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Planning and preparing for the SAT and ACT is tough proposition. Let our experts make it easier for you and your student by reviewing some of the many options available to improve scores, grow scholarship offers, and get into the best college!

How To Finish The SAT In Time

Every year I see countless students leave the SAT test center with sweat on their brows, trembling with anxiety, because they weren’t able to finish the test in time and were left to guess on a large number of questions. While time will always be an issue on the SAT—keeping up your pace is one of the exam’s primary challenges—there are plenty of steps you can take to lessen the time crunch you face on exam day. I’ve drawn up a list of them for you here.

Have those math equations and formulas memorized.

If you memorize the most important math equations and formulas ahead of time, you’ll perform with more confidence and save yourself time flipping back and forth between pages.

Although the SAT provides you with equations and formulas for things like area and volume at the beginning of each Math test, you’ll save yourself considerable amounts of time if you have them memorized. Having things like the Pythagorean theorem and the quadratic formula committed to memory will not only save you the time spent flipping back and forth between the front of the test and the problems, it will also leave you feeling more confident, and thus more able to solve the problems with speed, accuracy and ease.

Read the Writing test passages one paragraph at a time.

Reading paragraphs in full and answering their questions afterward will save you time re-reading and puzzling out your answers.

Most students start reading passages in the Writing test and then answer each question as it comes up. While this won’t necessarily hurt you, a more time-efficient way to approach these questions is to read one paragraph at a time, and then answer the associated questions.

First off, some of the questions require you to have an idea of a paragraph’s or passage’s main point before you answer them. Second, it’s easier to spot issues like redundancies or tone shifts when you’ve read the entire paragraph, rather than just the one or two sentences between the underlined portions.

Prioritize your time on the Math tests.

On the Math tests, accuracy is more important than speed. You’ll earn more points taking the time to answer easier questions correctly than you will rushing to finish the test and making lots of simple mistakes.

On sections three and four of the SAT—the Math tests—you should prioritize your time, favoring accuracy over finishing the entire test in time. Although the questions do get more difficult the further into the test you go, the questions remain worth the same number of points. I have seen countless students rush to finish the Math tests in time, making plenty of simple mistakes and getting problems wrong at the beginning of the test, only to get stressed-out and anxious at the end of the test, and still not finish in time.

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A better approach is to budget yourself all the time you need to answer the first two-thirds of the problems correctly, and then use the rest of the time to answer the more challenging questions, which you might get wrong anyway, no matter how much time you have. Because each question is worth the same number of points, this approach will help you utilize your time most efficiently and maximize your score, whether you finish the section in time or not.

Write everything out and use your calculator last.

Use your calculator, but be sure to write everything out to prevent time-consuming mistakes and allow you to quickly check your work.

Yes, your calculator is a time-saving device. However, if you don’t write out your steps on paper, then your calculator is only as good as your short-term memory for holding figures and next steps in your head. And your short-term memory is not good! In order to make sure you don’t leave out a step or a decimal place, have all your work written out legibly and in a sensible order. Not only will this allow you to go back and check your work if you finish the section with extra time, but it will also prevent you from making time-consuming simple mistakes that will require you to go back to step one to solve the problem correctly.

Wear a wristwatch.

Wearing a wristwatch will help you pace yourself and keep track of your progress.

In order to finish on time, you need to be able to time yourself! Your various electronic devices won’t be allowed in the test center, so if you don’t already have one, go out and purchase a simple wristwatch. You don’t need one with any fancy bells or whistles. While the test center will have some sort of clock on the wall, and your proctor will make the occasional time announcement, to truly time yourself and make sure you are maintaining the proper pace, it will be enormously helpful to have a wristwatch to measure and track your progress as you work your way through the exam.

Circle troublesome questions and problems and come back to them later.

Don’t spend more than ten seconds on a question without making any progress—circle it and come back to it later.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you’ve spent more than ten seconds staring at a problem or question without making any headway, circle it and move on to the next one. There’s no point in throwing away time on a problem you can’t solve at the expense of having time to solve those you can. And if you let your subconscious work on the trouble question while you answer others, by the time you return to it there’s a good chance you will have worked out the solution, without sacrificing precious seconds or minutes scratching your head or having a mini-anxiety attack.

