SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Q&A: How and Why Should I Keep Track of Time on the SAT or ACT?


If you want to do well on the SAT or ACT, keeping track of time and how many questions you have left is extremely important. 

Sections are 35-60 minutes long on the ACT and 25-65 minutes long on the SAT. One of the leading reasons students perform poorly on either test is that they run out of time. And one of the leading reasons students run out of time is not because they're not aware of how much time is left.

We'll go over the best way to keep track of time on the SAT/ACT in this article, including what timekeeping devices are and are not permitted on test day.


Q: How Does Knowing How Much Time Is Left Help Me?

Answer: It lets you plan out which questions to answer first.

For each SAT/ACT section, most people agree that it's strategically best to start with the questions that are easy for you. You can then go back and answer the harder ones in an order that depends on how much time is left.

If you have three hard questions and 15 minutes left, it probably doesn’t matter what order you do them in. On the other hand, if you only have five minutes left to do three hard questions, you should try to do the easiest-looking one first. But you can’t even make that choice if you have to rely on having a good view of the big clock on the wall or on the proctor's desk.


Q: What Can I Bring to Time the Exam Sections?

Answer: Not much.

Unfortunately, neither test is very accommodating when it comes to timing devices.  Both the SAT and the ACT have the following strict rules about what you can bring to the test.


Rule 1: You Can't Bring a Cellphone

This is for real. You are technically not even allowed to have a cellphone with you in the room, and you're certainly not allowed to look at your phone during the test or during the breaks in between sections.

In practice, if you do take your cellphone with you to the testing center, you must make sure it is completely turned off. If you want to be really safe and know how to take the battery out of your phone, do it.

Silent mode just isn't safe enough for the SAT or ACT. We say this because cellphones, even on Silent or Airplane mode, can beep or vibrate loudly for various reasons, from a national weather alarm alert to a software update that restarts the phone.

And if your phone goes off, the test is over for you. Your test booklet will be confiscated and disqualified from being scored.

More pertinently, even if you bring a cellphone with you to the testing center (which, again, is technically not allowed), you definitely, definitely can not use your cellphone, even just as a timer.


Rule 2: You Can’t Bring Separate Timers

The College Board explicitly lists "separate timers of any type" as something that cannot be brought in. This means no stopwatches, no kitchen timers, and no hourglasses.


body_nohourglass.pngAn hourglass is not an acceptable timekeeping device for the SAT or ACT.


Rule 3: You Can't Bring Anything That Beeps

If you use a beeping watch in a way that doesn't beep, it should be fine for the SAT/ACT. However, are you sure you won’t accidentally hit a button that makes it beep? Sure enough to bet your entire SAT or ACT score on it?

The only way to guarantee your test won't get disqualified is to play it safe and just bring a watch that cannot make a beep.




Q: What’s the Best Plan for Keeping Track of Time on the SAT/ACT?

Answer: Use an analog (non-digital) watch that can’t beep but that you can easily reset.

You can get a cheap non-digital watch for less than $15 on Amazon. If you’re not great at reading clocks, you can get an easy-to-read one that has the minutes marked on a ring around the watch face.

Once you have your analog watch, practice using it as a timer with either of these two strategies.


Strategy 1: Set Your Watch to Noon

Right when each section starts, set your watch to 12:00 (so that the minute and hour hand are both on the 12). The minutes past 12:00 tell you how many minutes passed since the section started. It's an easier way to check how much time has passed than doing the mental math of, "So we started at 10:48, and it's 11:04 now, which means...16 minutes have passed? Probably?"

The main problem with this method is that you still have to do some mental time math. For instance:

"The 25-minute SAT Math No-Calculator section started at 12 pm and now it’s 12:07pm. How many minutes do I have left?"

The answer is 18 minutes, but the time it took you to do the math in your head is lost time you could've been spending on the test. Save your math for the Math section and use this next trick.


Strategy 2: Use Your Watch to Count Down to Noon

An alternative to setting your watch exactly to noon is to set your watch to a section's length before the hour. For instance, if the section is 25 minutes long, set your watch to 35 minutes past the hour (which is 25 minutes until the next hour). The watch’s countdown to the end of the hour will also be a countdown to the end of the section.

Here's a handy table with the times you should set your watch to at the beginning of each section:

Section Length (minutes)
Set your watch to...
What sections are this length?
SAT Math (No Calc)
SAT Writing and Language, ACT Reading, ACT Science
ACT Essay (optional)
ACT English
SAT Essay (optional)
SAT Math (Calculator)
ACT Math
SAT Reading

*To keep the countdown to noon consistent across all sections, it's better to use 11 and 10:55 here, but you could theoretically use a different time if you wanted.


Setting your watch to count down to noon is helpful because:

  • You effectively have a timer, giving you an edge.

  • It's completely within policy, since you are allowed a non-beeping watch.

  • It's better than doing time math.

Of course, if you use this method, don't forget to reset the watch at the beginning of each section. And when the test is over and you’re out of the test room, set the watch back to the real time.




What’s Next?

Take advantage of your new knowledge of how to keep track of time by reading our tips on saving yourself time during the SAT.

Still worried you'll run out of time? We have more great tips on how to avoid running out of time on SAT/ACT Reading and SAT/ACT Math.

How long exactly are the SAT and ACT, anyway? Find out with our guides to how long (with breaks) the SAT and ACT are.

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Laura Registrato
About the Author

Laura has over a decade of teaching experience at leading universities and scored a perfect score on the SAT.

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