Preparing for the ACT exam is not just about brushing up on your math and grammar rules. Successful preparation also includes building stamina and requires understanding of pacing so you can stay focused over 3+ hours of testing. So exactly how long is the ACT? How many questions do you have to answer per minute? Per section? This article will describe the details of ACT timing as well as preparation suggestions so that you can ultimately maximize your ACT score.
The ACT is exactly 2 hours and 55 minutes long if you don’t take the Writing section, or 3 hours and 35 minutes long if you do. Each section takes between 35 and 60 minutes and is given separately. This means that if you finish a section with time to spare, you can neither go back and review missed questions on a previous section, nor go forward and get a head start on the next section.
|Subject Area||Total Questions||Time in Minutes|
|Writing (Optional)||1 prompt||40|
There will be one 10-minute break after the Math section and a 5-minute break after multiple choice questions (before the optional writing section). Make sure to use that time to move around, to stretch, or to eat an energy boosting snack because after the 10-minute break there is still 80 minutes of test time.
Yes, the pressure can be intense, despite the fact that the ACT is almost 3 hours long (or 3 hours and 35 minutes if you are taking the Writing).
If you are aiming at a perfect score, this table illustrates how long (on average) you can spend on each question on the ACT. In reality, every question will not take the exact same time since you will be able to get through the easier questions faster and take more time on the more difficult questions. If it seems intimidating, remember that consistent practice improves timing.
|Subject Area||Approximate Time per Question|
Developing your focus and endurance are key to doing well on the ACT. You could be the most well-read person in the world, but it does not mean that you can get through the ACT Reading section with flying colors unless you can keep up the pace and energy throughout the test.
Let’s talk about what to do to improve your time management skills for each section.
The English subject area will feel the fastest because you have to get through 75 questions in 45 minutes. If this is a challenging subject area for you, take the time to practice not only the content, but the pacing of the section.
First, start by taking a practice test in semi-test-like conditions. Time yourself, but if you do not finish in 45 minutes, keep going. You want to establish a benchmark of how long it would take you to comfortably get through this section. For example, if you can comfortably get through the English section in 50 minutes vs. 70 minutes, then it will be a lot easier to increase your speed (through consistent practice) by 5 minutes than by 25 minutes.
Depending on the time it took you to get through the English section comfortably, try to shorten the time by 5 minute increments on each go-round and see if you can get the same level of accuracy. Over time this will help you build endurance and accuracy because you will start to recognize similar types of questions.
The ACT Math section consists of 60 questions in 60 minutes. This averages to 1 minute per question – so keeping track of pacing can be relatively easy. Similar to English section, if this pace is too difficult for you, do a practice test at unlimited time to determine how long it would take you to get through the entire section comfortably. Once you establish your baseline, try to improve the time and maintain the same accuracy level with each practice.
Reading and Science sections of the ACT are formatted very similarly, although they test very different subject content. Both sections deal with breaking down content: Reading requires breaking down a long, often dense, passage, while Science entails breaking down charts, graphs, or research reports. As you prepare, find out what works for you and develop a system. Are you the type of student that reads questions first and then goes to the passage, or are you the type that reads the passage and then goes for the questions?
Both systems work well for different types of students, so experiment to see which one works for you. Once you’ve chosen a system, practice it until you can implement it efficiently. The goal is to break down passages quickly enough that you maintain a high level of accuracy.
The best way to prepare for the ACT’s grueling pace, and to build up or increase your test-taking stamina, is to take full, strictly-timed practice tests. Since the actual ACT is usually administered on weekend mornings, plan to take full timed practice exams on weekend mornings. This will give you a good idea of what your energy level is like at that time of day.
Taking practice tests will also familiarize you with the testing format and pacing, especially the sections that allocate less than 1 minute per question. When taking practice tests, simulate actual test conditions as much as possible. Practice bubbling your answers. This may sound silly, but it does take a little bit of time to bubble and you need to account for that in your practice timing.
Finally, if you are taking ACT plus Writing, practice writing your essay after completing the full practice test. Being able to write an essay on a clear unencumbered head is a lot different than doing it after 3 hours of intense test taking. This is exactly what you will be asked to do on the ACT plus Writing, so make sure to practice this to give yourself the best chance of focusing and overcoming fatigue on the actual ACT test day.
On test day, you will have woken up early (possibly after not having slept well the night before). Two hours into the test, you might suddenly feel an energy crush. What should you do?
- Make sure to eat a nutritious breakfast that will slowly release nutrients. This means that you shouldn’t eat sugary or fried foods.
- Always take advantage of breaks. Stretch your body after sitting for 2 hours or use the restroom (even if you don’t feel like it) because you don’t want to suddenly need to go during the test.
- Bring a snack and drink water to replenish lost energy and thirst.
Now that you understand pacing, make sure to be both mentally and physically prepared for the test day.
Check out a video that accompanies this blog post on YouTube: https://youtu.be/suP9ANlZD8M