How to Pace Yourself On Every Section of the SAT
The SAT is a test designed to measure college and career readiness and is most often used for college admissions. Since it is standardized, it must take place under strict time constraints. Each of the test’s four required sections and one optional section have strict time limits that are enforced, and even breaks are divvied up according to a prescribed schedule.
These time limits ensure that the testing experience is universal and that no students receive an unfair advantage (though some students may qualify for extended time through the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). Although it’s easy to feel rushed as the clock keeps ticking, knowing how to approach the SAT’s time limits is just another part of preparing for the exam.
There are three essential parts of SAT prep: content knowledge, test strategy, and time management. Of course, there is overlap between the three, but overall time management tends to be the single easiest piece of the test prep puzzle to prepare for. All you need to do is know the pace required to complete each section of the test, hopefully with a few minutes to spare to review your answers.
Format of the New SAT
Before you can think about the pacing for individual sections of the SAT, you should have some sort of idea of the overall format of the test.
The strict time constraints begin even before the test does. Most test centers open their doors at 7:45 AM on test day and close them promptly at 8:00 AM. Check your admissions ticket to confirm that this is the case at your testing center. If you aren’t inside when the doors close, you won’t be taking the SAT that day.
Testing will begin sometime between 8:30 and 9:00, depending on how long it takes for everyone to get to their assigned rooms and seats and for proctors to distribute testing materials.
The first part of the test will be the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing test. This part has two sections — a Reading test and a Writing and Language test. The Reading test comes first, consisting of 52 multiple-choice questions, which you’ll have 65 minutes to complete.
Next comes the Writing and Language test, comprised of 44 multiple-choice questions. You’ll have 25 minutes to complete this part of the test.
After you’ve finished both components of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing test, you’ll begin work on the Math test. The first section of the Math test is Math – No Calculator, during which you’ll answer 15 multiple-choice questions and five grid-in questions over the course of 25 minutes. Next, you’ll complete the Math – With Calculator section, which lasts 55 minutes and consists of 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-in questions.
After you complete the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing test and the Math test, you will be finished with your SAT, unless you choose to write the essay. The optional SAT essay takes place last for students choosing to complete it, and 50 minutes are allotted for it.
This might all sound very hectic, but don’t worry. The more you practice and prepare for it, the easier it will become. Here, we will breakdown the test for you section by section to give you a better idea of how much time you should be spending on each part of the test.
Pacing for the Reading Test
The new SAT Reading test consists of 52 multiple-choice questions, which are based on five text passages. Passages are between 500-750 words (or paired with another short passage to total 500-750 words). You’ll have 65 minutes to read all of the passages and the 10-12 questions associated with each.
Your goal should be to complete reading and answering all questions with at least a few minutes remaining at the end of the section, so that you can review your work or return to any questions that gave you trouble.
This means you should allow approximately 12 minutes for each passage. After you’ve finished the questions associated with the third passage, check your time. You should have between 25-30 minutes remaining, though of course the more time you have left, the longer you’ll have for review. Adjust your pacing if you know you’ve left lots of guesses to review at the end of the section.
Top time-management tips for the SAT Reading test:
Practice your skim-reading skills and mark the text as you go to stay engaged and to highlight important areas like a thesis or supporting evidence.
Break : There will be a ten minute break after the Reading test. This is the longest break you’ll have during the test, so take this opportunity to use the restroom. (Yes, even if you don’t think you need to go.) You should also consider having some water and a quick, nutritious snack like some trail mix or a granola bar. During this break, try not to engage socially too much. You should remain focused on the test and what you need to get done in order to stay in the right frame of mind to hit the ground running on the next section.
Pacing for the Writing and Language Test
The new SAT Writing and Language test contains four passages and 44 multiple-choice questions. Each of the passages is 400-450 words long and, as with the Reading test, you should aim to complete every passage and its questions with a few minutes remaining, so that you can review your work.
To do this, you should spend eight minutes on each passage, leaving yourself three minutes to review at the end. After two passages, check the time. You should have just about 20 minutes remaining if you’re staying on track.
Top time-management tips for the SAT Writing and Language test:
Answer questions while you’re reading. Passages and questions are arranged alongside so it’s easy to complete each question as you arrive to it in the text. Reading the passage first and then returning to answer questions is a waste of time in this case.
