How to Manage Your Time and Breaks on ACT Test Day
When taking the ACT, time management is nearly as important as knowing the material. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about test day, you are not alone! On top of studying the material for each of the four sections, you have to complete the sections in a very strict time frame—it’s a daunting task! Ease your mind with these tips about how to make the most of your limited time.
Overall Time Management Tips
Regardless of the section, use these strategies to ensure good time management:
1. Answer the Easy Questions First
Start by going through the entire section once, answering the questions you know and skipping the ones you don’t know and the ones that will take more time to answer. When you skip a question, make sure you skip it on the answer sheet as well—don’t bubble in the wrong line! That would offset the rest of your answers. Take care not to rush through the easy questions. These are the ones you definitely know, so make sure you are reading them and marking the answers correctly.
Next, go back and tackle the harder questions. When you run into questions you don’t know or think will take more time, skip those questions again (remember to skip on the answer key, too). When choosing which questions to skip this time, weigh the value of the question with the cost of the time you need do it and how confident you feel about your ability to solve it. Remember, all questions are worth the same!
Finally, go back and bubble in a guess answer for the questions you don’t know. There is no penalty for guessing!
If you are still working when the proctor announces the five-minute warning, finish the question you are working on and go back and bubble in guesses for any questions you skipped. Make sure you put an answer for each question. You won’t lose points for guessing, and you might guess correctly and gain points.
2. Know the Instructions
Save valuable time on test day by being familiar with the instructions for each section before you arrive. The instructions in your practice exams will be identical to the instructions on the real exam. However, make sure you always skim the instructions on test day.
3. Don’t Get Caught up in the Details
Many questions and passages will have distracting details. For example, the character names are often unnecessarily complicated. Don’t waste time trying to figure out the correct way to pronounce them in your head or saying to yourself, “hmm, that’s an interesting name.” Call the characters something similar in your head, or rename them using the first letter of their name, and keep moving, concentrating on the substance of the passage or question.
4. Do what You can to Manage Stress and Nerves
The ACT is overwhelming enough to shake anyone, and a distracted mind can take time away from actually answering the questions. While there is no complete cure for test day jitters, try these tips:
a. Establish a good sleep routine starting about a week before the test. Try to go to bed around the same time and wake up at the same time every day, and aim for 8-9 hours of sleep.
b. Don’t study the night before the test. You won’t add anything to your knowledge, and you might be more likely to second-guess yourself on the exam–your gut will say one thing, but your mind will tell you, “No, I just read this last night!” Instead, take this time to relax and mentally prepare for the day ahead.
c. Eat good brain food. On test day, eat a filling, healthy breakfast and pack healthy snacks for your breaks. The last thing you need is a sugar crash in the middle of the math section. Foods that are good for brain function include whole grains and foods high in protein and antioxidants.
5. Choose a Bubbling Method
In test taking, what works for one does not work all. Each of these bubbling methods works for some test takers but not others, and you should have a gut feeling about which one will help you:
a. Bubble each answer as you go.
b. Circle the answers in the test booklet and go back and bubble all the answers at once.
Bubbling in each answer as you go will ensure you won’t get caught at the end of the time period without having bubbled in some or all of the questions. However, there is a bigger risk that when skipping questions, you’ll forget to skip them on the answer sheet too, causing you to bubble all subsequent answers on the wrong line.
Some students feel that waiting to bubble in the answers all at once saves them time, but this method comes with the risk of being caught off guard at the end with no answers bubbled in.
Whichever method you choose should feel the most comfortable to you. However, do not make this decision on test day! Try them out with your practice exams to figure out which one is for you.
6. Choose a Reading Method
Similar to the best bubbling method, the best reading method varies from student to student based on their preferences and personalities. When taking the science and reading sections, will you:
a. Read the passage first and then answer the questions? Or,
b. Read the questions first and then read the passage and answer the questions?
Some students find that reading the questions first is a waste of time for them. It distracts them because while reading the passage they are trying to remember the questions.
Others find that reading the questions first makes important details in the passage stand out to them, giving them a better idea of what to look for in the passage.
Choose the method that feels the most comfortable to you; practice both and choose one before test day. If you choose to read the passage first, be an active reader and concentrate on comprehending the passage so you won’t be stuck reading it over and over. Remember that some questions will ask about the passage as a whole, so make sure you don’t get caught up in the details alone.
If you choose to read the questions first, remember not to read them too intensely. Skim the questions and glance at the answers to get the main ideas in your head. Then, when reading the passage, underline or circle information that corresponds with the questions. Finally, go back to the questions and read them more critically this time, referring to the marks you made in the passage.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
This is the tip that no one really likes to hear, but the best way to prepare for test day is to practice! The key is to practice with actual ACT exams from previous years. Practice these tests under the same conditions that you will take the test—time each section and bubble in the answers on a practice answer sheet.
