Running Out of Time on SAT Math: What to Do

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, your SAT Math pacing is “off.” You lose track of time and suddenly realize your’e running out of time! Fortunately, there are things you can do when this happens. Running short on time doesn’t have to ruin your SAT Math score.

Running out of time on SAT Math? Do the faster problems first.

All SAT Math problems are weighted equal–every correct answer has the same impact on your score. But not all SAT Math problems are created equal–some problems are more complex and take longer to do than others. So if you’re running out of time in an SAT Math section, look at the remaining questions, and spot the questions that you can answer the fastest. Do those fast questions first, then go back to the slower harder questions if you still have time. This ensures that you will earn as many points as possible, and have the fewest unanswered questions when your time is up.

Focus on shortcuts and mental math

One of the biggest ways test-takers run short on time is by not using enough shortcuts and mental math. Under test pressure, students often forget to use valuable various shortcuts related to algebra, other math functions, integer properties, and so on. There is a tendency to go on “autopilot” and just work through every problem, thinking only of the end result–not the fastest way to get there. Noticing that you’re almost out of time can be a good “wake-up” call that you need to really focus on those valuable shortcuts. So if you’re running out of time on SAT Math, break out all your best math tricks for speedy problem solving.

When you’re running out of time on SAT Math, estimate!

On any multiple choice SAT Math question, estimation is your secret weapon for picking up speed. The best thing about estimation is that it’s easy to to do estimation faster. Granted, your estimating can get a little less accurate if you do it too quickly. But missing a few answers due to hasty estimation is a lot better than missing a whole bunch of answers because you were forced to leave them blank.

Running out of time on SAT Math with calculator

On the redesigned SAT, there are two Math sections: one section where you can’t use a calculator, and one section where calculators are allowed. There are some special time concerns on the calculator section–calculators seem faster, but they really aren’t. More often than not, use of the SAT calculators, especially heavy calculator use, actually slows test-takers down on SAT Math.

So if you’re running out of time in the “calculator permitted” portion of SAT Math, the best thing you can do is look for every opportunity not to use your calculator. Even on the more complicated questions, you can probably do the first several steps of a problem without actually touching that calculator. And on the simpler problems in this SAT Math section, you may be able to skip calculator use altogether. This will help you make the most of your remaining time. And it won’t necessarily make your answers less accurate. Calculator use can cause students to make all kinds of mistakes, especially when they’re feeling rushed.


  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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