Top 10 time management tips for the SAT


Three hours and forty-five minutes is a pretty long time to stare at a test booklet and try feverishly to come up with the right answers to SAT questions. Sometimes, those 225 minutes can feel downright interminable. But at other times, the three hours and forty-five minute limit doesn’t feel like enough time.

Running out of time on a test — especially an important one like the SAT — isn’t fun. We’ve all been through it. And unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to run out of time on the SAT: There are a lot of questions crammed into fairly short sections, and test-takers often get bogged down by super-hard questions, unsure of whether they should guess and move on or keep working.

1. Bring a watch

Yes, your test site should have a clock, and your proctor should write the remaining time on a whiteboard if possible, but it’s Murphy’s Law that things will go wrong if they can. Bring a non-beeping watch along to protect against that possibility.

2. Know how many questions are in each section

It’s hard to manage your time if you don’t have at least a sense of how many questions you’ll have to complete in each section. You don’t have to memorize these stats, but try to be generally familiar with the composition of each section (this will come naturally if you do practice tests). 

Writing consists of three sections: one 25-minute essay section (always first on the test); one 25-minute section with 35 questions (Improving Sentences/Paragraphs, Identifying Sentence Errors); and one 10-minute section with 14 questions (Improving Sentences; always last on the test)
Critical Reading consists of three sections: one 25-minute section with 24 questions (Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension); one 25-minute section with 24 questions (Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension), and 20-minute section with 19 questions (Sentence Completion, Reading Comprehension)
Math consists of three sections: one 25-minute section with 20 questions (Multiple Choice); one 25-minute section with 18 questions (Multiple Choice, Grid-In), and one 20-minute section: 16 questions (Multiple Choice)
Experimental won’t be marked as such — but you’ll have 25 minutes to do it (the number of questions will vary).

3. Be familiar with the instructions ahead of time

This one’s (relatively) easy: Take enough practice tests/do enough practice problems to know the instructions for each section ahead of time. It’ll save you precious minutes come test day.

4. Don’t be afraid to skip questions and return to them later

There’s no law that says you have to do questions in order. If you think you might be able to answer a question, but know it might take you a little while, skip it for now and return if you have time.

5. Don’t be afraid to guess — when appropriate

If you have absolutely no idea how to solve a problem, and have no idea how to eliminate any answer choices, do NOT guess. Statistically speaking, the numbers aren’t in your favor. It is, however, worth it to guess on the SAT if you can eliminate one or more wrong answer choices. So if you know answer choice E is wrong, but have no idea how to eliminate further, bubble in a guess and move on. Don’t waste valuable time wrestling over a question you’re not going to be able to narrow down further.

6. Take notes on Reading Comprehension passages

Underline key sentences and jot down the main idea of each paragraph. It may seem like a waste of time, but in the end, it’ll save you time. How? Well, if a question asks about a particular detail, but doesn’t tell you where to look in the passage, what will happen if you haven’t taken notes? Right — you’ll have to reread the passage. So: Develop a note-taking strategy that works for you, before test-day comes around! 

7. Don’t spend the same amount of time on each question

Allocating your time equally to spend x minutes on each and every question might seem like a great strategy. However, it’s important to remember that (except in the critical reading section) questions go in order from easiest to hardest on the SAT. Answer the earlier questions more quickly, saving time for the trickier questions towards the end. As for Critical Reading: Answer detail-oriented questions first; they’ll familiarize you with the passage and allow you to answer general questions without having to reread the passage.

8. Use all the time you’re given

If you’re lucky enough to finish all the questions in a section, don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs! Go back and check your answers. Look especially closely at any questions where you had to make an educated guess. You might just be able to eliminate another answer or two, further increasing your chances of success.

9. Plan your essay-writing wisely

Yes, you only have 25 minutes to complete what will be considered a “final first draft” by SAT essay graders. Still, this does not mean that you should go straight to writing. Take a minute or two to brainstorm and another few minutes to write a rough outline, with your thesis and supporting examples. You’ll get a better score on the essay if your essay is structured logically—and your essay is more likely to be structured logically if you take the time to outline. 

10. Know your target score

News flash: Unless you’re aiming for a perfect 800 on each section of the SAT, you don’t have to answer all the questions on the test. If you get 80% of the questions on an SAT section right, for example, you’d achieve a 650 — a very respectable score. In other words, you could leave one-sixth of the questions blank, get a few questions wrong — and still walk away with a 650. If you’re not looking for an 800, it might be in your best interest to increase your accuracy by spending more time on fewer questions. If you’re looking for a: 

700: You can leave one-twelfth of the questions blank
600: You can leave one-fourth of the questions blank
500: You can leave one-third of the questions blank.

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