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David Recine

Running Out of Time on ACT Essay: What to Do

It happens. You look at the ACT clock, and you realize you’re running out of time on the new ACT essay. Don’t panic– there are ways to save your essay… and your score!

Here are some steps you can take to adjust your pace and writing when the clock is running down.

If you are running out of time on the ACT essay, stay focused

Running out of time can be very distracting. You may feel the urge to stop, take a deep breath, and think about what you should do. Any pause you make to just think should be minimal. Focus on continuing to write, while adjusting your pace and approach.

Adjust your pace

Write faster. If you’d been writing at a more careful pace to avoid errors and make good word choices, focus less on these minor aspects of writing. Speed up and just aim for getting the essay done. Word choice and errors do affect your score in some ways, but an incomplete essay will get a much lower score than an essay that just has a few mistakes.

Change your approach to writing

When you speed up, you will naturally change your approach a little, because you wont’ have time to check your writing for the smaller details, as I mentioned above. But there are other more substantial changes you can make as you approach the rest of your essay.

One thing you can do is develop your ideas less for the remainder of the essay. Suppose you’ve got two paragraphs left to write. Maybe your previous paragraphs has three supporting ideas for each topic sentence. To save time, include just one or two supporting details in your remaining paragraphs.

The same goes for the remaining structure of your essay overall. If you used transitional phrases and sentences earlier in the essay, skip them for the rest of the essay. And even if your introductory paragraph was three, four, or even five sentences long, your concluding paragraph can be just one good sentence– or maybe two.


Quickly select your most important ideas

Look at the original passage in the ACT essay prompt. What are the main ideas in the introduction and the three perspectives given. How simply can you put those ideas? And which ideas can you ignore and leave out of your essay, while still making your essay as complete as possible?

Worry about completion, not perfection 

If you try maintain top quality while rushing to beat the clock, you will fail. And as you feel yourself failing to write a perfect essay, you’ll start to feel upset and distracted, and you’ll slow down.

Instead focus on completing the essay, ensuring it contains every important key idea, some support for each of the key ideas, and a clear conclusion. With your eyes on that prize, distractions will melt away, and you’ll speed up instead of slowing down. In the best of scenarios, you may speed up enough that you still have at least a little time to go back and make a few last minute (or last second) improvements before your time is cut off.

About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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