Running out of time on any test is extremely frustrating. For me, it’s always a fight between my anxiety arising from racing the clock and the feeling of “if only I had more time, I could do better!” (spoiler: no matter which feeling wins, I lose). It’s even worse on tests like the SAT and ACT because they’re so lengthy: if you run out of time on a section, you don't get the relief of "Well, at least I'm done with the test" because you have to move right on to the next section.
Since you can’t actually stretch out time (probably?) and, except under special circumstances, can’t get extra time, you'll need another solution to help you avoid running out of time on the ACT. So what strategies can you use? I’ll discuss the top misconception students have about running out of time on the ACT Reading section and strategies to avoid running out of time.
First, however, I want to do a quick run-through of the timing for ACT Reading - after all, in order to stop running out of time on it, you first must know its basic layout. We have an in-depth explanation of this in another article, but in case you don't have the time to read it through I've written up a summary below.
How Long Is The ACT Reading?
The ACT Reading section is the third section of the ACT and consists of 40 questions on passages in 4 subject areas (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, literary fiction) that you must answer in 35 minutes. Usually, there is just one long passage per subject, but on occasion there will be a couple of shorter passages with questions that ask you to compare things across passages. We have more on what's actually tested in ACT Reading in this article.
ACT Reading questions come in 5 main varieties:
- Main idea: What’s the main point or theme of the passage?
- Detail: Given specific information from the text, explain the meaning and/or function.
- Development: In what order are ideas arranged in the passage?
- Vocabulary: As used in passage, what does a word or phrase mean?
- Implied Ideas: From what's written in the passage, what can you infer about the author or the subject?
- Voice: What is the tone or style of the author? (subset of inference questions)
#1 Reading Misconception: Reading Fast = High ACT Reading Score
Excelling on the ACT Reading section is not just about reading speed – otherwise, it would be called the ACT Reading Race (or something like that). If you read a lot, or read quickly, that may give you a little bit of an edge, but reading quickly in NO WAY guarantees that you will excel on the ACT Reading, or even that you won’t be rushed.
If you’re a slow reader, you might be reading this and thinking “Yeah, right. I’m already starting from behind because I'm a slow reader, so there's no way I'll be able to finish the ACT Reading section.” FALSE. I will illustrate just how false this is with a case study...of myself.
I have always read pretty quickly and voraciously. I started keeping track of the books I was finishing in high school because I was a huge nerd and wanted statistics, and found that I was reading about one book every three days. When I took a timed ACT practice test recently, however, I found that I felt really pressed for time.
My first response: What? I am never, ever cramped for time when it comes to reading (unless there's somewhere I have to be and I just want to finish this one page...chapter...book...oops there goes my train).
So what the heck was going on? Why did I feel like I was running out of time, even though I read quickly?
The Main Issue: I Didn’t Prepare for the ACT
Clearly the issue was not that I don't read enough: what was lacking was experience with the ACT Reading section. I didn’t know that there were 10 questions on each of the 4 passages, didn't realize that there were only 4 passages, didn’t know the question types, didn’t keep track of time as I was going through the test until the very end when I realized “ahhhh I have 5 minutes left how did that happen,” and so on.
In reality, the key skill to doing well on ACT Reading section is the ability to skim text while retaining meaning. If you're a slow reader, you can learn to effectively skim with practice. If you're a fast reader, you must be aware that ACT Reading is much denser than your average novel; you'll need to practice to be able to extract important information from the ACT passage.
The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice.
It’s not just the way to get to Carnegie Hall (as the old music joke goes) - practice will get you places with test prep as well. But just doing some desultory, half-hearted practice is not enough - you must practice and study effectively. When studying for ACT Reading, there are three main areas you should focus on to get better at finishing the section in time.
Practice: Monitoring Your Time
Know how long you’re taking on each question.
If you find you’re taking too much time on a question, mark it and come back to it when you're reviewing the answers.
But what is “too much time?” It depends on your target score and/or on the score you are aiming for on a particular section; therefore, when preparing for the ACT Reading, you must know your raw and scaled target scores. Why does this matter?
If you’re aiming for a lower target score, you can skip more questions, and spend more time on the questions you do answer.
