How To STOP Running Out of Time on ACT Math Section



Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Math!

If you have taken the ACT before – either real or practice (under timed conditions) – and found yourself only half way or three quarters of the way through the math section before the allotted time was up; if you think it would be completely impossible to finish so many questions on time – rest assured that you are not alone, and it is not impossible.

In this article, I will help you figure out how to stop running out of time on the ACT Math section. I will discuss how you can manage the timing of the ACT Math section and offer suggestions that you can use to  maximize your score on the ACT Math section.

ACT is a standardized test designed in such a way that every student in the United States is able to take it because the ACT tests math concepts that every student has had experience with. There is an added caveat that the test is purposely made to seem difficult because it contains strangely worded questions on a wide variety of topics and subtopics with an added pressure of a severe time crunch.  


Overview of ACT Math Section Timing

Before we can talk about time saving techniques on the ACT math section, you need to understand the structure of the test.  As you probably know, the test contains 4 sections – English, Math, Reading, Science, and a not-so-optional Writing section.

Each section tests exactly one subject. There is no opportunity to come back to any one section once you started another section. The good news is that this means that you don’t have to make your brain jump between subjects, but this also means that math is the only subject tested on the ACT math section. So, if you want to maximize your timing and score, you have to maintain focus.

<img src="Keep your focus on one section at a time."

Keep your focus on one section at a time.


The ACT Math section consists of 60 questions and lasts 60 minutes. This gives you an average of 1 minute per question. Your strategy of approaching the timing hurdle is dependent, in part, by your target score. Keep in mind that the topics of the questions generally appear in order of increasing difficulty. The first half of the test deals mostly with algebra. The second part of the test focuses on geometry and trigonometry questions which usually take more time to solve. This fact may have to influence the time you spend on each question as you go through the test.  Practice with consistency and focus. Get the feel for timing and what you may need to adjust in order to finish on time.

Determine Your Target Math Score

In order to determine your target score (both raw and scaled), take a practice test to set a benchmark of your current level. Next, determine what your target score should be based on the acceptance data of your target schools. (We have an article to help you determine your target score).

Once you have found what your target score goal is, below you will find advice on how to reach it. Please keep in mind that most of the time saving strategies will apply to students within a variety of scoring levels, and there are some specific strategies that will help students within specific current scoring categories.

Time Saving ACT Math Strategies for all Students

You must keep in mind that ACT is all about balancing time and accuracy. The following strategies will help you improve your time and maximize your score regardless of what your target score is.

How to Study Effectively to Improve Timing

1. Get familiar with the test ahead of time.

There is a reason standardized tests are called “standardized”. The wording of the questions will vary, but the tested concepts remain the same and each ACT test is as similar as possible to all other ACT tests.

Getting super familiar with the structure and the question types on the test will help you get through the questions faster and more accurately.  

If you can memorize the important formulas, you won’t have to spend time thinking about them or deriving them during the test. This will allow you to stop running out of time on the ACT math section.

2. Practice, practice, practice

To be able to finish the ACT math section within the allotted time, you have to learn to manage time . Find a quiet place without distractions and take a timed practice test. Get used to the types of questions you will see on the test and the pace you need to finish on time.

As you make your way through the practice test, mark down the time it took you to complete every 15 questions. This will show you what your current pace is and allow you to determine how long it takes you to finish each set of questions.

Next, see if you can challenge your own pace. How long did it take you to finish the first 15 questions? 20 minutes? Great! See if you can do it in 18 minutes. Repeat with each set of 15 questions.

Once you’ve completed the sections faster, compare your accuracy.  Were you able to maintain your accuracy between the two tests, or did you finish faster at the expense of making careless mistakes? Remember that the ACT is all about finding your balance between speed and accuracy.

3. Practice to Identify Your Weakest Areas

Remember the saying, “practice makes perfect?” It is untrue. PERFECT practice makes perfect. If you don’t believe me, just think what would happen if you practice the wrong approach over and over? Nothing. You would be making the same mistakes. But if you are practicing the perfect way of handling a problem, you will learn how to do it perfectly.

