Stop Running out of Time on ACT Reading Section

Stop watch

In this article, I will help you learn how to stop running out of time on the ACT Reading section.

The most frustrating thing about taking any timed test is the anxiety that inevitably comes with it and the feeling of “if only I had more time, I could do so much better.” This anxiety is even more apparent on SAT or ACT because they are long. On regular school tests, even if you run out of time, you can just shrug and say, “at least I am done with the test.”  Not so on standardized tests.  If you run out of time on one section, you have to immediately shake it off and give your full focus to the sections that follow.

Every student taking the ACT has the same amount of time for each section. This time cannot be stretched (except under special circumstances). In order to confidently complete the ACT Reading section, you have to come up with ways to stop running out of time.

In this article, I will discuss what strategies you can use to stop running out of time as well as the most common misconceptions students have about ACT Reading, but first, I want to do a quick summary of the timing on ACT Reading so that you have an idea of what you are going to face.

How Long is ACT Reading?

To stop running out of time on the ACT Reading section, learn the format of the exam. The ACT Reading section is the third section of the ACT test and consists of 40 questions that have to be answered in 35 minutes. 4 different passages comprise the test, they are always presented in the same order: Literary Narrative, Social Studies, Humanities, and Natural Science. Usually, there is one long passage per subject, but sometimes you can see a set of shorter paired passages with questions about each short passage as well as questions that ask you to compare or identify relationships between ideas in the two passages. There is more information about what is actually tested on the ACT Reading.

There are 5 main types of ACT questions.

  • Main Idea: What’s the main point or theme of the passage?
  • Function: Given specific information from the text, explain the meaning and/or reason for the detail.
  • Development: How did the author build his argument?
  • Vocabulary: What does a certain word or phrase mean in terms of the context of the passage?
  • Implied Ideas: What can you infer from the passage (or what does the author suggest) from the information written in the passage?
    • Voice: What is the author’s style or tone?

Take a look at my in-depth guide on the best way to approach the ACT Reading Passages.

Does Reading Fast Always Result in High ACT Reading Score?

One of the most common misconceptions among students is that Fast Reading results in an excellent ACT Reading score. Sure, if you are able to read fast, or your read voraciously (= a lot), you may have a little bit of an edge over the other students, but speed reading in No Way guarantees that you will get an exceptional score on ACT Reading, or that you wouldn’t be rushed.

It is also incorrect to assume that a SLOW Reader is at a disadvantage. There are ways for slow readers to complete the ACT section with confidence and within given time.

Main issue most students face: Not preparing for the ACT enough

To stop running out of time on the ACT Reading section, make sure to put in the time to prepare.  While some students really struggle from not reading enough, and therefore lacking the necessary reading comprehension, most high-school level readers have trouble with ACT Reading because they didn’t prepare enough for ACT Reading. If you don’t know the structure of the test, don’t know that there are 4 passages, don’t know that each passage contains 10 questions, don’t know the question types, and don’t know strategies for keeping track, how can you expect to excel? These students approach the test confidently, until they hear “5 minutes” from the proctor (person administering the test). At that point, they panic and realize that they are nowhere near the end.

The reality is that the most important skill to doing well on ACT Reading section is the ability to effectively skim the passage while retaining meaning. If you are a slow reader, you can learn to skim effectively with practice. If you are a fast reader, you have to understand that ACT passages are a lot denser than an average novel and you will need to practice in order to learn to extract the important information from ACT passages.

The Solution: Practice, Practice, and more Practice

There is no magic to ACT test prep because no trick is as effective as consistent perfect practice. You have to understand that unfocused, half-hearted practice is not enough – you must practice and study effectively. When studying for the ACT Reading, there are three most important areas you should concentrate on to get better at finishing the ACT Reading section on time.

How to Practice Monitoring Your Time

Know How Long You’re Taking on Each Question.

Everyone knows that it’s not a good idea to take too much time to answer a question. But how much time is “too much?”

That answer depends on your target score and/or on the score you’re aiming for on the ACT Reading section. So why does knowing your raw and scaled score matter?

If you are aiming for a perfect score, you have to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. This averages to  about 52 seconds per question. However, if you are aiming for a lower score, you may be able to allocate more time per question.

The lower your target score is, the more questions you can skip.  Consequently, the more time you can spend on each question that you do answer.  

So, if your target score is 25 (for example), you can guess on the hardest 10-12 questions on ACT Reading and focus your energies on the remaining 28 questions. If you only need to get 28 questions right to reach your target score, then you can spend 1.2 minutes per question.

Know how much time each passage takes 

This does not mean necessarily that you have approximately 8 minutes per passage with a couple of minutes left over to check everything at the end. Some passages (especially the ones that interest you) will go faster than 10 minutes, and some will go slower. Get used to checking time after skimming and answering questions on each passage. This will give you an idea where you stand after you complete each one of the 4 passages on the ACT Reading. Beware of checking time after every few questions – otherwise, you will end up wasting time you’re trying to save.

If you find that this does not come naturally for you, use a stopwatch to practice. Set the stopwatch for 6-7 minutes and notice where you are in the passage when the time is up. Learn to anticipate time because you will not be able to use a timer on the actual exam.

