ACT Time Management Tips

ACT Time Management Tips

Students always focus on preparing for the ACT questions and subjects, but what about preparing for the actual test day?

We will be looking at some basic strategies you can use to help improve your time management and do your best on the ACT.

Learn about your testing facility

The first thing to consider is the testing facility; if you are not familiar with the location, building, or room, you will take the ACT, visit it a day or two before the exam.

This will allow you to see how much time it takes to drive and park at the testing location and not feel rushed the morning of the ACT. The worst thing to do to yourself is to rattle your nerves the morning of the exam by not knowing if you will arrive on time to take the ACT.

Test proctors must close the testing room at 8 AM, and latecomers are not allowed to enter. If you have prepared for the questions on the exam in advance, make sure you do the same thing by equipping yourself with the location and driving time.

ACT necessities

Once you have registered for the ACT, you will need to print out your admission ticket. A proper photo ID is required with your admission ticket the morning of your exam. If you are unsure about your photo ID, make sure to check the ACT website for the comprehensive list of allowed and not allowed forms of ID.

Other necessities for the ACT include:

  • sharpened number 2 pencils with erasers
  • a simple watch with no sounds or connectivity
  • a permitted calculator that you know how to work and its functions and buttons
  • a snack and water for the break

The one object to turn off once you have found the correct room is any cell phone, tablet, or wearable watch. If your device goes off or you use it during the exam or the break, your score will be dismissed.

Now that you ready to start the ACT, let’s talk about the test itself.

Know the amount of time the ACT allows

Students and parents often ask when arriving at the testing location, “How long is the ACT?” Of course, if you have done ACT practice tests, you know how long you have on each section. But how long does the ACT take on the actual day of testing?

The ACT is 3 hours long (technically 2 hours and 55 minutes). If you’re taking the optional ACT Writing section, the test clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes or just over 4 hours with breaks.

You should plan for the time between sections so that the proctor can read the directions, pass out and collect the test booklets and answer sheets.

Are there breaks during the ACT?

The answer is yes; there is a 10-minute break after the second section, which is always Math. The usual length of the ACT runs about four and a half hours from start to finish. This includes the four areas, English, Math, Reading, and Science.

Now it’s time to discuss ACT time management so that you can earn the highest number of points on each section by answering the most or all the questions correctly.

Understand how ACT questions look and work

To boost your ACT scores in each area and your overall ACT score, you need to understand the ACT questions themselves.

The ACT is not like any test you have seen in a high school class. To be objective and an accurate assessment for colleges, the ACT cannot test every student’s knowledge in each of the four areas.

So you might be wondering how to study for the ACT…if it is not fact-based. ACT questions must only have one correct answer. The questions use the information in the passages, data tables, graphs, or charts, depending on the section.

Once you think about it in this way, you can now see how it is possible to answer every question in the time allotted. If you have taken the ACT previously and have run out of time because you treated it like a school exam, it is now time to think about each section individually, plan and practice, and find the best strategy for you. Suppose you are not sure how to tell if a method is working; reach out to a tutor for ACT lessons so that they can aid you in finding what works best for you.


Prepare for each section differently

Each section of the ACT has differing numbers of questions and time limits, so prepare accordingly.

ACT English

The English section is 45 minutes long and consists of 75 questions. If this seems quick, you are correct! The ACT English time per passage breaks down to 9 minutes for each of the five passages.

However, a better way to think about the English portion of the exam is by question. A good ACT time management strategy is to read the passage and then finish the sentence where you see some annotation. This could be an underlined or highlighted word or phrase or a number; once you have completed that sentence, move over to the related question, and answer it with the text fresh in your mind. Doing ACT prep with a tutor or an online ACT tutoring program will help you with the content of the English section of the exam.

The four C’s for answering ACT English questions

A good rule to follow is the 4 C’s for correct answers on the English portion of the ACT.

1) The answer must make a Complete sentence
2) The answer must be Consistent to work with the passage it is referring to
3) The answer must be Clear with its meaning
4) The answer must be Concise.

Determine the order you’ll answer questions by personal difficulty

One of many ACT study skills that students find helpful is determining a personal order of difficulty for the questions.

For example, the questions on the English portion of the exam are not in order, with “easy” ones at the beginning and “harder” ones at the end. It would help if you got in the habit of answering NOW questions first. These questions are “easy” for you and allow you to go through the whole English section earning points and not rushing with your answers.

Then, place a mark on the test booklet or answer sheet for questions that you deem medium difficulty and make sense to answer on your second pass.

