How to Pace Yourself on Standardized Tests

A Few Helpful Tips from the Pros at Applerouth.

One of the most challenging parts of standardized testing is the time crunch. It’s not enough to know all the content: you’ve got to beat the clock, too. Many students begin their Applerouth journeys with a real fear of the stopwatch, but all is not lost! With a few key strategies (and a lot of hard work), you can show what you know on test day – without running out of time.

Take timed baseline and mock tests

There are lots of different ways to practice for the SAT, ACT, SSAT or ISEE. Some exercises should be untimed – like when you’re just learning a new strategy or content area. There’s one type of practice that should typically be timed, though: mock (or practice) testing. 

We’ve talked before about the importance of baseline testing. Baseline testing is valuable because it establishes a base score for you to work from; it’s hard to know how to meet your goals if you don’t know where you’re starting. However, the value of a baseline test goes beyond the score. Baseline testing also shows you what the time constraints of a given test feel like. For example, the ACT is a much faster-paced test than the SAT. You need to know what it feels like to take the test with test-day timing, and a baseline test is a great way to do that. Likewise, it’s important to do timed mock tests throughout the prep process to prepare you for test day. You shouldn’t do a practice test every weekend (eventually, your progress will flatten out from exhaustion), but you should take one every few weeks. The practice will make you less nervous come test day and will give you a way to track your progress over time.

If you’re looking to start your prep journey with a timed baseline test, we’ve got the event for you! Our National Practice Test Weekend is your opportunity to take a mock test and attend strategy sessions to understand your scores and make a prep plan – all free of charge.

Understand how much time you have per question

A key part of time management is knowing how much time you have to work with. It’s tempting to just take the total testing time and divide it by the number of questions, but that’s not an accurate measurement of how much time you actually have per question. In all standardized tests, some sections are shorter than others. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the test sections individually. How much time do you have per question in this section? 

For some test sections, it’s not even that helpful to think in terms of questions. Here’s what we mean: the ACT’s Reading section is 35 minutes long and has 40 questions. Yes, that means you have 52.5 seconds per question, but that doesn’t take into account the passages! There are four passages in the Reading section that you have to read as well. It’s more helpful to break up the time into chunks based on the passages: you have between 8 and 9 minutes per passage.

As you practice, you may find that you develop your own timing rules. For example, in that ACT Reading section, you might find that you read Natural Science passages faster than Prose Fiction. You might tweak your timing rules to accommodate your own reading speed across different genres.

Practice, practice, practice!

Steady, regular practice is a great way to increase your speed and accuracy, even outside a formal mock test. You can keep tabs on your time by setting a stopwatch or your phone to time you as you move through a set of questions or a passage. Record your time after each try to see if your speed is increasing.

The more you practice a certain concept – say, reading prose fiction passages – the faster you’ll get at that specific concept. It’s like playing a video game or scales on a piano: the first time you try a new task, it takes a long time to get it right. It’s a lot different the 10th time you try. This does require you to learn how to do the concept right, though. If you don’t learn how to actively read, then you may not see an improvement on your 10th prose fiction passage. It’s all about developing good skills and then practicing those skills so they cement themselves in your brain.

Consider wearing a watch

You might not be sitting in sight of a clock when you take your SAT, ACT, ISEE, or SSAT, and you definitely can’t use your phone during the test. Luckily, you can bring a little clock with you! If you find it reassuring, you are allowed to bring a watch when you take the official tests. There are a few watch-wearing rules, though. Your watch must be placed face-up on the desk next to you, and it can’t beep or make any noise (other than ticking, if it’s an analog watch). 

Choose a watch that works for you, whether that means an analog clock face or a digital read-out. If you plan to wear a watch on test day but you don’t normally wear one, try it out during a mock test to see if it helps you. As with all our other time-beating strategies, practice makes perfect.

Closing thoughts

In some ways, standardized testing is like baking: timing is everything. With enough guided practice, hard work, and a few smart strategies, you can beat the clock and earn a perfectly delicious test score.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.