Time Keeping Strategies

When reviewing a completed practice test, mark questions you spent too much time on or were unsure about. What caused this? Was it the wording of the question? Was it the type of question (e.g. function of vocabulary, or order of ideas in the passage)? Were you just tired or unfocused and misread the passage? Most importantly: was there a pattern to the questions you spent too much time on or were unsure about?

All of this data is essential for your test prep process: establishing a feedback cycle of testing, reviewing your mistakes, and testing again. The middle step of this cycle – reviewing your mistakes – is essential to seriously improving your score on ACT Reading. Why? Because only after you really understand the reasons for the mistakes, can you stop making those same mistakes again. For more on this, read my article on how to review mistakes on the ACT.

Is running out of time not your only issue? Is it vocabulary, or maybe is it that you are applying the wrong passage strategy. Read this article to understand your weaknesses.

How to Read Passages and Answer Questions

Practicing the ACT Reading questions over and over will not necessarily make you a better or faster reader, but it will make you better at reading in such a way that helps you answer questions more efficiently.

There is no cookie-cutter approach and I cannot proscribe what YOUR best way to read passages, but if your current approach is not working, maybe it’s time to try something else.

 There are 3 Main approaches:

  • Read the Whole Passage in Detail. This strategy is effective only if you are both a thorough and a quick reader. It is the worst option if you are a slower reader.
  • Read the questions first. This approach involves figuring what details you need to look for by reading the questions first and then skimming the passage to find the details. This is disorienting for some people, but for others it saves a lot of time. This usually works for readers with strong comprehension.
  • Skim, then approach the questions. Get a sense of content, structure, and purpose of the passage before approaching questions and then return to the passage for additional question-specific details.

The more familiar you are with the ACT Reading passages, the easier it will become for you to predict what types of questions to look out for, what to pay attention to when skimming, and what strategy to use.

For example, if you look at the answer choices first and notice that one of the questions has a line reference (e.g. “in lines 10-18”), you will know to read these specific lines to answer it.

On the other hand, if you skim through the passage before answering questions, you should get used to noticing transition words like “however”, “furthermore”, and “in contrast” (to name a few). These words are important because they indicate a change in tone or a change in point of view (“they say/I say”).

You can read about the best way to approach the passages for more strategies and explanations of why you might want to choose one strategy over another.

More Strategies

To stop running out of time on the ACT Reading section, change the order in which you approach passages. For example, if you prefer prose fiction and humanities, start with those passages and questions first.  Do not attempt to read passages and answer questions in order. The benefit of using this strategy is that if you focus on the parts you like most first, you are more likely to get through them more quickly and with more accuracy and be more relaxed when you get to the passages that are more difficult for you.

Also, see if you can save time by bubbling all answers at the end. This strategy is only helpful if you can leave 4-5 minutes at the end of the section to do this. You don’t want to run out of time before you had a chance to bubble in everything.

Remember that the most important point is not that you use a specific fool-proof strategy, but that you find strategies that work for you.

How to Take ACT Reading as Part of the Whole ACT

Knowing the material is not enough. To get though the whole ACT, you must develop stamina. The good news is that, the ACT never varies the order in which passages are presented. This gives you a prepping advantage: you can mimic test-day conditions by practicing all sections in the right order. Just like you wouldn’t practice for a marathon by running short distances and never going the full distance, you shouldn’t practice ACT in pieces. Instead, practice the ACT Reading section in sequence with the rest of the ACT test at least 3-4 times before test day.

Another point to keep in mind is that you will most likely be taking the ACT on a weekend morning. So, if you are not a morning person, make sure to do some practicing in the morning to give yourself a good idea of your energy levels. Your reading speed will probably be affected if you are sluggish in the morning. Taking practice tests in the afternoon or evening, when you are more energetic, will not give you a complete picture of how quickly you can get through the ACT Reading section under test-like conditions.

Special Circumstances

If you really have trouble with reading under time-pressure, you might qualify for special testing accommodations. Preparing for and taking the ACT is probably not the first time you notice that you have major problems reading; however, it is likely the first time you cannot compensate for it in other ways (such as spending a lot of time on homework and extra credit to make up low test scores).

The ACT does offer accommodations for documented issues for eligible students as well as information on steps these students will have to take in order to get accommodations on test day.  Warning: accommodations are much more likely to be granted to students who have a long history of documented special circumstances. The ACT, Inc. is cautious about students who get diagnosed with something in time to take the test. This is because the students might be stretching the truth in order to get extra time.

Requests for special accommodations can take a long time. To avoid red tape and make sure you accommodation is approved in a timely manner, plan and apply for special accommodations early.  


  • Take practice tests regularly, and keep track of your time.
  • Get familiar with ACT questions so you can answer them effectively
  • Practice the entire ACT test in sequence – the way it will be presented on test day. 3-4 concentrated practice sessions should give you an idea of what to expect.
  • Do you think there’s a bigger problem that is causing you to run out of time on ACT Reading?  Check if you are eligible for special accommodations on the ACT.

Next Steps

Do you want to know more about ACT Reading? Here is a detailed article about what is actually tested, an article on the best ways to read the passages on ACT reading, as well as this ultimate guide to ACT Reading.

Here is an article that talks more about timing of the ACT as a whole?

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