Feeling pressed for time on any test is extremely frustrating. For me, it’s always the case of my anxiety from racing the clock pitted against the feeling of “if only I had more time, I could do better!” 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 stop time (probably?) and, except for some special circumstances, can’t get extra time, you'll need another solution to help you avoid running out of time. So what strategies can you use? I’ll discuss the top misconception students have about running low on time on SAT Critical Reading section and strategies to avoid running out of time.
First, however, I want to do a quick run-through of the timing for SAT Critical Reading - after all, in order to stop running out of time on the section, 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 SAT Critical Reading Section?
SAT Reading consists of 67 questions over 70 minutes, divided into 3 sections (two 25 minute sections, one 20 minute section, with the possibility of an additional 25 minute experimental section). Each section is a mixture of passage-based questions (with passages on a variety of subject areas) and the sentence completion questions; in total, the Critical Reading section is composed of 48 passage-based questions and 19 sentence completion questions. We have more on what's actually tested on the SAT's Critical Reading section in this article.
The sentence completion questions (choosing the right word or words to complete a sentence in a way that makes sense) are all about being able to use vocabulary correctly. (I go more into detail about strategies for tackling these types of questions if you don't know the vocabulary).
Passage-based questions may include long passages, short passages, or comparing two passages. These questions come in 6 flavors:
- Big Picture: Questions about the main point of the passage.
- Detail/Little Picture: Questions about a specific line or lines in the passage.
- Inference: Questions that ask you to interpret the meaning of line or two in a passage.
- Vocabulary In Context: Questions that ask for how a word is used in a particular instance in the passage.
- Function: Questions that ask how a phrase, sentence, or paragraph functions in the larger context of the paragraph or passage.
- Author Technique: Questions that ask about the passage's tone or style; you'll often be asked to compare and contrast different authors’ techniques.
Click here for more information on the best way to read the SAT Critical Reading passages.
#1 Reading Misconception
The number one thing I've heard when it comes to the SAT Reading is something along the lines of “I’m a slow reader, so I’ll never be able to finish the SAT Critical Reading section in time and I won't be able to bring my reading score up”. FALSE.
Excelling on the SAT Critical Reading section is not just about reading speed – otherwise, it would be called the SAT Speed Reading section (or something like that). If you read a lot, or read quickly, that may give you a little bit of an edge, especially with the sentence completion questions that rely on a working knowledge of advanced vocabulary.
If you’re a slow reader or don’t read a lot, you might be reading this and thinking “well, great. I’m already starting from behind.” But reading quickly in NO WAY guarantees that you will excel on the SAT Reading, or even that you won’t be rushed.
In reality, the key skill to doing well on the SAT Critical Reading section is the ability to skim text while retaining meaning. If you're a slow reader, you can learn to skim through practice. If you're a fast reader, you must be aware that SAT Critical Reading is very different from light fiction reading; you'll need to practice to get the important points from the SAT passage.
So how do you avoid being rushed and running out of time on SAT Critical Reading, even if you are a slow reader?
The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice.
It’s not just the way to get to Carnegie Hall (as the old music joke goes) - practicing the ACT will help you get better at taking the ACT. But it's not enough to practice in any way you can think of - you must practice/study effectively. When studying for SAT Reading, there are three main areas to focus on to get better at finishing the section in time.
1. 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 in review.
But what is “too much time?” Well, it depends on your target score, or the score you are aiming for on a particular section; therefore, when preparing for the SAT 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 SAT Critical Reading section consists of 67 questions over 70 minutes: if you’re spending much more than a minute on a question, you’re going to run into problems, just by the simple math (bonus practice). This 62 seconds-per-question time constraint 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 scaled score of 600, you can guess on the hardest 20% questions and focus your answering energies on easier questions (although of course which questions these are will be different for everyone). This also means you get more time to spend on the questions you are answering - if you only need to get 49 questions right to reach your target score, then you can spend up to 23 seconds more on each question (49 questions in 70 minutes vs 67 questions in 70 minutes - even more math!). Read our article on getting a 600 on SAT Reading for more strategies like this.
Know how much time you have remaining during the test.
This doesn’t necessarily mean dividing up the time beforehand, as in, “Okay, I have 25 minutes with 5 sentence completion passages and 3 passages to read, so I should spend 6 minutes on each passage and questions and 4 on sentence completions and then I’ll have 3 minutes to go over everything at the end."