Bubble one page at a time.

Answering a full page of questions and then bubbling in the scantron saves precious minutes spent flipping back and forth between the test booklet and answer sheet.

This practice will save you a few seconds here and there, adding up to precious minutes by the time you’ve reached the end of the exam. Rather than answering a question and then bubbling in the scantron one question at a time, answer an entire exam book page of questions, and then bubble them all in at once. You’ll need to be careful that you don’t bubble out of order, but by simply limiting the amount of moving back and forth between the exam booklet and scantron, you’ll bank yourself more time for answering questions.

Learn how to skim.

If you’re unable to finish the Reading test in time, skimming the nonfiction passages will give you a good sense of their arguments without having to read them in their entirety.

By far, the most troublesome section of the exam, time-wise, is the Reading section. You’ll have 65 minutes to answer nearly as many questions, in addition to reading six five-to-six-paragraph passages. Unless you’re an exceptionally fast or advanced reader, this is likely to prove very challenging. One way to mitigate the time crunch is to learn how to skim.

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While it’s not recommended to skim the Fiction passage—these passages aren’t written in a predictable form—it is possible to skim the other, non-fiction passages. The best way to skim, in my opinion, is to read the first and last paragraphs of the passage in full, in order to glean the thesis or main idea of the piece. Then, read the first sentence of each body paragraph—the topic sentence—to get an idea of the evidence or reasoning being used to support the main idea. While it is ideal to read the entire passage in full, skimming is the next best thing to get an overall impression of the passage, while keeping a good pace to finish the section on time.

Annotate.

If done well, note-taking can save you from spending time re-reading and improve your understanding of Reading passages.

It may seem counterintuitive to add another task to your plate during an already breakneck-paced Reading test, but note-taking, if done well, well end up saving you time. How often do you find yourself reading a passage, and then getting to the questions and needing to re-read significant chunks of the passage to find the answers? This isn’t surprising—our short-term memories can hold only a very small bit of information, and they’re incredibly taxed during the Reading test.

If you write down one sentence describing the main idea of a piece, and three to four words per body paragraph describing what that particular paragraph is about, you’ll have a handy ‘table of contents’ pointing you directly to the information you need by the time you go to answer questions. Then you won’t have to spend a bunch of time re-reading to find the information you’re looking for.

In addition to saving you time on the back end, annotation will improve your overall understanding of the passage, as well, also lessening your need to re-read. Simply underlining portions of the passage isn’t nearly as useful as this method. You’ll either underline too much, rendering all of your underlining useless, or forget the reason you’ve underlined something. If you’re going to underline, do this along with note-taking.

Rank the Reading passages in the order of your personal strength.

Do the passages you’re best at first to prioritize your time and keep your interest level up.

Many students report getting bored or having a hard time slogging through all of the Reading passages. One way to mitigate this is by reading the passages in the order of your personal strength. If you find the Natural Science passages the most interesting, flip ahead at the start of the test and do this passage first. If Social Science is your next-best passage, do that next, and so on. If keeping your interest up helps you read more quickly, then there’s no reason to complete the passages in the order they’re presented. Just make sure that when you bubble in your scantron sheet, you’re putting your answers in the appropriate places.

Take lots of practice tests before exam day.

The more practice tests you take, the more familiar you will be with the ins and outs of the exam, and therefore able to answer questions with greater speed and accuracy.

Taking the SAT is like running a marathon—it requires lots of training and practice. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to run a marathon and attempt to get your best time without any training, you shouldn’t expect to do your best time on the SAT without completing plenty of practice tests. Not only will practice tests help you spot your weak points on content and question types, it will help you pace yourself and maintain a speed necessary to finish on time when it comes time to take the real thing.

Best of luck on the SAT!



Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that we teach in our Prep Expert SAT and ACT courses.