Proper pacing is an important factor for success on any timed exam. Students preparing for the ACT or SAT need to know how fast (or slow) they should work each section of the test.
Monitor your pace throughout each section.
The best way to monitor pace on the ACT / SAT is by passage. For example, the ACT English (section 1) is 45 minutes long with 75 questions. You could think of pacing in terms of minutes per question, but it is hard to keep track of your progress by just knowing you should complete a question every .6 minutes (or 1.66 questions per minute.)
Instead of trying to time each question, you should look at the English section as a collection of 5 passages, each with 15 questions. 45 minutes divided by 5 passages means you have 9 minutes per passage. You can work the first set of 15 questions and when you finish, check your watch. Are you close to 9 minutes? If so, great; keep working. If you have been working too quickly, take a deep breath and proceed to the next passage with a plan to slow down. If you took too long, you know to speed up, but you still have four passages to go, giving you a fair opportunity to make up the time and still finish.
Per passage pacing works on all sections of the ACT and SAT except for math which is not divided into passages.
Here is a pacing guide with times per passage for all non-math test sections:
Total Time for This Section
Number of Passages
Number of Questions per Passage
TIME PER PASSAGE (to finish all)
Knowing your pace per section is fundamental, but only part of the challenge. In order to work at the right speed, you also need to monitor your progress during the test. This is where having a watch or timer is essential.
“No watch? No problem.” This is terrible advice! You need to keep track of time throughout each section and not wait for the last five minutes hoping the supervisor provides an accurate warning. You should monitor your own pacing.
Yes, the test center should have a clock in the room. But this isn’t enough to properly track your progress.
In the middle of a stressful and taxing exam, you don’t have time to do a lot of mental math. “We started Section 1 at 8:17 and I’ve finished the third passage at 8:42. Am I on pace for this section?” You also don’t want to chance sitting in a testing room where the clock is located on the back wall requiring you to turn around to check the time. Or in a classroom with a broken clock…
Bring your own watch!
Ideally, every test taker would have his or her own timepiece. Of course some watches are better than others for this purpose. Here are my top choices, in order:
The easiest way to monitor time is with a stopwatch. Many digital watches now come with this feature. Unfortunately, unless you purchase a high-end model, your watch probably beeps every time you push “start/stop” or “clear.” Watches are allowed, but they must be silent.
It is easy to make your watch stop beeping. All you need is a small screwdriver and some paper or tape. Here’s how:
Last fall I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a digital watch with a stopwatch feature for my daughter to take her SAT. We spent less than $15 on the watch and modified it according to the video above. I’ve found plenty of inexpensive watches on Amazon that have the stopwatch option. It is worth $5-$15 and a little time to have a reliable stopwatch for use on the ACT or SAT.
2. Analog watch (“Mickey’s Hands” watch)
If you don’t have a watch with the stopwatch feature, the next best option is the traditional analog watch. I tell my students to think of this as a “Mickey’s Hands” watch or a watch that has a face very similar to the traditional clock found in most classrooms.
You might think this type of watch would make it hard to time passages, but there is a trick. At the beginning of each section, reset the watch to 12:00. Now the minute hand will tell you how long you have been working. During the exam, you don’t need to know what hour it is, so you can focus on the minute hand to time each section.
3. Digital watch [NOT recommended]
While it is very easy to read the time on a digital watch, it is not easy to determine time elapsed for the purpose of pacing. If your digital watch doesn’t have a stopwatch feature, I’d recommend you use an analog watch or get a stopwatch for use on the day of the test.