Feeling pressed for time on any test is extremely frustrating. 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 the SAT 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 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 Reading Section?
The new SAT Reading section is the first section of the SAT and consists of 52 questions over 65 minutes. You'll answer these questions based on the contents of six passages (four single passages and a set of shorter paired passages) spanning three different subject areas (U.S. and world literature, social science, and natural science).
Two passages in each SAT Reading section will also be accompanied by charts or graphics that you'll have to look at to answer a few of the questions. (If you want more specifics, we go into all this in much more detail in our article on what's actually tested on SAT Reading).
SAT Reading questions come in eight main 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.
- Words 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.
- Evidence Support: Questions that ask you what specific evidence supports the correct answer to a previous question.
- Data Intepretation: Questions that ask you to analyze and answer questions about the charts and graphics accompanying the passage(s).
The #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 Reading section in time and I won't be able to bring my reading score up". FALSE.
Excelling on the SAT 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 big picture questions that require you to synthesize information from the whole passage.
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. There are several different ways to approach passages in SAT Reading, and the optimal strategy for one person may be the worst possible idea for another.
In reality, the key skill to doing well on the SAT 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 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 Reading, even if you are a slow reader?
Practice, practice, practice!
Practicing isn't just the way to get to Carnegie Hall (as the old music joke goes)—practicing the SAT will help you get better at taking the SAT. 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 strategies you should use to focus on to get better at finishing the section in time.
Strategy 1: Practice Monitoring Your Time
The first step to improving your ability to finish the Reading section without running out of time is to keep track of your time. The two ways to do this are by recording how long you're taking to answer each question and, during the test, being aware of how much time you have left until the end of the section.
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 Reading section consists of 52 questions over 65 minutes: if you’re spending more than one minute 15 seconds per question, you’re going to run into problems, just by the simple math (bonus practice). This 75 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 Reading score of 30/40, you can guess on the hardest 25% questions and focus your answering energies on easier questions (although of course which questions these are will be different for everyone).
Only aiming to get a 30 on Reading also means you get more time to spend on the questions you are answering. If you only need to get around 36 questions right to reach your target score, then you can spend up to 23 seconds more on each question (36 questions in 65 minutes vs 52 questions in 65 minutes—even more math!). Read our article on getting a 30 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 65 minutes with six passages to read (four single, one set of paired) and 52 questions to answer, so I should spend 12 minutes on each single passage and questions and 14 minutes on the paired passages and questions and then I’ll have three 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 reading the passages with answering questions on them—don’t let one passage suck up all of your time and force you to scramble to get through the rest of the passages and 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 five 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 five minutes left).
Other SAT Reading 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 (paired passage, 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.
Strategy 2: Practice Reading Passages and Answering Questions
No, practicing SAT Reading questions over and over won’t necessarily make you a faster reader. But it will make you better at reading the passages in a way that will help you answer the questions more efficiently.
Because every person processes information differently, I can't dictate the best way for you to read the passages. However, if your current approach isn't working, you might want to consider switching it up. There are three main approaches to choose from:
#1: Read the whole passage in detail. This is really only a good strategy if you are both a quick and thorough reader. It's probably the worst option if you're already worried about running out of time.
#2: Read the questions first. Determine which details you look for in the passage by reading the questions first, then jumping back to the passage to find the answer.
#3: Skim, then attack the questions. Quickly read through the passage to get a sense of its content, structure, and purpose, then approach the questions. Finally, return to the passage to get any more detailed information required by specific questions.
The more familiar you get with 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.
On the other hand, 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."
You'll find 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 Reading section.
More Passage-Reading 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 and 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 two to three 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. As always, you should only use strategies that work for you.
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Strategy 3: Practice Taking SAT Reading as Part of the Whole SAT
There’s knowing the material on the SAT Reading section...and then there’s building up the stamina to make it through. Fortunately, the SAT always presents the sections in the same order: Reading, Writing, Math (No Calculator), Math (Calculator), and the optional essay. This predictability gives you an advantage when prepping, because you can actually simulate test-date conditions when you take full-length practice tests by taking everything in the correct order.
It's important to take at least some practice tests all the way through in the correct order so that you can get used to what it feels like to take the full test. Reading is always the first section, so you'll probably always have the most energy to spend on it, but you'll need to be careful not to burn through all your reserves with the Reading section, only to find that you're too drained to perform well on the rest of the test.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you’ll most likely be taking the SAT on a Saturday morning. Be extra sure to do some practice Reading sections in the morning (especially if you’re not a morning person!) to give yourself a good idea of your energy levels at that time of day.
If you’re more sluggish in the mornings in general, your reading speed will probably also be slower. It's okay to take some or most of your practice tests in the afternoon if that's when you have the most time, but exclusively doing this may not give you an accurate picture of how quickly you can complete the SAT 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 will be the first time you notice you have major problems with reading; however, it may be the first time you won't be able to compensate for it in other ways (like spending hours and hours on homework and extra credit to make up for low test scores).
The College Board does offer accommodations on the SAT for eligible students with documented issues. You can get more information here on the steps you'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're 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 you couldn't apply for special accommodations until recently (for instance, if you only just developed a hearing or visual impairment), make sure it's clear to the person documenting your condition why you're only doing something about this now. Also, while this documenter will provide you with information to send on to the CollegeBoard, the College Board may also want you to explain why you applied for special accommodations only recently, so it’s good to have an explanation ready.
How to Improve Pacing on SAT Reading: A Recap
#1: Take timed practice tests and monitor your time.
#2: Get comfortable with taking the SAT Reading so you can use strategies effectively
#3: Make sure you take entire practice tests in sequence a few times so you know what to expect.
#4: 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 figuring out what approach to reading the passage works for you in another article.
Learn more about the format of the SAT with our article on the timing and content of each SAT section.
For more on how to master SAT Reading, read our guide to getting a perfect Reading score. You might also be interested in our ultimate guide to SAT Reading, which lists all of our articles on SAT Reading, along with a brief description of what's in each article.
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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.