Beating Clock Shock on the ACT

Brian Stewart and BWS Education Consulting are counted among our favorite tutor and test prep companies in the area. Brian is the best-selling author of several ACT, SAT, and PSAT test preparation books with Barron’s Educational Series. We’re excited to be sharing their guest blog with our At The Core family.

Students are quite often surprised to hear that the math ACT contains no concepts tougher than basic trigonometry, that the English is comprised of concepts they learned in middle school, and that the science requires next to no background knowledge. Students who have never taken the test often ask why it’s considered so difficult if no truly advanced knowledge is tested.

The answer is simple: timing.

While the concepts are not horrible, the amount of time granted by the test is much less than students are used to. Indeed, most students are not used to working with a clock at all! After all, if you need more time on school tests you can always stay longer, come in during a study hall, or remain after school. Consequently, having a “ticking clock” tends to cause anxiety and often results in students finishing only a half to three quarters of any given section.

This sensation, coming out of your first ACT stunned by how little you finished, is called “clock shock.” To some extent every first time ACT taker will feel it no matter how prepared he or she is. However, you can minimize clock shock on your first test.

First and most importantly know how much time you have!

Just being informed on the different timing for each section will allow you to mentally prepare. On the English, you will have 45 minutes for 75 questions. The English section is broken down into five passages, so you have nine minutes for each passage.

On the math you have 60 minutes for 60 questions. The questions get harder as you go. You should spend 25 minutes on the first half and 35 minutes on the second half.

The reading and science each have 35 minutes for 40 questions which breaks down to about nine minutes for every ten questions. This includes the time it takes to read or look over the passage! Make sure that you know this timing and have a game plan for test day!

Secondly, practice in a real testing environment with a watch.

Don’t be easy on yourself! Sit down at your desk or kitchen table, in a quiet environment, with no distractions. Use the watch you’ll take to the test and practice timing yourself. You must bring a watch to the test as not every room will have a clock (or you may have your back to it) and not all proctors are nice about giving timing updates. Don’t take a digital watch; if it beeps, you may be excused. Instead, use a normal watch with hands and at the beginning of each test set the watch to noon. This trick will easily allow you to keep track of how much time has passed.

When practicing, don’t allow yourself to go over the allotted time! When the time is up, you are done. You won’t get even a few extra seconds on the actual test.

Be strict with yourself and keep an eye on your watch. Remember, if you only look at the timer when it’s too late then you might as well not have a timer at all. Use it to adjust your pace as you go.

Another way to practice the test timing is to sit for an official exam. Nothing compares with the actual experience in the real test setting. Exams scores are in the student’s control and can remain private. No pressure. Students feel much more comfortable having one under their belt and have a real feel for what test day is like.

Finally, be flexible.

It may feel like the end of the world if you don’t finish every single question on a test but really, it isn’t! Most students who I tutor for the ACT have at least one section where their “game plan” includes guessing on some questions.

This test is not scored by percentage as most school tests are. For example, on the reading many students plan to only complete 30 out of 40 questions. If they do well on those 30 questions, they can still score between 25 and 28 (the national average hovers around 20).

Planning to do fewer questions on the reading means that students can take 12 minutes on each section instead of nine. They can be a little more relaxed and do better on fewer questions. Even if you plan on completing every question don’t panic if you get to the test and that doesn’t happen.

Leave a minute at the end so you can fill in a bubble for every question; don’t leave any questions blank! Remember that even if it feels like you did poorly percentage-wise, you may be surprised by your score.

Hopefully, with these concepts in mind you can minimize clock shock on your upcoming ACT. However, keep in mind that this is just one test; you’ll have other opportunities even if this one goes poorly.

Even if you never do well on the test for whatever reason, there are close to 1000 college and universities in the United States which will allow you to apply test optional. Check them out at

If you are ready to get to work, check out our free practice test or the free practice on the ACT website.


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