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How to Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Math

Posted by Courtney Montgomery | May 29, 2015 3:00:00 PM

ACT Math



Because the ACT is designed to be taken by every high school student in the country, it can only test math concepts that every student has experience with. The way the creators of the test make it hard is by giving you questions on a wide range of subjects and sub-topics, presenting them in strange ways, and by putting you on a strict time crunch. 

Maybe you’ve taken the ACT before--whether practice or real--and found yourself only half way or three quarters of the way through the math section before your time was up. Maybe you just think it would be downright impossible to finish so many questions on time. Rest assured--you are not alone. And it is not impossible.

In this guide, I'll walk you through the timing of the test and teach you how to beat the clock and maximize your time on the ACT.



Understanding the foundation of the test will help you keep your strategies balanced.


Math Section Time Overview

Before you make a plan for how to best use your time on the ACT, it's important to know how the test is structured. As you likely know, the ACT covers four subjects: English, math, reading, and science, with an optional fifth subject--writing--for those of you who signed up for “ACT + Writing."

Each of these subjects is covered on exactly one section during the test and you’ll have and no ability to come back to it once you’ve gone on to the next section. This means you don’t have to bounce your brain so quickly from topic to topic (and back again) as you do on other standardized tests, but it also means that the math section is the only math section on the test, so focus will be crucial for maximizing your timing and score. 



Keep your eye on the prize and only focus on one section at a time. 


In terms of the questions, you will have 60 math questions to do in 60 minutes. This gives you an average of one minute per question. Because the section is not broken up into smaller chunks, you and you alone have to be very careful and strict with yourself about your timing and strategies if you want to finish the test on time.

A good thing to keep in mind as you go is that difficulty (how long a question takes to solve and how familiar you are likely to be with the math concepts) roughly goes up in order on the test. The second half of the test will generally have the questions that take the longest amount of time to solve and will involve more geometry and trigonometry than algebra. So keep that in mind as you go through. 

And always remember: there is no guessing penalty on the ACT, so never leave a question blank!


body_stopwatch_race.jpgYou have to be your own ACT coach and keep track of your own timing. No one will be there to do it for you on test-day. 


Figure Out Your Target Math Score, and Plan Time Strategies Accordingly

To figure out your target raw and scaled scores, take a practice test to gauge your current level and scores. Next, determine what your score goals should be, both raw and scaled. (If you are unsure what your goals should be, that's okay! Check out our article on figuring out your target score.)

Once you've found your target score goal, you can look to our time-saving advice to help you reach it. While most of the time-saving strategies on the ACT apply to all scoring levels, there are a few techniques and strategies that vary depending on your current score and your target score goals as well.

We’ve split our advice into four main categories:

  • time-saving strategies for all scoring levels
  • tips for those currently scoring a scaled score of 16 or below
  • tips if you’re scoring between 16 and 24
  • tips if you’re currently scoring 24 or above.



Pretty soon you'll find yourself in the ACT fast lane. 


Time-Saving Tips for All Scoring Levels

These are the tips that will help you maximize your speed no matter what your current score. Afterwards, look below to find the strategies that best suit your individual scoring level needs.

And remember as you go—the ACT is all about balance between speed and accuracy. Once you’ve found the rhythm that works best for you, you’ll be able to up your score and finish on time.

For the all-inclusive tips, we’ve further broken this section into three different parts:

  1. How to Study Effectively Before Test Day to Improve Timing
  2. Planning Your Overall Math Section Strategy
  3. What to Do on the Day of the Test


How to Study Effectively Before Test Day to Improve Timing

1) Familiarize yourself with the test ahead of time.

Standardized tests are called “standardized” for a reason--the specific questions may vary, but each ACT is as similar to all other ACT tests as possible.

The more familiar you are with the structure of and question types on the test, the better off you’ll be (and the quicker you’ll be able to answer questions!).

If you can also memorize all the important formulas you’ll need for the test, you won’t have to waste your time trying to figure them out from scratch.


2) Practice, practice, practice

Sit down with a test at home and take it timed. Get used to both the types of questions on the test and the pacing you’ll need to finish on time.

As you take your practice test, mark down the time after every fifteen questions. This will show you your current pace. Afterwards, you’ll have a good idea for how long it takes you to finish each set of questions.

Now experiment and challenge yourself on your pacing. Were you able to finish the first 15 questions in 20 minutes? Next time you take a practice test, try to do it in 18 minutes. 

Once you’ve challenged yourself to complete sections faster, compare your accuracy on both tests--were you able to gain those minutes back without sacrificing too much accuracy, or did you lose too many points by trying to speed up? Remember that the ACT is all about finding your right balance between speed and accuracy.


3) Practice smart and identify your areas of weakness

It’s not enough to simply practice the test over and over again if you continue to make the same mistakes with regards to your timing.

Identify which types of problems are the most difficult for you or take you the longest amount of time. Are they usually geometry problems? Word problems? Probabilities? As you get more used to the test and the types of math questions/concepts that appear, see if there are faster or easier ways to solve the questions that take you the most time.