Make a list of all of the concepts you got wrong on the practice test. Do they follow a pattern? The list of questions your got wrong is your review list. Make sure to go back to your source material – textbook, a trusted online source, etc., and review concepts that you are not familiar with. Maybe you need to review properties of triangles, or brush up on SOHCAHTOA. Maybe you need to practice plugging in answers or plugging in your own numbers instead of trying to solve problems algebraically. Whatever it is, review each concept.

4. Use strategies specific to your scoring level.

Because there is no guessing penalty, you should never leave a question blank. However, there are still a few strategies that can vary depending on your current score. Remember, as your score increases, your strategies will change.

Planning Your Overall Strategy

1. Learn to recognize when you are spending too much time on a question and let go

It is very tempting to try and answer every question presented to you on the test, but to learn to stop running out of time on ACT math section, you have to learn to be more discriminating with choosing which questions you attempt and how you answer questions.

Each and every question is worth the same amount of points and there is no reason to answer the questions in order, so it is to your advantage to tackle the questions you can answer fastest and easiest first and then try the more time-consuming ones. Rule of thumb is if it takes you more than 30 seconds to figure out and solve a question, leave it and come back to it later.  

If you are moving on from a question after having considered it, choose your best educated guess answer and go to the next question. Sometimes coming back to a question triggers your mind to think of a new way to solve.   If you don’t have time or forget to come back to it, filling in a “guess” answer will give you a 20% chance of getting it right.

2. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

As you go through the test, write in your test booklet. If a problem is referencing a geometric figure, sketch it. Whenever possible, mark down the given and eliminate wrong answers. The reason the writers of ACT don’t always provide a picture is because doing so would make the question too easy and too fast to answer. The problem is that most students want to solve these problems in their heads, forget some small detail, and ultimately get an easy question wrong. Don’t let this happen to you!

3. Identify problems that you expect to take a long time.

Some questions are not very difficult to solve, but take a lot of time to calculate. Stop running out of time on the ACT math section by Identifying those and saving them for last. If you spend too much time on one question and lose the time to get to the questions you had reasonable chance to solve, you would ultimately damage your ACT Math Section score. Remember that your time is better spent on faster-to-solve questions.

What to Do on Test Day

1. Take care of yourself.

Make sure to be well rested on the day before the test and eat a filling and nutritious breakfast in the morning. If you are worried about burning out and losing focus during the test, remember that practice, preparation, and rest can help you develop test taking stamina.  

2. Stay focused on one section at a time.

When working though the ACT Math section, don’t worry about how the English section went, or what you can expect on the Reading, or Science sections. It doesn’t matter. To stop running out of time on the ACT math, the only thing that truly matters is the Math section. Dwelling on anything else, will sidetrack you, and you will lose valuable time.

3. Save time to fill-in your answers on the bubble sheet.

When the testing proctor calls 5 minutes, make sure to fill in answers for the questions you didn’t have a chance to get to. Choosing one letter for each missed question maximizes statistical chances of getting some of them correct.

To save yourself time from going back and forth between your test booklet and bubble sheet, first mark your answers on the test booklet and then transfer your answers in chunks to the answer sheet. Fill in blocks of 10-15 questions at a time. Keep yourself on track and save the time you would spend flipping back and forth between the test booklet and answer sheet.

Make sure you bring a good quality eraser and completely erase marks for questions you skipped, moved forward from, or changed answer to. If you do not have time to come back to a skipped question, a random (educated guess) answer is better than no answer on the ACT.

4. Don’t worry about anyone else’s progress

Ignore everyone else in the room. If you start to worry about how much faster or slower anyone is progressing, you will lose focus. Concentrate only on your own test and ignore everyone else’s pacing.  Only your own test scores should matter to you.

Time Saving Strategies If Your Score is 16 or Below

In addition to general strategies for all scoring levels, here are a few useful techniques that can be used for a specific score range.

