One of the most frequent complaints I get from students about the SAT’s math sections — both the No Calculator and Calculator sections — is that they have difficulty finishing the section. “I’m running out of time!” they say, exasperated. This article aims to offer some suggestions to SAT prep students who run out of time on the math sections. Students of all skill levels will benefit from considering the following strategies.


First, is time really your issue?


I know, I know, time’s definitely an issue on the SAT math test. Very often, though, when students tell me that their sole issue is running out of time, I challenge them with the following question: If you’re running out of time, doesn’t it mean you’re not solving the problems efficiently enough? If you practiced identifying the different types of problems tested on the SAT, learning to recognize classic concepts when they appear (and they always do) over and over again, you might be able to act more quickly when you recognize a familiar topic is being tested.


Also, many students who complain about running out of time on the SAT math section show me their score reports, and I notice, without fail, that they MISSED some questions early on and in the middle of the test.


If you’re racing through the test because you’re “worried about time,” and if that extra speed is causing you MISS more questions, you need to SLOW DOWN. This almost seems like counter-intuitive advice in an article on strategies for time management, but trust me, it’s the wisest course. Those problems you’re trying to get to near the end of the math sections are the most difficult problems. They’re worth the same amount of points as the easy and medium problems.


So the first piece of advice I’d offer to students wanting to succeed on the math sections of the SAT is to make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN you’ve correctly answered every easy and medium problem before beginning to reckon with the trickier math problems.

I can solve all the easy and medium problems. Now what?


If you solve all the easy and medium problems but find yourself running out of time, you have several options, depending on how badly you run out of time.


First, let’s offer a strategy for time management on the No Calculator math section.


Time Management on the No Calculator math section


The No Calculator math section is ONLY 25 minutes long; that’s not a great deal of time in which to answer 20 problems.


However, the questions go roughly in order of difficulty, so 1-4 should be very easy, 5-10 should be medium difficulty, and 11-15 should be harder than most other problems.


The GRID-IN problems (often feared because there are SO many possible answers) are actually a land of opportunity for students who run out of time. Why? If you’re running out of time, chances are you aren’t an expert at math, which means you’ll likely struggle on the hard problems, wasting time with no guarantee that you’re getting the right answer.


The grid-in problems are actually EASIER than the hardest multiple choice problems, however.


Plus, you have next to NO chance of correctly gridding in an answer randomly, whereas if you’re bubbling randomly on a few multiple-choice problems, you have a 25% chance of getting the correct answer every time. Not bad!


If you find yourself running out of time five or six problems before the end of the No Calculator section, then my advice is to skip questions 11 through 15 and bubble randomly for them, focusing your final efforts on correctly answering the grid-in questions.


Running out of Time on the Calculator Math Section


The Calculator-allowed math section on the SAT is much longer than the No-Calculator section, and students working their way through the 38 problems have 55 minutes in which to answer them. That’s a more generous time limit than the ACT offers (at 60 minutes/60 questions) but many students struggle with time on the Calculator math section all the same. One reason for this is that the SAT’s math problems can be more difficult to think through. Sometimes students express to me that it isn’t immediately clear what the problem wants and what they should do to answer the problem. Many SAT problems, then, consume students’ precious time as they read and reread the problem, trying to figure out how to use the information given to do what the problem’s asking them to do.


If you’re struggling with time on the Calculator math section, here’s what I’d recommend.


First, if you’re not the best and most confident math student, I’d recommend doing (with utmost care and attention to detail) the easy and medium problems as well as the grid-ins. I’d recommend skipping problems 15-30 (the hardest multiple choice problems) if you only run out of time on five or so problems, or problems 20-30 if you run out of time on ten or so problems.


This is because the questions go roughly in order of difficulty and reset their difficulty level when the grid-ins arrive. And yet again, you have a much better shot of guessing the answer to a multiple-choice question (with only four answers) than you do of guessing the correct answer on a grid-in problem, which has nearly countless possible answers.


Advice for Both Sections


A very useful strategy for pacing and time management on BOTH math sections is to make sure you glance at every problem and decide if it’s a problem you know how to do. If it is, then do it. If it’s not, then skip it. Be sure to mark problems you skip with a mark that allows you to quickly and easily find them if you happen to have time to reconsider them. And don’t forget to leave NO questions blank. Your last minute of the test should be spent ensuring that you’ve bubbled in answers for every question.

SAT Math Time Management Review


Overall, greater fluency in algebra and geometry topics, as well as careful and detailed study of HOW the SAT tests such topics, will make you a more confident and accurate math student. You’ll spend less time wondering what the problem wants and more time solving the problem. You’ll find that simply drilling yourself on topics (slope, distance, vertex form, completing the square, percent change . . . and so on) and learning to recognize when you’re encountering a question that requires this topic, your speed will NATURALLY increase. That’s the goal of SAT prep.


That’s why, when students are worried about time, I tell them to worry about accuracy. When you master the content, you’ll naturally get faster.


So keep up with the SAT prep lessons and classes, and don’t forget to revisit, review, and redo ALL past missed problems MULTIPLE times (whether you missed them because you didn’t know what to do or simply executed the problem poorly).


Until you’ve mastered the math topics required for the SAT, though, remember the general layout: easy and medium questions should take the highest priority, and then the easy and medium grid-ins, and lastly, the hard problems (the last five to ten problems before the grid-ins begin).


Pretty soon you’ll be on your way to a massive score improvement on the SAT! Who wouldn’t want to get a perfect 800 on the math section? It’s possible. The people that do so are human beings just like you. You can learn everything you need to know. You simply have to want to improve. And you have to practice on your own for many, many hours, and take ownership over your own learning.


Remember, though: accuracy leads to speed. As a tutor, half of what I do is teach students the necessary formulas, concepts, strategies, rules, and skills to solve the SAT’s questions. The other half of what I do is COACH students to CORRECTLY AND ACCURATELY do what they already KNOW how to do.


Keep working hard! You may not see the pay-off immediately, but it’s coming. Let us know how you’re improving, and let us know if you need some extra help!


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That’s it! For more SAT and ACT prep tips, as well as college admissions advice, check out the rest of our blog. Looking for 1-on-1 ACT or SAT prep tutoring? Want to join an SAT or ACT group class? Contact us today!

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