Note: Even though I focus on the ACT reading section in this post, you can apply the approach I outline here to any section you're having time trouble with, ACT or SAT.
Of all the sections on the ACT, the reading section is by far the toughest for me to finish on time, and I consider myself a decent reader. In fact, it's notorious for being the hardest overall to finish.
At this point, you might be laughing. How can you say that when you got a 36 on the reading section? While it's true I got a 36 on my first sitting of the ACT, it certainly didn't start out that way. I routinely ran out of time on practice sections, even missing an entire passage sometimes because I got bogged down on a few questions. I was averaging below a 30 when I started out and it took me quite awhile to get the timing down. In this post, I'll show you how exactly I conquered the timing for this section.
First things first. In order to work on your timing, you'll need something to time yourself. A stopwatch on your phone will do when you're practicing, but if you plan on bringing a watch to the exam, I highly recommend practicing with your watch. Don't have a watch that meets test conditions? I recommend one in this post.
Now let's do some math!
The ACT has 4 passages, each with 10 questions. You're given 35 minutes. I've calculated that it takes me approximately 2 minutes to actually bubble in all the answers, and I bubble pretty fast. So that leaves 33 minutes to actually do the section.
Dividing 33 minutes by 4 passages gives you a little over 8 minutes to do each passage (set of 10 questions).
Now some students like to read the passages first and then answer the questions. Others like to jump directly to the questions and then hunt for the answers in the passages. I'm going to save this debate over strategy for another post, but I will say that my preferred approach is to read the passage quickly first and then move onto the questions.
I've done over 30 practice ACT exams, so I'm not just making stuff up here. I've really refined my approach to ensure that I get to all the questions.
Anyway, we have a little over 8 minutes to do each passage.
I've found that my optimal timing is to read the passage in about 2.5 to 3 minutes and then answer the questions in 4.5 to 5 minutes.
You really can't dilly-dally when you're reading the passage. Try not to backtrack. I wouldn't call it skimming because I do try to retain as many main points and details as possible, but it's definitely not like I'm doing literary analysis either. I guess speed reading would be the most accurate term.
Now each passage has 10 questions. Since I'm left with about 5 minutes for the questions, that gives me about 30 seconds to do each one. Man, those 30 seconds go by very very fast. For the easier questions, you really have to choose the answer and go. That way, you bank as much time as possible for the questions that require more searching in the passage.
I skip over any question that I know I can't track down in 30 seconds, questions like "the passage mentions all of the following EXCEPT". I save these for last because doing the other questions first gives me a better working knowledge of the passage that I can then use to get through those more time-consuming questions faster.
Now that you know the timing breakdown, let's go over how you practice effectively.
1. Establish your baseline time per passage.
Using a stopwatch, see how many minutes it takes you to finish a complete section. Go as fast as you can but not so fast that you're no longer confident in your answers. In fact, really try to get all the questions correct. Once you're done, note the time it took and divide by 4 to get your time spent per passage. You want to see how much you're missing the optimal 8-minute mark by.
2. Practice one passage at a time
Once you've established your baseline, you should have a sense of how much faster you need to go. At this point, do one passage at a time until you can finish it in 8 to 9 minutes.
This is the hardest step to accomplish because it takes a lot of practice to cut the time down. It took me more than 8 practice tests of doing one passage at a time to consistently hit the goal, so don't expect it to happen overnight. After all, you're learning the test at the same time.
Also don't get frustrated if your times go up and down. It's natural for your timing to fluctuate depending on the difficulty of the passage.
A good guideline is that you never want to spend more than 10 minutes on one passage. I call that the point of no return. Once you've spent more than 10 minutes on a passage, even an easier passage later on won't save you from your time deficit.
3. Practice entire sections
Once you're reasonably confident you can finish one passage in 8-9 minutes, now it's time to practice entire sections in the allotted 35 minutes. This is the true test of stamina and focus.
During this phase, you should feel out whether it helps to use a stopwatch to track time spent. For me, I use the stopwatch on my watch like so:
- After the first passage is finished, I glance at the stopwatch to make sure I'm under 9 minutes.
- After the second passage, I take a glance to make sure I'm under 18 minutes.
- After the third passage, I take a glance to make sure I'm under 27 minutes.
- Towards the end of the fourth passage, I take a glance to make sure I'll finish within the 35 minutes.
- If any of these checks indicate that I'm behind, I push myself to go a little faster. Usually this means that on the next passage, I'll skim the first sentence of every paragraph instead of reading the entire thing. If I'm running out of time on the last passage, I jump to all the questions I know I can answer.
- I circle every answer in the test booklet so I'm not interrupted by the switch to the answer sheet. I bubble in my answers after each passage (10 questions at a time). Batching your bubbling helps you cut down the time you spend doing so.
Not everyone should use a watch during the exam. For some students, the watch is a distraction and a stress trigger that they check constantly. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you should use a watch on test day. For me, it's not an issue.
Obviously, as you improve your comprehension and familiarity with the exam through practice, your timing will get better. Both go hand in hand, but I will save those strategy and concept-based discussions for other posts. The most important thing is that you consciously practice your timing as you improve your reading skills.