The ability to successfully pace yourself — knowing how much time you have left and how much time to spend on a given question – is a key success factor for standardized test-takers.  The New York Times Education section just ran a terrific article on how to find, set and regulate your pace on standardized tests.

Here are 8 tips from that and other sources to pass along and work on with your students:

One: Take timed practice tests.

One more great thing about doing some practice testing under conditions that mimic the actual test is that it helps students get a feel for how fast they have to move to answer all the questions (if that’s the goal) or however many questions will yield a student’s best score.

Two: Set a target score or score range.

Strong students will want to shoot for answering all the questions correctly on a given section of the SAT or ACT. But for many test-takers, a better strategy for an optimal score is to skip the hardest questions – giving them that much more time to make sure they answer the highest possible percentage of the remaining questions correctly.

Three: Know your time budgeting style.

Some test-takers like to scan the questions first to get squared away. Some like to whip through and answer the easiest questions first. Some like to methodically take one question, then the next. Others like to skim passages on an English test and head into the questions, then go back and forth a bit as they work on the answers. Help students identify their style and what works for them on different test sections. This will improve their confidence and pace-keeping ability on test day.

Four: Don’t burn too much time on any one question.

You’ll want to coach most students to move on if they’re struggling with a question, or even if they’re confused by how it’s worded. An effective time management strategy is to keep moving, being careful to answer the easiest questions and the ones you’re surer of correctly upfront. Then go back and use any remaining time to tackle the harder problems.

Five: Know the rules about guessing and use them advantageously.

The SAT and ACT differ in how they are scored, and this has a major impact on “guessing” strategies. On the ACT, there is no penalty for wrong answers. Tell students taking the ACT that when the proctor tells them there are five minutes left to finish a section – go back and pick your best guess answer for every question. Guessing strategies for the SAT is a big topic. The short answer (pun intended) is: never guess blindly on the SAT. If you’re guessing among two or three possibilities or you feel “pretty sure” about one, it’ll probably benefit your score over the test as a whole to “guess wisely” on those kinds of questions.

Six: Adjust your pace to the specific test and section.

Overall, the ACT is paced faster than the SAT. And on different sections of either test, the number of questions and the total time allotted is different. For example, the ACT math test currently allocates 60 minutes to answer 60 questions, versus 45 minutes for 75 questions on the English section. Coach students to find a rhythm and pace that works for them, given how much “average” time they have to read and answer each question.

Seven: Know the directions in advance.

Here’s a time-saving tip for test-takers – you don’t have to waste time reading the directions for a test section if you know them in advance. Coach students to get comfortable with the directions during practice test time, so they can go straight to the first question on test day.

Eight: A timer can help reduce stress and keep pace.

Every student is different when it comes to their ability to set and keep an internally driven pace during a test. One “prop” that’s allowed in the testing room is a watch or other time-keeping instrument (provided it meets certain criteria; e.g., it can’t beep and it can’t browse the web). For some students, a time-keeping device can be a godsend! This can be especially true for kids who don’t relate well to analog wall clocks. For this overall purpose, absolutely nothing beats the testing timers – “the solution to stressful timing in standardized testing.” They’re affordable, easy-to-use, and pre-programmed to perfectly time each section of both the SAT and ACT. Reports from students indicate that these devices (which also have a perfectly good “watch mode”) reduce stress, save time and improve confidence – so make sure your students know they’re available and encourage them to get one and practice with it if they think they’ll have one on test day.

Do you have any other tips to help students pace themselves on the SAT and/or ACT? How about some test- and section-specific guidance?

Featured image courtesy of nicolasnova.

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