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My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT

My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT published on

I’ve been working a lot recently with students preparing for the upcoming September ACT. A lot of the time, they wrote the test in June and want to practice in the summer break to improve their score. I think this is a great strategy, because you can write the test in June along with all your other exams while you’re in exam mode, see how you do, and use the summer to refine your skills.

Almost everyone has more time in the summer than in the school year, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to get in enough work to get the score you need in September and then have an ACT free school year! While working with these dedicated summer-sacrificers, I’ve noticed a common theme – everyone needs good timing strategies for the ACT.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this of course! It’s one of the hardest things about the test.


Many open books lying flat before a blue background with various formulas and letters.


Everyone should watch the clock

For the English section, because it’s so predictable and methodical, you might be able to get away with it, but in Math, Reading and Science, EVERYONE should watch the clock. Don’t become obsessive about it, because that’s a distraction, but you need to make sure you’re on pace. I’m emphasizing everyone here because I think everyone should have a specific plan for how to deal with the timing on these 3 sections.

Strong mathematicians should pace themselves so they don’t rush and make stupid mistakes. If your target is to get the first 30 questions done in 20 minutes, don’t move on to question 31 until 20 minutes is up. Slow down, pace yourself, and check your work. I mean it!

If math is not a strength for you, make sure you are moving fast enough through the test to get through all the questions you’re intending to get to. I’ve written more on math timing strategies for the ACT here – if you don’t have a plan, check this article out! Similarly, you should pace yourself for reading and science.


Use timing markers

This is particularly helpful for reading. I find that when I give my students one reading passage at a time, they usually finish in eight and a half minutes. But when we start putting all four together, they really lose track of time and end up only having 3 minutes for the last passage. This usually ends up lowering a reading score by about 4 points, so it’s critical that you have a good timing strategy for the ACT reading!

Let’s say the test starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up!

You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in.


Skip a passage

Warning: this is not a strategy you should use if you want above a 28 in that section. It’s very hard to get a great score if miss a whole passage, especially on the reading, but if you’re pushing from the low 20s to the high 20s, and always run out of time by a large margin, this can work. Make sure you practice this strategy before test day! You need to have tried it several times to see if it produces a score improvement for you, since there’s a very good chance that it might not work.

For reading, you should have planned already which passage you’re going to skip. Most people find one of the passages much harder than the others – maybe you hate prose fiction, or maybe you hate humanities. Skip that one.

A good, less extreme timing strategy for the ACT reading is to partially answer that ‘skip passage’ – just do all the questions that are about a specific line in the passage. If the question says ‘According to lines 56-58 …’ you stand a reasonable chance of getting it right without having read the whole passage.

For science, it’s a bit harder to decide which passage to skip. If you haven’t studied physics since grade 9, but you’ve done biology and chemistry recently, then skip a physics passage. If you don’t do well with large blocks of text, skip the research summaries passage. If you find it hard to interpret graphs, find the passage with the most complicated looking graph and skip that! Again, you should decide what you’re going to do before test day, and practice it so that you don’t waste time getting stressed out over your decision.


Choose your skip questions

This is one of those timing strategies that works for almost everyone. Some people might skip 10 questions, others only 2, but if you find that you’re spending more than two minutes on a question and not getting any closer to the answer, skip it. Put a star by it so you can come back to it later though. Likewise, if you have no idea how to begin a question, you should skip it. If you find that you have no idea how to begin a question in Math, and that happens more than 15 times across the whole test, that’s an indication that you need to study more. Be careful that you don’t abuse this strategy and just do the questions you like.

When you’re practicing, these skip questions should be the ones you should focus on most; they’re an easy area for improvement. Skip doesn’t mean ‘give up’: it’s a way of playing to your strengths under timed conditions.


Do some untimed practice

This might sounds really counter intuitive, but because you’re putting so much stock into timing strategies for the ACT, this can become your foremost concern. Maybe once every 3 or 4 practice sections, take your time. Focus on getting every question right. It’s easy to become so caught up in timing that you forget about content and answering the questions. You need to strike a balance.


Comment below with your favorite timing strategies for the ACT!