Running Out of Time on Test Day | Summit Prep

Running Out of Time on Test Day

The first step to beating the clock is knowing why you are not finishing before time runs out. Here are the reasons why students do not finish. And how they can fix it.

1. Strategy

If students do not have the correct strategies, they will often run out of time. For example, a majority of students run out of time on the Science section of the ACT. Why? Because they read the Science passages – which would seem obvious to do – before going to the questions. However, what seems obvious is not, in this instance, the right move. Instead, the “Science” section on the ACT is primarily reading graphs and tables. Thus, reading the passages first is an unhelpful waste of time (except on the “conflicting viewpoints” passage). Just knowing to skip directly to the questions allows most students to finish this section within the allotted time – and often improves their score by 4-6 points on that section. The same is true for all other sections on the SAT and ACT: there are strategies to finishing.

2. Knowledge

When students do not know a topic well, they take longer on it. If students know and have practiced grammar, for instance, then they can answer these questions systematically and with greater speed: they can recognize verbs in the answer choices, know that the question is either testing verb tense or subject-verb agreement, and immediately know to look for the tense of the surrounding verbs and/or locate the subject to see if it matches with the verb. When you know what to do, you are not only more accurate but also faster.

3. Practice

Imagine you are practicing tennis. You have a machine shoot ball after ball to you, and you practice all the different strokes: dropshot, slice, topspin, etc. After practicing for months to hit balls from the machine, you play your first match. How do you think you’ll do? Probably terribly. Why? Because, no matter how much you perfect individual concepts, everyone needs practice putting everything together, working on stamina to maintain focus and energy throughout the game, and experiencing the pressure of game-day. The same is true for tests. No matter how much a student practices individual concepts, they need to take mock tests to improve their pacing, test-taking stamina, and performance under pressure. And, they need to take the real test as much as possible; nothing prepares you for the real thing like the real thing. The more you practice, the faster you will be at whatever you are practicing.

4. Reading Speed

Spider-Man can’t put the book down. Literally. It’s stuck to his hand, and he can’t put it down.

Although knowing the right strategies can help a lot, increasing the amount someone reads is one of the best ways to get better at tests because there is reading on every section of every test. Being able to read, process, and quickly understand what is written is even helpful on the Math section because some of the questions on this section have very long word problems. Thus, reading quickly with comprehension is very helpful on every section. If you struggle with reading speed, try to find good books (any genre of book is fine) and have fun. Whatever books you read will make you a better, faster reader.

5. Taking the Real Test Differently

When I do a practice test, I get an answer, put the answer down, and move onto the next question. But, what I caught myself doing when I took the real SAT and ACT (before tutors were banned from doing so) was getting an answer, double-checking it for a few seconds, putting the answer down, and then moving onto the next question. I was doing this because the answers on the real test matter; whereas I knew that making a silly mistake on a practice test was inconsequential. However, the preceding is actually what NOT to do. Those extra few seconds of double-checking on the real tests completely changes a student’s pacing. Double-checking answers (unless students do so in practice) will often make students run low on time and have to rush or not finish the end of a section. In whatever way students take a practice test, that is how they need to take the real test on test day. Students need to be conscious of the tendency to take longer on the real test so that they actively avoid doing so. Remind yourself: Just do what you’ve practiced countless times before. You’ve got this.

6. Extended Time

If a student is significantly running out of time, then it could be an indication that they require extended time. It’s rare that a student makes it to junior year without ever being diagnosed with a disability that would allow them to qualify for extended time, but it does happen. Sometimes the student has good grades but has simply had to work twice as hard as their peers for those grades. Other students have learned to focus for a 45 minute test in class, but, if given a three-hour exam, they completely fall apart by the end (we’ve had brilliant students go from around a 20 – sometimes below – to 34+ after getting extended time; unbeknownst to them, they had ADHD or ADD that made focusing for the duration of the test impossible). If you have questions about extended time, please feel free to reach out to us. We have a lot of experience determining if extended time might be a viable option and, if so, helping families through the process.


For every problem on the SAT and ACT, there is a solution. That applies to taking the tests as well. The solution might be a lot of hard-work and practice. But, it’s there for the taking for those who will seize the opportunity – and conquer it.



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