Remember, the ACT Reading section is composed of 40 questions that you have to answer in 35 minutes: if you’re spending more than a minute on a question, you’re going to run into problems, just through simple math (bonus practice). The 52-ish seconds-per-question time limit only applies, however, if you are aiming for a perfect or near-perfect score and need to give every question a fair shot.
If you're aiming for a 25, you can guess on the hardest 10-12 questions on Reading and focus your answering energies on easier questions (although of course which questions are easier depends on the person). This also means you get more time to spend on these questions - if you only need to get 28 questions right to reach your target score, then you can spend up to 23 seconds more on each question (28 questions in 35 minutes vs 40 questions in 35 minutes...and you thought there wouldn't be math in this article).
Know how much time you have left while you're taking the test.
This doesn’t necessarily mean dividing up the time beforehand, as in, “Okay, I have 35 minutes and 4 passages, so I should take 8 minutes on each passage and answers the first time through and then I’ll have 8 minutes to go over everything at the end." Because even typing that made my head hurt, and doing those calculations in the moment will take up way too much time.
Instead, get used to keeping an eye on the clock. I personally try to check the time ONLY after I've finished skimming a passage and after I've answered all the questions on that passage (even though my initial instinct is to constantly be time-checking). You'll need to figure out what works best for you, but my advice is to avoid checking the time more than once every few questions - otherwise, you'll end up wasting time trying to save time.
If you find that you have no grasp of the passage of time when you’re practicing answering questions, you can practice with a stopwatch set to go off at 5 or 7 minute increments – just remember that you won’t actually be able to do this on test day (although the test proctors may give verbal warnings at 10 minutes left and 5 minutes left).
Time monitoring strategies
When looking over the test, mark questions you end up spending a long time on as well as the ones you’re not sure about. Really break down what stumped you about the questions you spent too much time on as well as the ones you got wrong or were uncertain about. Was it the wording of the question? The type of question (like vocabulary, or how ideas are ordered in the passage)? Were you just tired and misread the passage, so you didn't see the answer? Is there a pattern to the questions you're running out of time on?
All of this data is valuable fodder for your test prep process: establishing a feedback loop of testing, reviewing your mistakes, and testing again. It is essential not to skip over the middle step of reviewing your mistakes thoroughly (for more on this, read my article on the best way to review mistakes on the ACT).
Not sure running out of time is your only issue? Read the section on understanding your high level weaknesses in this article.
Practice: Reading Passages and Answering Questions
No, practicing the ACT Reading questions over and over won’t necessarily make you a faster reader. It will, however, make you better at reading the passages in a way that will help you answer the questions more efficiently. What do I mean?
I cannot dictate the best way for YOU read the passages, but if your current approach is not working, you might want to consider switching it up.
The 3 Main Options:
- Read the whole passage in detail. This is really only a good strategy if you are both thorough and quick as a reader – it's probably the worst option if you're already worried about running out of time.
- Read the questions first. Figure out what details you need to look for in the passage by reading the questions first, then jumping back to the passage to find the details. This is disorienting for some people, but for others it really saves on time.
- Skim, then attack the questions. Get a sense of the content, structure, and purpose of the passage before approaching the questions, and then return to passage for more detailed information required by specific questions.
The more familiar you are with the ACT Reading passages and questions, the more you'll be accustomed to the test and the better you’ll know what to pay attention to and when to use which strategy. For instance, if you read the questions before reading the passage, and run into a question that has specific lines associated with it (e.g. “In lines 12-42”), you'll know to read only those specific lines to answer it.
Alternatively, if you skim through the passage before answering questions, you should get used to noticing words and phrases like “however” and “in contrast.” These words are important because they indicate a change in tone, as in “While some scientists still adhere to the cold-blooded dinosaur hypothesis, recent research has convinced many more others that a likelier hypothesis is…”
We have more strategies, as well as more detailed information on why you might want to choose one approach over the others, in our article on the best way to approach the passages on the ACT Reading section.
Which passage you read can make a big difference if you tend to run out of time. If you’re more comfortable with certain subject matter, like prose fiction, start with those passages and questions, rather than going through the section in order. Not only will you be able to pick up some easy points by answering questions you're more likely to get correct, but you will be more relaxed when you get to the passages that are more difficult for you because you won't have had to struggle right off the bat.
