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Improving pacing on the SAT/ACT


One of the most stressful aspects of standardized tests (or any tests, really!) is the time limit. It’s one of the biggest reasons that students see discrepancies between performance during a test prep program and the real exam. And it can leave students who are working very hard to improve their performance feeling defeated. They see success every day in their practice, only to see their performance drop significantly on practice tests.

So what can students do in their practice to improve their pacing?

Understand that pacing comes second. FIRST focus must be on accuracy and process.

Improving test scores takes practice, but more importantly, practicing the right way. If a student, in their practice, is, for example, very disorganized in the way they show their work (because in an untimed setting, this disorganization won’t cost them time), then when it comes time to start doing timed work, the student is going to struggle and/or have to re-learn how to do things in the most efficient manner.

This means that, from the beginning of the prep process, the student needs to focus on process, rather than strictly on results. That is, even if a question was answered correctly, did the student work through the problem in the correct (efficient) way? Was work shown neatly and completely? Did the student underline the question and use the process of elimination? Building those habits from the start is going to make the transition to a timed setting much easier.

Finishing the test is not the goal…scoring well is.

I see many students throw away easy points on early questions in a test section because they are concerned that they aren’t going to get through the entire test. The problem with this mode of thinking is that saving 5-10 seconds on an earlier question by doing the work in their head rather than writing it down only to have 5-10 more seconds on a much harder problem later in the test is a very poor trade-off. Students tend to strongly over-weight the importance of finishing the test vs the importance of doing the best work you can on the problems you attempt (after all, you can always guess on the last few problems you don’t get to!) You can score in the 700’s on the math without even answering four or five  problems, but if a student rushes to get to those last problems, and makes careless errors on 6 of them, they’ll do much worse.

One of the best signs of improvement I see with our SAT and ACT students is a long string of problems answered correctly at the start of a practice test section. On a first practice exam, even if the score itself doesn’t improve much, it’s a great sign that the student is taking changing their process seriously.

Create pacing heuristics

Once the student has a sense of what types of scores are possible, it’s important to create easy to remember pacing heuristics so that the student can very easily, during the test, determine if they are on track. For example, a student whose goal is to get through all of the reading passages can remember “2 minutes per passage, 1 minute per question”. It gives the student an easy way to understand if they are behind or ahead. These heuristics should be memorized by test day.


Of course, improvement on the SAT/ACT is about much more than just working through problems over and over again. That said, by the time the student takes the test, they should know exactly what their pace feels like. And the only way to gain this sense is by doing timed practice. Consistent practice, week after week, is crucial. By the time test day comes around, they should be able to sense whether they are ahead or behind on time without using their watch (which, of course, they should be using!)

Find our why Wells Academic Solutions is San Diego’s premier test prep center. Give us a call to schedule a free ACT/SAT diagnostic and consultation.

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