No Break: There is no formal break between the Writing and Language test and the beginning of the Math test, but there will be a minute or two of downtime while the test proctor reviews instructions. Take this time to recenter yourself. Shifting from verbal-based skills to computational ones can be a mental stretch. Try closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Don’t worry about how you look — everyone around you is too busy focusing on their own tests to notice what you’re doing. Calm yourself and prepare to shift your thinking by clearing your head. Try rolling your shoulders or arching and releasing your back to relieve tension. You can do this!
Pacing for the Math – No Calculator Test
Pacing is slightly different on the math sections of the SAT due to their organization. In general, questions are ordered by difficulty with the most difficult questions coming at the end of the section. Grid-in questions also come at the end of the section and are also generally ordered by difficulty.
Keep in mind that your individual strengths will ultimately decide which questions are most difficult for you. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the questions at the end of the test are not as challenging as you’d feared. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to plan on the questions towards the end of the test taking you longer than the questions at the beginning.
On the Math – No Calculator test, there are 15 multiple-choice questions and five grid-in questions that you need to complete in 25 minutes. A straight division of time would yield 75 seconds for each question. We recommend that you aim to spend closer to 60 seconds on each question whenever possible, conserving extra time for more difficult questions and for the grid-in questions, which take slightly longer to fill in on the answer sheet.
If you can get to the grid-in questions with nine minutes remaining in the section, you’ll have 85 seconds for each grid-in question and another two minutes remaining to review your work.
Top time-management tips for the Math – No Calculator test:
Try to conserve time at the beginning since the questions at the end of the test will likely take longer. Use the two-passes strategy to make sure you answer every question that you find easy. This means skipping problems that seem very difficult and returning to them after you’ve completed all of the questions you find easier.
Break: There is another five-minute break after the Math – No Calculator section. Use this time to visit the restroom. (Again, yes — even if you don’t think you need to. We don’t need any emergencies!) Have another quick drink (but not too much). It may also help to eat some kind of carbohydrate at this point to give you a sustained energy boost for the last few sections of the test.
Pacing for the Math – With Calculator Test
The last section of the required SAT contains 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-in questions, which you are allowed 55 minutes to complete. As in the Math – No Calculator section, questions are ordered by difficulty with the most difficult questions coming at the end of the section. Grid-in questions also come at the end of the section and generally appear in order of difficulty.
This means that you can usually expect to spend slightly more time on the questions at the end of the math sections than those at the beginning. If you divided your time equally, you’ll have 80 seconds per question and 4 minutes to review at the end. Try to aim for closer to 65-70 seconds per question whenever possible. This way you’ll have more time for the questions that generally require a little more thought.
If you can get to the grid-in questions with 16 minutes remaining, you’ll have 90 seconds for each grid-in and still have 4 minutes to review your work.
Top Time Management Tips for the Math – Calculator Test:
Use the same strategies as you did for the Math – No Calculator test: try to conserve time on earlier questions since the questions at the end will likely take longer. Also, apply the two-passes strategy to make sure you have time to answer every question that you find easy.
Break: The break between the Math test and the optional essay is mostly intended to allow time for students who are not taking the essay to gather their belongings and leave. You will only have two minutes, and it’s unlikely that you’ll have time to use the restroom. Try having a bite of something sweet to jump-start your energy. Now is the time for chocolate — you’ve earned it!
Pacing for the SAT Essay
The SAT essay allows you 50 minutes to read a passage of 650-750 words, analyze how the author makes and supports an argument, and plan and write an essay. This is, under any lens, a test of your efficiency. You will need to apply active reading skills, create a rough outline of your thinking, write an essay, and ideally edit it as well, all within the specified 50 minutes.
To get off on the right foot, plan to spend about five minutes reading the passage and dissecting it. Normally, you could probably read a passage of this length in about two minutes, but you should be reading actively, underlining the thesis statement and taking notes about supporting evidence.
After you’ve read the passage actively, jot down a rough outline of your five-paragraph essay. This should take another five or six minutes. You’ve now planned your essay and can begin writing. Check your watch to make sure you know how much time you have left to do so.
Ideally, you should have about 35 minutes remaining. This leaves six or seven minutes for you to write each paragraph and still have five to ten minutes for a final edit.
Top Time Management Tips for the SAT Essay:
Spend the time needed at the beginning of the essay section to read closely and plan your essay. You will ultimately lose time if you start writing without a clear plan or direction.
And that’s a wrap! With these tips you can pace yourself through the entire SAT and maximize your potential to achieve your highest score.
For more information about preparing for specific sections of the SAT, read these CollegeVine posts:
If you still have questions about SAT strategies or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.
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