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How to Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Reading


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 give you 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, to stop running out of time on it, you must first know its basic layout. We have an in-depth explanation of this in another article, but in case you don't have time to read it, I've written up a summary below.

Feature Image: William Warby/Flickr


How Long Is the ACT Reading Section?

The ACT Reading section is the third section of the ACT and consists of 40 questions on passages in four subject areas (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, literary fiction). In total, you'll have 35 minutes for the section.

Usually, there's 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 five 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 the 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 subject?
    • Voice: What is the tone or style of the author? (subset of inference questions)

Find out more from our detailed guide on the best approach to take when reading ACT passages.


A Big Misconception: Reading Fast = High ACT Reading Score

Excelling on the ACT Reading section is not just about reading speed—otherwise, it'd be called the ACT Reading Race (or something like that). If you read a lot, or read quickly, that might give you a little bit of an edge. But reading fast in no way guarantees that you'll excel on ACT Reading or that you won’t feel rushed.

If you’re a slow reader, you might be thinking, "Yeah, right. I’m already starting from behind since I'm a slow reader. 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've always read pretty quickly and voraciously. In high school, I started keeping track of the books I was finishing because I was a huge nerd and wanted statistics. I found that I was completing 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: "Wait, what? I'm never, ever strapped for time when it comes to reading (unless there's somewhere I have to be and I just want to finish one last page ... chapter ... book ... oops)."

So what the heck was going on? Why did I feel as if 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 actually lacking was experience with the ACT Reading section. For example, I didn’t know that there were 10 questions for each of the four passages. I didn't realize that there were only four passages, and I wasn't familiar with all the question types. I also didn’t keep track of time as I was going through the test until the very end when I realized, "Ahhhh! I have five minutes left! How did this happen?!" And so on.

In reality, the key to doing well on ACT Reading is to be able to skim text while also retaining meaning. If you're a slow reader, you can learn to effectively skim with practice. But 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 passages.


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 isn't enough. You must practice and study effectively.

When studying for ACT Reading, there are three main areas you'll need to focus on to get better at finishing the section in time. We'll cover those next.




Tip 1: Practice Monitoring Your Time

The first skill to practice is keeping track of your time. Read on to learn exactly how to do this.


Know How Long You're Taking on Each Question

If you find you’re taking too much time on a single question, mark it and come back to it when you're reviewing your answers later.

But what is "too much time"? The answer to this depends on your target score and/or on the score you're aiming for on a particular section. Therefore, when preparing for the ACT Reading section, 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 know how to answer.

Remember, the ACT Reading section contains 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. The 52-ish seconds-per-question time limit only applies, however, if you're aiming for a perfect or near-perfect score and need to give every question a fair shot.

If you're aiming for a 25, on the other hand, you can guess on the hardest 10-12 Reading questions and focus your energies on easier questions (though of course which questions are easier depends on the person).

This also means you'll get more time to spend on these questions. If you only need to answer 28 questions correctly to reach your target score, you can spend up to 23 seconds more per 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, "OK, I have 35 minutes and four passages, so I should take eight minutes on each passage and answers the first time through. Then I’ll have eight minutes to go over everything at the end." 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 have finished skimming a passage and have answered all the questions for that passage (even though my initial instinct is to constantly check the time).

You'll need to figure out what works best for you, but my general 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 you have no grasp of the passage of time when you’re practicing answering questions, try practicing with a stopwatch set to go off in five- or seven-minute increments. Just remember that you won’t actually be able to do this on test day (that said, the test proctors might give verbal warnings when there are 10 and five minutes left).


Learn Time-Monitoring Strategies

When looking over the ACT Reading section, 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 and the ones you got wrong or were uncertain about. Was it the wording of the question? The type of question? Were you just tired and misread the passage, so you didn't see the answer? Is there a pattern to the ACT Reading questions you're running out of time on?

All this data is valuable fodder for your test-prep process, which is to establish a feedback loop of testing, reviewing your mistakes, and testing again. Be aware that it is essential not to skip over the middle step of reviewing your mistakes thoroughly.

Not sure whether running out of time is your only issue? Then read the section on understanding your high-level weaknesses in this article.


body_greattimeleft.jpgMike Schinkel/Flickr


Tip 2: Practice Reading Passages and Answering Questions

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 by this?