Finally, make sure you have selected two letters of the day. After your second time through the test, see how much time remains and then decide if you can put time into your most difficult questions or use your letters of the day to make sure you have an answer-filled in for each question.

ACT Math

The Math section is second and has 60 questions in 60 minutes. Again, this is quick, but; the questions are solvable in 30 seconds. If any question takes you 2 minutes or longer, you should mark it and move on to the next question.

Since calculators are allowed on the Math portion of the ACT, you should use one you have used in the past. You do not earn extra points for mental math, but a calculator with buttons in different locations or functions you do not know how to use will only slow you down.

Questions are ordered from basic to complex

Unlike the English section, the Math questions follow a progression with more straightforward questions to start and more complex questions towards the end. As you do practice exams, use ACT study tips, like this one, to your advantage and try to keep the first 30 questions to 30 seconds to allow yourself more time on the second half.

Plug and play with variables

A common question or set of answers that intimidate students are those with variables instead of numbers. Do not let this scare you! Since this is a multiple-choice test, plug in a number for the variable and see if it makes the expression true. A good rule of thumb is to not use 1, 0, or -1 as your value, as these can lead to multiple correct answers depending on the mathematics involved.

Eliminate and approximate

The process of elimination and approximate solutions also work to get you the correct answer. Unlike in school, you do not earn partial credit for showing your work or making a tiny mistake. The answer is either right or wrong. A knowledgeable tutor can help you review math vocabulary, as well as applications of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

ACT Reading

The third section of the ACT is Reading. This section contains four passages with 40 total questions and 35 minutes.

A passage starts with the number 1, each piece has ten questions, and samples are always in the same order in terms of the subject. Use this knowledge to your advantage when selecting the way you will answer the questions:

1) Prose fiction or Literary Narrative
2) Social Science
3) Humanities
4) Natural Science

Work with an ACT Reading tutor

Working with a tutor can help you decide the best order for you to work through these passages. First, ask yourself which sections you score the best on and start with those. A sample pacing guide would be 11 minutes for your first passage, 10 minutes for the second, 8 minutes for the third, and 6 minutes for the last.

This way, you focus on the content you enjoy or are familiar with and should make fewer mistakes on those questions, giving you a higher score.

Read, skim, skip

Another time management technique for the Reading section is how you will read the passages and the questions. Try out each method to see what works best for you.

1) Read the whole passage and then the questions
2) Skim the passage and underline lead words or context clues
3) Skip the passage and read the questions first

When doing the Reading section, the critical thing to remember is that you are not reading for comprehension, nor do you have to memorize and understand the text. Just like the English section, the questions are not in order of difficulty, so pick where you want to start and work from there. If none of the passages look exciting, look for the shortest answers in the set of 10 questions. These questions require referring skills and do not require much reasoning.

Your next type of questions to answer are ones with line references or highlighted text. These point you to the text you need to read and do not require you to read the whole passage to answer the question.

ACT Science

The final section is Science, which is 6-7 passages, 40 questions in 35 minutes. The passages will be one of 3 types of content:

1) Charts and Graphs will be 2 of the passages with six questions each
2) Experimental design will be 3 of the passages with seven questions each
3) Conflicting viewpoints will have one passage with seven questions and requires the most amount of reading

By now, you should know not to do the questions or passages in order. To work through the passages most efficiently, look for the following:

  • Graphs and tables with small amounts of data
  • Charts and tables with easy to see trends
  • Graphs and tables with numbers
  • Questions with short answers

If you have just finished studying one of the topics in your science class, that piece will make more sense to you, and the questions may seem more straightforward.  

Don’t panic if you don’t know the material or a word seems unfamiliar. The ACT exam does that to make you think the question is more complex than it is. When doing ACT prep, do not go through years of science notes, thinking they will help you on the exam. Working with a tutor to help you dissect the content and look at the reasoning for the correct answer will help you finish the Science portion of the ACT and have time to review questions that were tougher for you the first time through.


Remember: the ACT is unlike any other test

The biggest takeaway you can have about the ACT is that it is not like any test you have taken in high school; since that is the case, you cannot prepare for it like a test in one of your classes. Preparing well, timing yourself as you progress, and working with a tutor who knows the patterns within each section and can help you avoid common ACT traps will help you decrease the time you spend on each question and increase your score as you can think through more questions and make fewer mistakes. Have a plan for each portion of the ACT and reset yourself before each section to be confident in your preparation and ability to do well.

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