Perfect Timing: How to Pace Yourself on the SAT


Slide2Timing is everything. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the world’s greatest joke or a hot stock tip. If you wait too long to use it, it’s not going to help much.

The same is true on the SAT. You can be master every single topic on the exam, but if you can’t complete questions in your allotted time, you’ll be scrambling through the second half of each section.

The graphic on the right illustrates the different sections of the test and the allotted time for each.

Though other factors (like busing schedules and testing center availability) can affect start times, most testing centers begin admitting students into the testing center at 7:30. The doors close at 8:00. After everyone has been seated, the materials have been handed out, and the proctor has read out the test instructions, the exam starts around 9:00.

As you can see from the graphic, you’ll have a 65-minute Evidence-based Reading section followed by a 10-minute break, followed by a 35-minute Writing and Language section, followed by a 25-minute Math section, followed by a 5-minute break, followed by a second 55-minute Math section. If you’re taking the essay, you’ll have a 2-minute break before the 50-minute essay portion. All in all, you can expect to spend about 3 hours and 15 minutes of testing including breaks. Including the essay, it’s 4 hours and 7 minutes.

That’s an incredibly long time to spend in test-taking mode, and it’s important to pace yourself as you move through the test.

It’s equally important to pace yourself within each section. As mentioned above, you never want to be rushing through the second half of a section.

When it comes to Math, all you need to do is—well—do the math. If you have 25 minutes to complete 20 questions without a calculator, that’s 1 minute and 15 seconds per question. If you have 55 minutes to complete 38 questions with a calculator, that’s 1 minute and 26 seconds per question.

The rest of the test is a little more complicated. On Evidence-Based Reading, you’ll be presented with a 500-750 word passage and then be asked 10-11 questions that relate to the passage. Rinse and repeat for 4 more passages. You should try to spend about 2 minutes per passage, then just over a minute per question. Of course, reading speed and strategy might influence the time you need to spend on the initial passage. Either way, you should be spending 11-13 minutes reading and answering questions for each passage.

On the Writing and Language section, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions about 4 different passages. You should still aim to read the passage in under 2 minutes, leaving you with about 30 seconds for each question.

Of course, you shouldn’t stick to a strict time limit on each question. Some questions will always take longer than others, and you shouldn’t stress just because you can’t solve every single question in a practice test well under two minutes.

That said, you should try to leave yourself some time at the end of each section so that you can go back and review your answers. Catching a few careless mistakes can make a significant difference in your final score. If you’re skipping difficult questions with the intent of returning to them at the end, you should take that into account as well.

The new SAT doesn’t penalize wrong answers, so if you do find yourself in a position where you need to rush through the last few questions, try to at least fill in an answer (either random or your best guess) for the remaining questions before time runs out.