I can't dictate the best way for you to read the passages, but if your current approach isn't working, you might want to consider switching it up.


The Three Main Methods for Attacking ACT Reading Passages

Here are the three primary options you have for approaching ACT Reading passages:

  • Read the whole passage in detail: This is really only a good strategy if you're 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; you'll then jump back to the passage to find these details. This method can be disorienting for some people, but for others it really saves on time.
  • Skim the passage, then attack the questions: Get a sense of the content, structure, and purpose of the passage before approaching the questions, and then return to the passage for more detailed information required by specific questions.

The more familiar you are with the ACT Reading passages and questions, the more familiar you'll become with 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 that you must read only those specific lines in order to answer it.

Alternatively, if you skim the passage before you answer the questions, you should get used to noticing transition words/phrases such as "however" and "in contrast." These words are important in that they indicate a change in tone. Here's an example: "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.


More ACT Reading Strategies

Which passage you read can make a big difference if you tend to run out of time on ACT Reading.

If you’re more comfortable with certain subject matter, such as 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'll also be more relaxed when you get to the passages that are more difficult for you since you won't have had to struggle right off the bat.

Another strategy is to bubble in all your answers at the end (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 four to five 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 you got (the ultimate in frustrating).

If you can think of other ways to keep yourself from running out of time on ACT Reading (perhaps by using some mindfulness techniques to focus?), that's great. More important than using any one strategy is to use the strategies that work for you.


body_chess_strategy-1ACT Reading strategies: less complicated than chess strategies (MarkRattapong/Flickr)


Tip 3: Practice Taking 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 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 at least 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. What's more, 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 format that switched back and forth from subject to subject was far more difficult (making the ACT a comparatively better choice). Now, though, both the ACT and SAT use a similar format in which the sections always appear in the same order.

Another point to keep in mind is that you’ll most likely be taking the ACT on a Saturday morning, so if you’re not a morning person, be sure to do some practice Reading sections in the morning to give yourself a good idea of what your energy levels will be like on the actual test. If you’re more sluggish in the mornings, your reading speed will probably be affected as well; taking practice tests in the afternoon might not give you an accurate picture of how quickly you can do the ACT Reading section under real test conditions.


Special Circumstances: ACT Timing Accommodations

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 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 (e.g., spending hours and hours on homework and extra credit to make up for low test scores).

The ACT does offer accommodations for eligible students who have documented issues, along with information on the steps students must take in order to get accommodations on testing day.

But a word of warning: accommodations are far more likely to be granted if students' special circumstances have been documented for a long period of time. ACT, Inc. tends to be leery of students who get diagnosed with something just in time to take the test—they might be stretching the truth in order to get extra time.

So how can you avoid getting caught in red tape and having your accommodations held up? Plan and apply for special accommodations early if possible—the request process alone can take a while. If you're in middle school or early high school and are having serious problems with reading when compared with 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 accommodations early isn't possible (for instance, if you only recently acquired a hearing or visual impairment), make sure it's clear to the person documenting your condition (the person who will provide you with the information to send to ACT, Inc.) why you are only doing something about this now. They might want you to explain this to them, too, so it’s good to have an explanation ready.


How to Save Time on ACT Reading: Recap

ACT Reading can be a tricky section for many test takers, but it's definitely possible to save time on it if you know how to prep effectively for it and what strategies to use on test day.

To recap, here are our three tips to keep in mind as you study for ACT Reading:

  • Take timed ACT practice tests and monitor your time on the Reading section
  • Get comfortable with answering ACT Reading questions so you can use all strategies effectively
  • Take entire practice tests in sequence at least a few times before test day so you know what to expect
If you think there’s a bigger problem causing you to run out of time on ACT Reading, get psycho-educational testing as early as possible to confirm your condition and to see whether you are eligible for special timing accommodations on the ACT.

Now, go forth and read!


What’s Next?

How do you figure out what’s causing you problems on ACT Reading? Read our detailed post on what's actually tested on the Reading section, our article that covers the best ways to read the passages on ACT Reading, and our ultimate guide to ACT Reading.

How long is the ACT overall? Get more tips on ACT timing with our guide.

For more tips on how to master the ACT, read our complete guide by PrepScholar's resident perfect scorer.


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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

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.

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