Those calculations (a) hurt my brain, and (b) take up way more time than they’d save. Instead, get used to keeping an eye on the clock. You'll need to be able to balance passage-based questions with sentence completion questions – don’t let sentence completion questions suck up all of your time and force you to scramble to get through a passage and its questions.
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 zero concept of time when you’re practicing answering questions, you can practice with a stopwatch set to go off at 5 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 (sentence-based completion, big picture, inference)? 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 SAT).
Not sure running out of time is your only issue? Read the section on understanding your high level weaknesses in this article.
Pace yourself to avoid RUNNING out of time.
2. Practice: Sentence Completion, Reading Passages, And Answering Questions
No, practicing the SAT Critical Reading questions over and over won’t necessarily make you a faster reader. It will, however, make you better at searching for clues to help you with sentence completion questions and at reading the passages in a way that will help you answer the questions more efficiently. What do I mean?
Sentence-Based Completion Questions
Here's advice on how to answer sentence-based completion questions when you don’t know the vocab. My advice: if you struggle with these questions, save them for after the passage based reading. That way, you won’t use up time and energy on questions that you’re less likely to get right. After all, SAT questions are each worth one point, so a reading passage “find the detail” question on a short passage is worth just as much as knowing the definition of “picayune.”
This is also a case in which it might be helpful to set yourself a hard time limit: allow yourself 45 seconds per question when first reading it to figure out if you’ll be able to answer it quickly. If you can't answer a question after 45 seconds, you can mark it and decide whether or not you can eliminate enough answers that it’s worth guessing AFTER you’ve answered questions you definitely can answer in the passage-based reading section
Note: Sentence completion questions are going away on the new SAT (2016), so if these questions are your Achilles’ heel and you are class of 2017 or later, definitely consider taking the new SAT in addition to the current SAT.
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 – probably the worst option if you're already worried about running out of time.
- Read the questions first. Inform what details you look for in the passage by reading the questions first, then jumping back to the passage.
- 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 SAT 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 first, if a question has specific lines associated with it (e.g. “In lines 10-38”), only read those specific lines to answer it; do not pull your answer from the rest of the passage.
Compare the above advice to a strategy for if you skim first: 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 “Despite the fact that the viola has a long and noble history, negative stereotypes about violas (and violists) abound in modern day classical music communities.”
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 read the passage on the SAT Critical Reading section.
More Strategy Suggestions
The passage you read first can make a big difference if you tend to run out of time. Scan through all the passages in the section and see if any subject matter looks easier to tackle for you, then start with those, rather than taking the section in order. That way, you won’t be rushing through and getting things wrong on passages you should get and can with a clear mind devote yourself to passages that are more difficult for you.
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 1-2 minutes at the end of each 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. As always, you should only use strategies that work for you.
Think about which strategies will work for you.
3. Practice: Taking The SAT Reading As Part Of The Whole SAT
There’s knowing the material on the SAT Critical Reading section...and then there’s stamina. Unlike the ACT, the SAT varies the order in which material is presented; for instance, you won't always encounter a test ordered Writing (Essay)-Math-Writing-Reading-Math-Writing-Reading-Math-Reading-Experimental. The only constant is that on the SAT, the essay is always first (at least for now; read more about all the changes in the 2016 SAT here).
What does that mean for you? Don’t get too used to taking the test in a certain order. You have to be able to switch your brain from Math to Reading to Writing mode and back again. For me, this worked better than the ACT's "do all the math NOW" organization, because I didn’t encounter brain fatigue from focusing on one subject for an extended period of time, but for other people I know, switching back and forth 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 SAT 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 SAT Critical 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 SAT 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).
SAT 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. CollegeBoard 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 up to seven weeks. 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.
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 CollegeBoard) 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 taking the SAT Reading 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 the SAT Reading, get psycho-educational testing as early as possible to confirm it and see if you are eligible for special accommodations on the SAT.
Now, go forth and read!
Want more strategies for avoiding a time crunch? Read about the 9 ways to buy time on the SAT.
How can you figure out what’s tripping you up on SAT Reading? Check out our detailed analysis of each question and passage type. We also have more in-depth information on passage-based questions in another article.
Find out more tips on timing and the SAT here.
For more on how to master the SAT, read our complete guide.
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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.