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5 Tricks for Getting Better at Timed Tests

5 Tricks for Getting Better at Timed Tests

We’ve been in the game for over 16 years, working with students just like you. Almost all students face time pressure...

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
Study Tips
Test Prep

And all face test anxiety. Here are a few things to work on – we know they work!

#1 – Practice!

Are you running out of time computing math problems? This could simply mean that you need more practice. The more familiar you are with the types of questions on the test, the faster you’ll be able to work through them. Make sure you have plenty of time to drill each type of question you expect to see on the test.

Are you running out of time reading passages and question prompts? Here’s that same advice again: practice! Practice reading passages, articles, books, whatever interests you. The more you read, the faster you’ll be.

Are you taking the SAT or ACT? Read up here to make sure you know as much as possible about the test and the timing parameters! 

You should become familiar with both the problems on the test, and the nature of the test itself. Is this test designed to be finished within the time allotted, or is it supposed to be slightly longer than most students could realistically complete in the given time? Is there a penalty for guessing? How many answer choices are provided – 4 or 5? Then devote practice time to eliminating bad answers and back-solving techniques.

The more familiar you are with what you’ll face on the test, the less time you have to sacrifice reading instructions and remembering important steps and formulas on test day.

#2 – Time Yourself

Once you get more comfortable with the question types you’ll be facing, introduce timing into your practice. Set a stopwatch on your phone (or better yet: leave your phone in another room and use a real stopwatch) and try out a few questions. How long are they taking you? For most standardized tests, or those with lots of questions, anything over a minute is probably too long.

Check in on your work and try to diagnose the issue. Maybe you need to organize your computation – give yourself more space, or write things out more neatly, in order to keep yourself on track. Maybe unfamiliar words or confusing sentence structures are distracting you from passage meanings. The faster you can learn from your mistakes, the more efficient your practice will be.

When you’ve done a few practice rounds with a stopwatch, it’s time to turn up the heat. Set a timer for yourself, for the length of time each question should take you. Now, practice each question on a timer. On the real test, of course, you’ll be able to be more judicious with your time – some questions are designed to take longer, and some simpler questions should take less time. The timer is there to replicate the feeling of time pressure you may experience during an exam. The more used to that feeling you are, the less panic it will cause, and the less likely it is to slow you down on test day!

If you’re not making any progress from timing practice, and find that you’re

not in control of your attention, you may want to speak with your parents and a doctor. People with attention disorders can take medication, and students may be entitled to extra time on tests, to help them succeed in situations where sustained attention is required. CHADD.org has some great resources and information if you’re struggling.

#3 – Set Yourself up for Success

So, you know exactly what questions you’ll face, you’ve drilled them, you’ve timed yourself, you’re ready. No need to cram or feel stressed right before the test. The best thing to do at this stage is get a good night’s sleep and have a good meal that will keep you feeling full and comfortable through the test.

Some experts suggest that imagining past stressful test situations can actually be helpful in managing future test anxiety. For example, if you’ve taken a test where your mind went totally blank, reflect on that memory but rescript a different outcome. Instead of being scared of repeating past history, picture yourself conquering it! For more information about this technique and other test anxiety resources, check out here.

#4 – Relax!

Everyone feels pressure when facing down a big test. It’s easy to get caught up in how important your score will be, how big of a difference a test can make in your life, or the possibility that a small or careless mistake can throw you off course. You’re not alone – everyone gets some degree of test anxiety. The reality is that no one test is more powerful than your own innate abilities and talents! You’ll spend your whole life putting in sustained efforts toward important goals, and all of that time and passion is much more important than one test.

As you’re reading this article, now is a great time to find a relaxation practice that works for you – whether you learn to meditate, or just remember to close your eyes and take a big deep breath. Find a way to check in with yourself with the reminder that by arriving prepared and focused, you’ve set yourself up to succeed!

The test hasn’t started yet, but you’ve already finished the most important work!

#5 – Slow Down

This one might be a little counterintuitive, but slowing down can save you a lot of time. Now that you’re relaxed, you can read each test instruction and problem carefully. They should already be very familiar to you from your practice, so there’s no reason to keep going back and re-reading. Read through each question, then take a moment to check in with yourself: is this something you’ve done before? Hopefully it’s at least similar. What steps do you need to take to find the answer? Work through them methodically, there’s no need to rush. Once you arrive at your answer, circle it and move on. At the end of the test or section, you might even find yourself with extra time to go back and check!

If you’re preparing for the SAT or ACT, take yet another few minutes to re-read the test parameters linked here:

SAT Student Guide


ACT Student Guide


That’s it – just 5 steps! Remember, every test you take is designed with the average student in mind. If you prepare, practice, and relax, there’s no reason you won’t succeed!

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