In order to do well on the SAT and ACT, you’ll need to manage the clock. Doing so, however, is often less daunting than it seems.
If you’re having trouble with timing on any test section, the first step is to figure out how much time you should be spending on any given question. Divide the total amount of time you have for that section by the total number of questions—this gives you the average amount of time you should spend on any given question.
On sections where questions are arranged in order of increasing difficulty (SAT Math and Writing, ACT Math), plan on spending a little less time on the earlier questions and more time on the later questions.
To fine-tune your timing, practice solving individual questions within the given time limit. Once you get good at solving individual questions within the time limit, then move on to larger parts of a section and/or entire sections. Just make sure to carefully track time as you work.
When you’re working through an entire section, make sure not to get stuck on any one problem. If you’re spending significantly more time than you’ve allotted for any given question, move on to the next one. You can always come back to the problem if there is time left at the end of the section.
Remember that your speed will also improve as your mastery of the exam improves. Timing is a function of clock management, but it’s also influenced by your command of the material.
As you practice, you’ll start to develop a natural sense of timing for each section. You’ll know, in other words, how much time you have for each question, when it’s time to move on to the next question, and when time is almost up for the section—all without looking at the clock.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check the clock every once in awhile as you work through a section. You should. But it does mean that you should avoid obsessively checking the clock. Doing so takes sizable time and mental energy away from the task at hand: accurately completing the section. It can also create additional anxiety. It’s not uncommon, consequently, for someone’s scores to increase when they start to check the clock less frequently.
If you find that you perform your best by closely watching the clock throughout a section, then by all means, please do so. But if you’ve never tried to work with a more natural sense of timing, give it a shot. It takes practice, but it will ultimately afford you more time, calm and mental energy on test day. Those are things everyone could use.