Pacing Yourself: The Ultimate Strategy for Tackling the SAT and ACT

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

students taking an exam

Pacing Yourself: The Ultimate Strategy for Tackling the SAT and ACT

In the journey to college, the SAT and ACT tests often stand as formidable gatekeepers. They are critical components of college admissions and can significantly impact your future. For many high school students, these tests are more than just a measure of academic prowess—they are a test of endurance, precision, and, above all, pacing yourself.

test questionnaire, pencil and eraser

This blog post will highlight the importance of pacing, common mistakes, and strategies to ace these exams. Whether you are a first-time test taker or looking to improve your score, understanding the art of pacing could be your key to unlocking success.

Understanding the SAT and ACT

The path to mastering SAT and ACT pacing begins with understanding these exams’ structure, timing, and scoring. Though they might seem similar, each has distinct elements that can influence your test-taking strategy, including pacing.

SAT Structure and Timing

The SAT, a 3-hour long test (3 hours 50 minutes if you opt to take the Essay), is divided into four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (No Calculator), and Math (Calculator).

  1. The Reading section comprises 52 questions to be answered in 65 minutes. You will encounter five passages, each followed by multiple-choice questions. These passages span various topics, from literature and historical documents to social sciences and natural sciences.
  2. The Writing and Language section presents 44 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. It tests grammar, usage, punctuation, and your ability to refine and improve passages.
  3. The Math sections are split into two: one without a calculator (20 questions in 25 minutes) and one with a calculator (38 questions in 55 minutes).
  4. The optional Essay section gives you 50 minutes to read a passage and analyze how the author builds an argument.

ACT Structure and Timing

The American College Testing or ACT, a 2-hour and 55-minute exam (or 3 hours 35 minutes with the optional Writing section), consists of four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science.

  1. The English section includes 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes, testing your understanding of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills.
  2. The Math section involves 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes, covering a broad spectrum of mathematical concepts, specifically from algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
  3. The Reading section includes 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes, featuring passages from various fields like prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science.
  4. The Science section requires you to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes, focusing more on data interpretation and scientific hypotheses rather than recalling specific scientific facts.
  5. The optional Writing section provides 40 minutes to write an essay on a given topic.


On the SAT, each section’s raw score (calculated by tallying the number of correct answers, with no penalty for wrong ones) is converted into a scaled score ranging from 200 to 800. These scaled scores are then added together to give a total score between 400 and 1600. The optional Essay is scored separately.

For the ACT, each section’s raw score is also converted into a scaled score, but the scale ranges from 1 to 36. The composite ACT score is the average of these four scaled scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. Just like the SAT, the optional Writing section of the ACT is scored separately.

Understanding the SAT and ACT, including their structure, timing, sections, question formats, and scoring, serves as a crucial stepping stone in your test preparation. Familiarity breeds confidence, and knowing what to expect on test day reduces anxiety, enhances your strategy for pacing yourself, and empowers you to perform at your best.

Why Is Pacing Important in a Test?

Why is pacing important in a test? Imagine training for a marathon. You would not sprint the first few miles only to collapse before the halfway point, would you?

Similarly, when tackling a substantial test like the SAT or ACT, pacing yourself is crucial. Each of these tests is an intellectual marathon, where your performance hinges not only on what you know but also on how effectively you manage your time and energy.

Unidentified person answering a test.

Pacing is the secret to effective test-taking. It is the delicate balancing act of speed and accuracy, ensuring that you answer as many questions as possible without rushing into avoidable mistakes. Every question on the SAT and ACT carries equal weight. Spending too much time on a single tough question can rob you of the opportunity to answer several easier ones later.

Moreover, pacing has a direct impact on test anxiety. When you are on track with time, you will feel more in control, reducing stress and allowing you to stay focused.

On the other hand, realizing you are running out of time can spike anxiety levels, potentially disrupting your performance even on questions you know how to answer.

Pacing is a vital skill in any standardized test, especially in time-bound exams like the SAT and ACT. It’s the bridge between your knowledge and the ability to effectively demonstrate it under time pressure.