Sometimes this can be remembering the properties of special right triangles, like a 30, 60, 90 triangles, so that you don’t have to take the time to find the side lengths via the Pythagorean theorem. Sometimes it might mean using plugging in the answers or plugging in your own numbers instead of trying to solve the problem algebraically.


4) Employ study strategies according to your current score level and target score.

Because there is no guessing penalty, there is not as much variation in strategy by score level on the ACT as there is on other standardized tests. But there are still a few techniques that should be emphasized more or less depending on your current score.

As your scores increase, your strategies will change. Once you’ve taken your practice test and determined both your current raw and current curved scores, read up on how, exactly, the test is scored. Then, look to the time-saving strategies that suit you for your current level.


As you get more familiar with the labyrinth that is the ACT, you'll learn to navigate it with growing speed and accuracy.


Planning Your Overall Math Section Strategy

1) Learn to let go of a question

It can be very tempting to sit and try to puzzle a question out, but you have to learn how to be more ruthless, both with how you answer questions and in choosing which questions to answer.

Each and every question is worth the same amount of points, so pick the questions you can solve easiest and fastest first and then try the more time-consuming ones. If the question takes you more than 30 seconds to figure out or solve, come back to it later.

If you're moving on from a question, lightly fill in a random bubble (or your best guess answer) and go to the next question. Sometimes moving on and coming back to a question later can trigger your mind to think of a new approach. 

(Sidenote: I say fill it in “lightly” because your bubble should be dark enough that the scanner can read it, but light enough so that you can erase it completely if you have time to come back and find the right answer later.)

By filling in an answer (any answer!) now, you’ll have saved yourself some time trying to puzzle out a long or difficult question, and will have at least a 20% chance of getting it right if you forget or don’t have time to come back to it later.


2) Eliminate answer choices and draw it out

As you go through the test, write on your booklet. Write in the angles and lengths you’re given, draw diagrams, and, most importantly, eliminate wrong answers.

Often, you’ll be given a range of choices, one or two of which will be wildly wrong. If you’re using the plugging in answers strategy especially, you can save yourself a lot of time by eliminating one or two of these wrong answers straight away. The fewer answers you have to try, the faster you’ll find the correct solution.

And keep in mind--any time they describe a figure and don’t provide you with a picture, it means that the question would be too fast and too easy to solve if they provided you with a diagram. Make the drawing yourself! It won’t take you long and it will often point you quickly in the right direction (or at least much more quickly than it would if you tried to work the question out in your head).


3) Identify problems that will take a long time

Some questions are not that complicated to execute, but will take time to crunch through. Identify these and save them for last. 

It is also a particularly good time to use process of elimination on some of the answer choices here. That way, if you need to fill in a temporary answer, you’ve already narrowed down your potential answer options. And you’ve similarly reduced your time in hunting for the right answer if you have time to come back and solve the question later.

Remember that your time is better spent on faster-to-solve questions. If the question will take you more than 30 seconds, move on. You can come back to it if you have time. As long as you’re sure to mark any question that you’ve skipped or guessed, you’ll be able to quickly find it when you come back to it later.



The ACT is an uphill climb. Find your rhythm and practice smart, and you'll reach your timing goals. 


What to Do on Test Day

1) Take care of yourself

Make sure to rest well the day before the test and eat a nutritious and filling breakfast that morning. It can be easy to let yourself get burned out and lose your pacing by doing so many questions in a short amount of time. But practice, preparation, and rest can do wonders for your focus and your stamina.


2) Don’t lose focus on the topic at hand

There is only one math section on the ACT, so you must make it count. Don’t think about how the reading section went. Don’t start anticipating the science section or the essay. 

You will eat up your limited time if you start to get sidetracked; only think about the section you’re currently on at any given time.


3) Bank time to fill in the bubbles 

Always leave a minute or two before your time is up to fill in any bubbles for questions you didn’t even get a chance to look at. A 20% chance of getting the right answer is much better than 0% from a blank answer.

To save yourself time in going back and forth from test to bubbles, fill in your answer bubbles in chunks as you take the test. Fill in either 10 questions at a time or two pages worth of questions at a time (whichever you like better) to keep yourself on track and prevent yourself from having to continuously flip between problem and answer.

Make sure to also bring a good quality eraser. For questions that you’ve skipped and/or moved forward from, fill in your guess lightly in the bubble—dark enough to be read, but light enough to erase if you have time later to come back.

The reason you should still fill in questions that you plan to come back to later is to prevent you from accidentally filling in the wrong bubbles on the test if you were to leave one blank (which would give you all incorrect answers down the line). It also prevents you from leaving a question blank if you completely run out of time and don’t have the chance to come back to the question. As always, a random answer is better than no answer on the ACT.


