Running Out of Time on the SAT Writing: What to do?

At only 35 minutes, the new SAT Writing and Language section is the shortest of all the subject-based sections. However, it contains 44 questions, making it the only section to include more questions than minutes. This means that, to finish on time, you can only spend an average of about 47-48 seconds on each question.

The good news is that most of the questions will take far less time than that to answer. But of course there will also be those that make you sit and scratch your head a while, and they can eat into those precious seconds. So what should you do if you find yourself just starting the last passage on the SAT Writing section and your proctor announces you only have 5 minutes left? Follow the following three steps:

1. Start small

Look for the questions that include only the four answer choices, without any additional instructions. These will be the easiest to answer because they will be focused on a small section of text and will ask you to correct grammar, mechanics, and word choice errors. Knocking these out first gives you a solid chance at racking up points, even under a time crunch. Of course, as you’ll be skipping some questions at this point, take extra care to bubble your answers into the correct question on your answer sheet.

2. Expand your focus

Next, approach the questions that ask about sentences within a particular paragraph. These include questions that ask you to add or remove sentences from a paragraph to improve its flow or its connection to the paragraphs immediately before or after it. Remember that context, style, and tone are all important to consider when you are narrowing down answers for these questions. Also, always re-read the paragraph with your changes included to double check that your answer works the way you think it does. You’re still bubbling carefully, right?

3. Tackle the big picture

The last questions you want to address are those that ask you to move whole paragraphs or make connections between the passage and a graph or chart. Answering these questions well requires you to have a solid grasp of the overall message of the passage and how the author has organized his or her ideas. When you begin to work on a passage, these types of questions are all but impossible to answer. However, having answered the other, more focused questions earlier, you probably have a basic understanding of the passage’s structure and can more easily find facts that relate to graphics than you would have been able to when you first saw the passage. Use this knowledge to eliminate one or two answers and then find evidence to support one of the others. Whether you get to think through them all or not, remember not to leave any questions blank!
This three-phase approach can help you get the most points possible out of a desperate situation, but you might find it useful even when you’re not in a time crunch. Having a good strategy in place for each section of the SAT can help prevent that last minute panic and make you more confident right from the start.


  • Elizabeth Peterson

    Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

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