The ACT Part 4: Reading

This is the fourth in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math.

The Reading section is the hardest section for most students for the simple reason that most students don’t read much. Most students don’t like reading, and that’s a shame. But I’ll save that sermon for another post. Let me just say this: if you read for 30 minutes or more every day, after a few months you’ll find the Reading section a lot easier. (And all the other ones, since they all—including the math section—require reading.)

Another major challenge is time. There are four passages with ten questions each, and you’ve only got 35 minutes. That’s eight minutes and 45 seconds per passage.

ACT READING
4 passages
35 minutes
40 questions
8 minutes & 45 seconds per passage

Some students simply cannot do it. For them, there’s Plan B, which we’ll return to in a moment. Plan A is to answer every question. Here’s how to do it.

Read the questions first. Unlike on SAT Critical Reading sections, the questions are not in order. In other words, the first question might be about the last paragraph. If you try to read the whole passage first, you’re likely to zone out and start daydreaming (the passages aren’t exactly riveting). But if you read the questions first, then when you get to the passage, you’re actively looking for information, which keeps you focused and engaged. You still need to read the entire passage. You just pause every once in awhile to answer a question.

Ask yourself what each question tells you about the passage. For example, if the question asks, “Which of the following statements most accurately expresses Fran’s feelings when she hands her mother the letter from Linda Rose?” then you know Fran is going to get a letter from Linda Rose. Then, when you read about Fran getting a letter in the first paragraph, you already know who it is (most likely) from.

Underline key words. When a question contains a word or phrase that is either unusual or very specific, underline it so that you’re more likely to remember it when you’re reading the passage. In the above question, for example, you should underline “hands her mother the letter.” When you arrive at this part of the passage, you’ll probably remember that there’s a question about it. You won’t remember which question, but you can probably find it pretty quickly.

Mark the line number questions. Many questions come with line numbers. You should write these question numbers in the margin of the passage. For example, if question 14 asks, “Which of the following statements best summarizes Lincoln’s thoughts about what Jefferson achieved when he wrote the Declaration (lines 21-28)?”, then you should write the number 14 in the margin next to line 28. Then, when you’re reading the passage, and you see that 14, you’ll know it’s time to answer question #14.

By the time you’ve read the passage, you should have answered about half the questions. Now quickly answer the rest of them.

Do not get bogged down on a hard question. Even if you end up getting it right, if it keeps you from getting to another question down the line, it’s not worth it. It’s better to just guess and keep moving. Try to do as little re-reading as possible. If you’re 70% sure the answer is C, then there’s no need to double check; just pick C! Put a star by the question, and go back to it later if you have time (but you probably won’t.)

Plan B

If you’ve attempted at least two Reading sections and genuinely given it your best shot but were unable to finish, then count the number of questions you have left. If it’s fewer than five, you can finish. Push yourself. Go faster.

If it’s more than five, go with Plan B: spend the full 35 minutes on the first three passages and guess on the last ten questions. Just bubble in letters in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F . . .) and you should get at least two of them right. If you also get every question right on the first three passages, then you can still get a good score (anywhere from a 26 to a 30 depending on the test).

The passages always come in the same order: Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. I think Natural Science tends to be the most difficult (technical, dry), and it is conveniently last. However, I have met students who genuinely do not do well with fiction. If that’s you, then guess on the first passage, and spend the full 35 minutes on the other three. The Social Science passage also tends to be difficult and dry. The Humanities one is all over the place. It might be about Shakespeare or Star Trek, so it’s hard to generalize. Some tutors instruct their students to read the intro of each passage first and then decide which one to skip, but I think that’s just one more decision to make and a waste of precious time.

But everyone’s different. These are just guidelines that work for the majority of students. Feel free to experiment with strategies as you practice. But on test day, have a plan and stick to it!

Next time: Science!

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