If your scaled score is at or below 16, your raw score is somewhere below 23. If you’re aiming for a scaled score of 20 (the national average) then your goal is to get 31-32 raw points (i.e. answer 31-32 questions correctly). In order to manage time on the ACT math section, focus most of your attention on the first 40 questions. This will increase your per question time by 33% and give you 1.5 minutes per question instead of 1 minute per question. This will allow you to slow down your pace and remove the stress of trying to finish every question in the time allotted.

Consider the first 40 question as your region of maximum score gain. Give these questions your biggest effort. Apply the time saving techniques discussed above.  Skip problems that take more than 30 seconds, and eliminate answer choices.

Remember, your goal is to concentrate on the first 40 questions is to save yourself time, not necessarily get all of them right.  

Don’t forget to leave yourself a couple of minutes at the end to bubble in (your best guess) answers to the last 20 questions you didn’t even attempt. You have a 20% chance of getting them right.

Time Saving Strategies If Your Score is Between 16 and 24

If you are currently scoring between 16 and 24, your raw score is somewhere between 23 and 40. To set a reasonable goal, take your target raw score and add 5-7 points. This should be your new range of questions to pay attention to on the test. This new range will allow you to get some questions wrong and still meet your score goal.

For example, if your goal score is 26, you will need a raw score of 43-44. This means that you should focus your attention on the first 50 questions of the test. This will increase your per-question time by 20% from 1 minute to 1.2 minutes.

Consider the first 50 question as your region of maximum score gain. Give these questions your biggest effort. Apply the time saving techniques discussed above. Skip problems that take more than 30 seconds, eliminate answer choices, plug in answers, etc. By focusing most (or all) of your attention on the first 50 problems, you will save yourself time from attempting the last (most difficult) 10 questions.

Before you finish, don’t forget to leave yourself a couple of minutes to bubble in (your best guess) answers to the last 10 questions you didn’t even attempt. You have a 20% chance of getting them right.

Time Saving Strategies If Your Score is 24 or Above

If your scaled score is 24 or above, that means your raw score is 40 or greater. In this score range, you have to review every single question.

In this score range, practice using the time saving techniques that were discussed above. Focus a lot of your attention on practice sprints to shorten your time per 10 or 20 question blocks. This will allow you to determine if you can improve the time and maintain accuracy. Once you get comfortable increasing your speed on a block of 10 questions, split your questions into thirds and do the same thing for groups of 20 questions. Time yourself to determine your current pace. See how long it takes you to complete each third and adjust the time it takes to complete the first 2 sections and accommodate the more time-consuming questions at the end.  As with previous suggestions, solve easiest and fastest questions first to maximize your point gain.  

Keep in mind that this is just one possible strategy. If it doesn’t work for you, experiment until you find the one that does. That strategy will be the one that allows you to accurately answer as many questions as possible.


It is easy to panic and lose hope if you don’t know anything about the ACT. The test is designed to seem difficult on purpose. Students come from different high schools with different available resources and opportunities. The ACT is meant to compare everyone’s abilities on a level playing field.

If you get familiar with the structure and content of the test, take time to review missing information, and practice with the zeal of a competitive athlete, you can decrease the time it takes you to answer each question, increase confidence, and achieve or even exceed your goal score.

Next Steps

Now that you know the strategies of increasing your ACT Math score, the next logical step is to review the most important ACT formulas. The better you know the formulas by heart, the faster and more accurately you can solve each math question. If you are not super comfortable with algebra try plugging in answers or plugging in numbers strategies.

If you feel that you’ve mastered the timing and formulas and want to know what it takes to get a perfect score, read the article on How to Get a Perfect score on ACT Math.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t know where to begin? Start with determining what is considered a good, bad, or excellent ACT score and what exactly is tested on ACT math.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Top Tier Tutoring
    February 7, 2020 5:30 am

    Were these tips helpful for you? Do you think there is any other strategy that was not mentioned in this article? Please comment below.