4) Don't worry about anyone else's pacing

As much as possible, ignore everyone else in the room while you're taking your test. If you start to worry about how much faster or slower other people are taking the test, you will lose your focus. Concentrate on your test alone and disregard everyone else's pacing. Your test and your goals are all that matter.


body_island.jpgYou are a test-taking island. Imagine there is no one else in the room but you. 


Current Score is 16 or Below: Time-Saving Strategies

In addition to the general strategies for all scoring levels, there are a few other useful techniques you can use for your particular score range.

If you’re at a 16 or below scaled score, your raw score is anywhere from a 1 to a 23. If you’re aiming for a scaled score of 20 (the national average), then your goal is to get 31-32 raw points. In order to save yourself time on the test, concentrate most of your attention on the first 40 questions. Doing so will give you 1.5 minutes per question instead of 1 minute. You’ve just increased your time per question by 33%!

Consider these first 40 questions as your region of maximum score gain. Give these questions your greatest focus, applying your general strategies for saving time discussed earlier (moving on from problems that take more than 30 seconds, eliminating answer options when using PIA, etc.).

By narrowing your concentration range, you will be able to slow down, as you won’t be as concerned with trying to finish every single question in the hour allotted.

And don’t think just because the first 40 questions are in your point-gain range that you have to get them all right! If there are problems in those first 40 questions that you don’t know how to do, use your eliminating strategies if possible and then fill in your best guess and move on. You’re concentrating on the first 40 to save yourself time, not to necessarily get points on every single question.

And lastly, remember to also leave yourself a minute or two to fill in random (or your best guess) answers for the last 20 questions. At 20% odds, you’ll get 4 of them right!


Current Score is Between 16 and 24: Time-Saving Strategies

If you’re currently scoring in the 16 to 24 scaled score range, your raw score is anywhere between a 23 and a 40. Take your target raw score and add 5-7. That should be your range of questions to pay attention to on the test, as it will allow you to get some wrong and still meet your score goal.

For example, if you’re aiming for a score of 26, you’ll need a raw score of 43-44. This means you should focus your attention on the first 50 questions of the test. This will give you 1.2 minutes per question instead of 1 minute, which increases your time per question by 20%!

As you solve these questions, apply your general time-saving strategies from above (mark questions that will take too long, use process of elimination, etc.). By putting your focus primarily—or completely—on these 50 questions, you will save yourself time from attempting the last 10 questions (which are often tricky and take the most time).

Before you finish, give yourself a minute to bubble in random (or, if you have time to look at them, your best guess) answers for questions 51-60. If you guess randomly on the last 10, odds are that you’ll get 2 of them right anyway!


Current Score is 24 or Above: Time-Saving Strategies

If your scaled score is at 24 or above, then it means your raw score is currently a 40 or above. In your score range, you’re probably going to look over every single question to determine if it’s one you can do accurately and quickly (rather than focusing your attention on just the first 2/3rds of the test, for example).

In your score range, it will be crucial to practice using your time-saving strategies that we covered for all levels above. Considering your goals, you’ll also want to experiment with shortening the time it takes you to complete each part of the math section, as if you’re running a series of sprints.

To determine your current pace, split the math section into thirds and time how long it takes you to do each third. Work your way to minimizing each of these times.

An example time plan might be for you to aim to finish the first 20 questions in 15 minutes, questions 21-40 in 25 minutes, and questions 41-60 in 20 minutes. By giving yourself 25 minutes for the middle section, you will be going slowly enough to (hopefully) avoid the most common careless math errors. The questions get trickier around questions 20-23, so it’s a good place to slow down a little.

In this example time strategy, finish by giving yourself 20 minutes for the last 20 questions. You more than likely will not be able to finish them all in that amount of time, but you will be able to maximize your point gains in this section by finding the easiest and fastest questions to answer first. 

But bear in mind that this is only one possible time-planning strategy. If this one doesn’t work for you, play around with your timing until you find the right balance between speed and accuracy that best suits you personally.


Treat yourself to a nice nap when the test is over. You earned it!


The Take-Aways

Without knowledge and understanding of how to approach the ACT, it is easy to find yourself panicking. The designers of the test know this, which is one of the reasons the test is so seemingly difficult.

But if you familiarize yourself with the test ahead of time, focus your attention on your prime scoring range, and learn when and how to move on from difficult questions, you’ll be able to increase your time per question (as well as your overall score!). Deep breaths—you absolutely have the ability to succeed on the ACT.


What’s Next?

Now that you know the strategies for maximizing your time on the ACT, it's a good idea brush up on your list of must-know ACT math formulas. The better you know these, the faster you'll be at solving the math questions. And for many of you, you'll be able to save yourself time (and increase your accuracy) by using plugging in answers or plugging in numbers strategies.

If you feel you've got the timing and formulas down and want to see if you can get a perfect score, check out our article on How to an Perfect Score on the ACT Math by a 36 ACT-Scorer. 

Feeling overwhelmed? Don't know where to begin? Look no further than our articles on what is considered a good, bad, or excellent ACT score and what exactly is tested on the ACT math.  


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Courtney Montgomery
About the Author

Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.

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