Where do you get these practice tests?
- There is a free practice test online at act.org.
- The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017—This is the newest prep book published by the makers of the ACT. The general consensus is that this book is a necessary evil. It contains three practice tests. The first two practice tests are updated to the current standards of the exam including more difficult math and science questions, a dual passage in the reading section, and the new perspective-based format of the essay section, while the third practice test is not. Each test contains some recycled questions from exams found in The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd Edition. Unfortunately, this and the free practice test on ACT.org are the only practice tests available that conform to the format of the current ACT.
- The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd Edition—This is a previous prep book published by the makers of the ACT. It contains five practice tests, and while they are older tests and will not be identical in format to the current ACT, they are still extremely helpful for practice.
- Professional ACT tutors will sometimes have old ACT tests that were released but never printed for sale. This is a good question to ask before signing up for a professional tutoring service.
- Barron’s ACT, 2nd Edition—While this book does not contain actual ACT tests from previous years, it is extremely helpful in introducing the most recent changes to the ACT and contains three practice tests with simulated questions in the format of the current ACT.
How often should you practice?
This depends on how much improvement you feel you need after you take the first ACT practice exam. Consider setting aside a few minutes a day to review and taking a practice exam every other weekend. The more you practice, the more prepared you will be!
8. Be Confident in Yourself
After you learn the material and take practice exams, all that’s left is to have confidence in your abilities! If you put in the time and effort, you will keep improving. Remember this on test day!
Now, let’s look at a few section-specific strategies for making the most of your time on test day.
Time Management Tips Per Section
In the English section, you will have 45 minutes to read five passages and answer 75 questions.
After reading the corresponding passage, each question should take you about 30 seconds to answer. You should aim to read each passage and answer its questions in about nine minutes. When timing yourself, watch how long you are spending on each passage. If you spend more than 10 minutes on a passage, think about skipping the rest of its questions and moving on to the next passage.
In the Math section, you will have 60 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions.
Again, it sounds like a daunting task—answering one question per minute?! Yes, one minute is the average time per question, but having studied the material, you will be able to do some problems in less than one minute. This will allow you to take more than one minute to do the more difficult problems. The math section starts with easier questions and moves to harder ones. Don’t let this intimidate you. Think of it as a warm-up. You’ve just had your head in English world for a while, and now you need to switch gears to math. Give the easier questions the time they require, and feel confident when you can answer some of them in less than one minute.
In the Reading section, you will have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions. It will be divided into four sections: the first three sections will each have a longer prose passage and the fourth section will have two shorter passages.
The most important strategy for time management in this section is to choose your reading method (see tip number six above). Decide what works best for you, and stick with it. You will have nine minutes to read each passage and answer its corresponding questions. Remember, you can mark in your test booklet; circling or underlining key words or summarizing each paragraph with one or two words next to it will help you immensely.
In the Science section, you will have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions that correspond with data (think charts and graphs) and passages in the form of research summaries and conflicting viewpoints.
In the science section, it is also important to choose a reading method as you will have only five minutes to read each passage and answer its questions. In this section, many students prefer to read the questions first and refer to the passage or materials presented. Often, a science question will tell you where to look for the answer; for example, if a question starts with “See Graph 1” or “paragraph 4,” you know that is the only part of the passage you need for that particular question.
The Essay section of the ACT is optional. In this section you will have 40 minutes to read a prompt and write one essay. The prompt will present an issue with three different perspectives. You will be asked to analyze and evaluate these perspectives, come up with and explain your own perspective, and discuss the connection between your perspective and the three perspectives given in the prompt.
Which perspective you choose will not affect your score. Think about why you are choosing that particular perspective and examples of evidence you can use in your argument. Use the space on the prewriting pages to sketch an outline of your essay.
Managing Your Time on Breaks
During the ACT, you will have two 10-15 minute breaks, one after the math section and one after the science section if you are taking the essay portion. On these breaks, it’s important to move your muscles; go to the restroom, get a drink of water, and eat a quick snack. Do not study during this time. It will not help you.
If you follow these tips, you will succeed in managing your time on the ACT. Don’t over-think the questions or the clock. Remember, each question is worth the same number of points, practice (practice, practice!), and have confidence in yourself!
Looking for more ACT practice?
Check out our other articles on ACT.
You can also find thousands of practice questions on Albert.io. Albert.io lets you customize your learning experience to target practice where you need the most help. We’ll give you challenging practice questions to help you achieve mastery of the ACT.
Start practicing here.
Are you a teacher or administrator interested in boosting ACT student outcomes?
Learn more about our school licenses here.