions, especially the last ten.. 

Why not? Well, if you are not a great math student, then it seems silly to rush through the beginning of the test, potentially making careless mistakes or misreading prompts, just to get to harder questions that you’re less likely to get right. For students who struggle with math, I usually suggest spending most of their time trying to get questions 1-40 right and then selecting certain questions from the last 20 that they think can finish within the 60-minute window (note: always guess on whatever questions remain- never leave questions blank). This is why it’s so important to take stock of where you are as a math student before developing your strategy: your level of skill will affect how you approach the ACT’s math section.

Timing for the SAT Math Section

Does the same apply for the SAT? For the most part, yes, although it can be a little more complicated.

The SAT divides its math portion into two sections: the Math No Calculator and the Math Calculator. The general idea behind the timing on the SAT remains the same as it does on the ACT — if you want to finish all the questions, try to spend less time on the easier questions so you can apply more time to the harder questions (the timing on the SAT is more generous, so this is not as difficult a feat as on the ACT). But how you do that gets a little more complicated as each section is divided into two parts: a multiple choice portion and non-multiple choice (known as grid-in) portion. On both the No-Calculator and Calculator sections, the multiple choice questions build from easy to hard before resetting and building from easy to hard once again on the grid-in questions, as outlined below in an excerpt from one of our Test Prep Time sessions.

For students who are less mathematically inclined, it’s important to note this pattern. I would suggest doing the easy to medium difficulty questions first and saving the difficult questions last. Because the order is not as linear as it is on the ACT, this requires some planning ahead. Here’s the question order I suggest for each section:

Math No Calculator

Questions 1 to 10, 16 to 20, 11 to 15

Math Calculator

Questions 1 to 25, 31 to 38, 26 to 30

This order will make sure that if you run out of time, you won’t be missing any easy or medium questions, only the more difficult questions which you were more likely to get wrong to begin with. Additionally, since the remaining questions would all be multiple choice, you would have a much better chance to guess the answer correctly on those (about a 25% chance) than on the grid-in questions (less than a 1% chance).

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