You can also see if bubbling in all your answers at the end helps (read more about this in the Quick Tip section of our perfect scorer article). This strategy is only helpful, however, if you can make sure to leave a good 4-5 minutes at the end of the section to do this, since you don’t want to run out of time before you bubble in answers that you got (the ultimate in frustrating).
If you can think of other ways to keep yourself from running out of time on SAT Reading (perhaps by using some mindfulness techniques to focus?), that is also great. More important than using any one strategy is to use the strategies that work for you.
ACT Reading strategies: less complicated than chess
Practice: Taking The ACT Reading As Part Of The Whole ACT
There’s knowing the material...and then there’s having the stamina to get through it. Luckily, the ACT never varies the order in which material is presented, which gives you an advantage when prepping: you can actually emulate test-day conditions when you take practice tests by taking everything in the right order. Just like you wouldn’t practice for a triathlon by only doing each activity separately and never doing them all together, or wouldn’t only rehearse a play with scenes out of sequence before opening night, you need to take the ACT Reading section in sequence with the rest of the ACT a few times before test day.
On the other hand, because ACT Reading is always the third section of the ACT, your brain will probably be tired by the time you get to it. Moreover, even after you finish the Reading section you'll still have one more section to go (the Science section). For me, this really became a factor, since my brain got fatigued from focusing on one subject for an extended period of time, but for other people I know, the old SAT's requirement that switch back and forth from subject to subject was more difficult (and so the ACT was a better choice). Since most colleges nowadays accept both ACT and SAT scores, it’s good to do both a timed SAT and a timed ACT and see which format works best for you.
Another point to keep in mind: you’ll most likely be taking the ACT on a Saturday morning, so if you’re not a morning person, be extra sure to do some practice Reading sections in the morning to give yourself a good idea of your energy levels. If you’re more sluggish in the mornings in general, your reading speed will probably be affected as well; taking practice tests in the afternoon may not give you an accurate picture of how quickly you can complete the ACT Reading section under real test conditions.
If you really have trouble with reading in time-constrained situations, you might qualify for special testing accommodations. It's unlikely that prepping for and taking the ACT would be the first time you notice that you have major problems with reading; however, it could be the first time you wouldn't be able to compensate for it in other ways (for instance, spending hours and hours on homework and extra credit to make up for low test scores).
The ACT does offer accommodations for documented issues to eligible students, along with information for students on the steps they'll need to take in order to get accommodations on testing day. But a word of warning: Accommodations are far more likely to be granted to students if their special circumstances have been documented for a longer period of time. ACT, Inc. tends to be leery of students who get diagnosed with something or other just in time to take the test, since the students might be stretching the truth in order to get extra time.
How can you avoid getting caught in red tape and having your accommodations held up? Plan and apply for special accommodations early, if at all possible - the request process alone can take a while. If you are in middle school or early high school and are having serious problems with reading when compared to your peers, get psycho-educational testing then, rather than waiting until it's time to register for the ACT.
If for whatever reason applying for special accomodations early was not possible (for instance, if you only recently acquired a hearing or visual impairment), make sure it is clear to the person documenting your condition (who will provide you with the information to send on to the ACT, Inc.) why you are only doing something about this now - they may also want you to be able to explain this to them, so it’s good to have an explanation ready.
Actions to Take: A Recap
- Take timed practice tests and monitor your time.
- Get comfortable with answering ACT Reading questions so you can use strategies effectively
- Make sure you take entire practice tests in sequence a few times so you know what to expect.
- If you think there’s a bigger problem that's causing you to run out of time on ACT Reading, get psycho-educational testing as early as possible to confirm it and see if you are eligible for special accommodations on the ACT.
Now, go forth and read!
How do you figure out what’s causing you problems in ACT Reading? Read our detailed post on what's actually tested, our article that covers the best ways to read the passages on ACT Reading, and our ultimate guide to ACT Reading.
Find out more tips on timing and the ACT here.
For more tips on how to master the ACT, read our complete guide by PrepScholar's resident perfect scorer.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.