By efficiently pacing yourself, you can maximize the number of answered questions, reduce careless errors, and manage test anxiety during your SAT and ACT exams. Remember, these tests aren’t just about what you know—they’re about how well you can showcase it within a set timeframe. Recognize the importance of pacing, and you will be well on your way to enhancing your test performance.

Common Pacing Mistakes in the SAT and ACT

When preparing for high-stakes exams like the SAT and ACT, understanding potential pitfalls is just as important as mastering the material. One key area where students often stumble is pacing.

Group of students writing on their desks.

Navigating these tests is as much about managing your time effectively as it is about answering the questions correctly. Let’s delve into some of the most common pacing mistakes in the SAT and ACT that students make, providing you with insights to avoid these errors and optimize your test-taking strategy.

1. Spending Too Much Time on Difficult Questions

One of the most common mistakes is lingering too long on challenging questions, leaving insufficient time for the remaining ones. Remember, each question carries equal weight, so it is more strategic to answer all the questions you can confidently tackle first before spending extra time on the difficult ones.

2. Misjudging the Time Per Question

Both the SAT and ACT are time-bound tests, and each section requires a unique time management approach. Misjudging the time you can afford to spend on each question can lead to rushed decisions or unanswered questions toward the end.

3. Not Practicing with Real Timing

Practice is key, but practicing without adhering to the test’s timing constraints can give you a false sense of preparedness. Always time your practice sessions to mimic the actual test conditions.

4. Ignoring Passage Reading Time

Especially relevant for the Reading sections, students often dive into the questions without properly reading or understanding the passage. This often leads to confusion and more time spent going back and forth between the passage and the questions.

Asian students taking an exam


5. Not Utilizing Breaks Effectively

Breaks during the test are there for a reason. Not using these breaks to refresh and reset your mind can lead to fatigue and decreased concentration in the later sections of the test.

6. Not Checking the Clock Regularly

Regularly checking your progress against the remaining time can ensure you are on track. Failure to do so can lead to unpleasant surprises towards the end.

Recognizing and avoiding common pacing mistakes is a critical part of achieving success in the SAT and ACT.  By learning from these common errors, you’re one step closer to mastering the art of pacing yourself and maximizing your test performance.

SAT Time Management Tips

As you embark on your SAT journey, one of the most essential skills you will need to develop is effective time management. It’s not just about understanding the material; it’s about being able to apply your knowledge within a strict time limit.

Here are some practical SAT time management tips and strategies to help you manage your time efficiently during the exam.

  1. Understand the Structure: Familiarize yourself with the SAT’s format and timing. Knowing what to expect can help you strategize and allocate your time wisely across all sections.
  2. Start with the Easier Questions: The SAT does not penalize you for wrong answers, so it’s beneficial to answer as many questions as possible. Start with the questions you find easier to build momentum and confidence, then circle back to the more difficult ones if time permits.
  3. Use the Process of Elimination: If you are unsure about an answer, use the process of elimination to narrow down your choices. This can help you make an educated guess and move on more quickly.
  4. Read Actively: For the Reading and Writing sections, active reading is crucial. Summarize each paragraph in your head as you read to retain key points and save time when answering questions.
  5. Practice with Real Timing: Use official practice tests and time yourself strictly. This will help you get a sense of the time pressure and allow you to adjust your pacing strategy.
  6. Check the Clock Regularly: Keep track of time throughout the test to ensure you are on pace. However, avoid obsessively checking the clock, as this can cause unnecessary stress.
  7. Use Breaks Wisely: Utilize the breaks to rest and recharge. Stretch, have a snack, and clear your mind to maintain your concentration and performance in the next sections.

Remember, effective time management can make a significant difference in your SAT score. Practice these strategies during your preparation to improve pacing yourself and maximize your performance on test day.

How to Improve Time Management on the ACT?

Just like the SAT, the ACT demands a strategic approach to time management. To truly excel on this test, you need to be able to pace yourself, answering as many questions as possible within the given timeframe.

Students taking an exam.

Let’s explore valuable strategies on how to improve time management on the ACT. By mastering these techniques, you can optimize your test-taking strategy, reduce test-related stress, and ultimately, elevate your performance on the ACT.

  1. Know the Test Structure: A solid understanding of the ACT structure, including the number of questions and timing for each section, is the first step towards effective time management.
  2. Adopt a Passage Strategy: For the English, Reading, and Science sections, develop a passage strategy that works for you. Some students prefer to skim the passage first, then answer the questions, while others dive into the questions and refer to the passage as needed. Find your optimal approach through practice.
  3. Don’t Get Stuck on Difficult Questions: Every question on the ACT carries the same weight. If you encounter a difficult question, make a strategic guess, mark it, and move on. If time allows, you can return to it later.
  4. Practice with Time Constraints: Take practice tests under conditions that mirror the actual ACT, including adhering to the time limits for each section. This will help you become comfortable with the pace you need to maintain during the real test.
  5. Regularly Check the Clock: Keep an eye on the time without becoming fixated on it. Regular check-ins can help you adjust your pace as needed and prevent surprises.
  6. Use Your Breaks: ACT breaks are a chance to rest and refocus. Grab a snack, relax, and mentally prepare for the next section.
  7. Answer Every Question: There is no penalty for incorrect answers on the ACT, so ensure you fill in an answer for every question, even if you’re running out of time.

Improving your time management on the ACT is a crucial aspect of enhancing your overall performance. By implementing these strategies for pacing yourself during the exam, you can significantly enhance your test-taking experience and overall score.

Managing Test Anxiety Through Effective Pacing

Test anxiety is a common challenge for many students, especially when facing high-stakes exams like the SAT and ACT. However, effective pacing can significantly help in managing this anxiety.

Let’s delve into how managing test anxiety through effective pacing works and provide strategies for you to stay calm and focused throughout your test-taking experience.

  1. Create a Test-Day Plan: Having a clear plan for test day, including knowing the test structure, the timing for each section, and when to take breaks, can alleviate stress and boost confidence.
  2. Practice Under Real Conditions: Simulating the actual test conditions, including strict timing, can help you become comfortable with the test format and reduce anxiety.
  3. Don’t Rush, But Don’t Dawdle: Maintain a steady pace throughout the test. Rushing can lead to careless mistakes, while dawdling can leave you short of time. Striking a balance is key.
  4. Start with Easier Questions: Starting with questions you find easier can build momentum and confidence, helping you tackle the more difficult ones later with less anxiety.
  5. Use Breaks Wisely: Use the designated breaks to relax and rejuvenate. Take deep breaths, have a snack, or do a quick stretch to reset your focus.
  6. Develop a Mindset for Success: Cultivate a positive mindset. Believe in your preparation and remind yourself that you can manage your time effectively. This can significantly reduce anxiety and increase your test performance.

Efficiently pacing yourself is not just about enhancing your test performance—it’s also a powerful tool for managing test anxiety. Having a clear plan, practicing under actual conditions, maintaining a steady pace, and using breaks wisely can alleviate stress and boost your confidence during the SAT and ACT.

Remember, test-taking is a mental game, and managing anxiety is a crucial aspect of that. So, pace yourself, take deep breaths, and know you are capable. With effective pacing, you are not just navigating these tests but mastering them.

In conclusion, mastering the art of pacing for the SAT and ACT is critical in optimizing your test performance. It’s not just about your knowledge but how efficiently you can apply it within time constraints.

You can significantly improve your scores by understanding the structure and timing of these tests, recognizing common pacing mistakes, and employing effective time management strategies. Furthermore, effective pacing can help manage test anxiety, enabling you to maintain focus and perform at your best.

As you prepare for these critical exams, remember that, like a marathon, the goal is not just to finish but to endure and excel. With the right pacing strategy, you are well on your way to reaching your academic goals.

If you are a prospective college student seeking professional guidance in navigating the complexities of SAT and ACT preparation and the college admissions process, college admissions experts like AdmissionSight are instrumental in helping students in these processes.

AdmissionSight experts provide tailored strategies for pacing yourself during these crucial exams, offering insights into test structure, time management, and coping with test anxiety.

Furthermore, we guide students through the college application journey, assisting in selecting suitable colleges, crafting impactful personal statements, and meeting application deadlines.

Our holistic support ensures students are well-prepared for the tests and the transition to higher education, aligning with the students’ academic goals and personal aspirations. So, do not miss this chance now and book an appointment for an initial consultation with AdmissionSight!


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