Save time-consuming questions for last

If you are not, under any circumstances, willing to jump around within sections, then please skip this article. If you are willing to do so, however, this is a strategy you might want to try. It’s based on the principle that since (1) you have a limited amount of time, and that (2) every question, easy or hard, is worth exactly the same number of points, your goal should be to obtain as many points as quickly as possible.

However: since reading questions are presented in no particular order of difficulty, you need to do a little bit of work upfront to identify questions likely to take you a while to answer before you get caught up in them and waste a couple of minutes better spent answering two or three other questions quickly.

While I do understand that different questions are hard for different people, the following types of questions generally tend to be more time-consuming than others because it is very difficult to answer them based on a general knowledge of the passage; you must almost always go back and read carefully.

-Which of the following? I, II, and III

These tend to take the most time, so they should be the last questions you do. Especially on the ACT, where you can go crazy trying to locate the necessary information.

-Paired passage relationship questions 

Usually these require multiple steps of logic. The good news is that they come after individual-passage questions, so you don’t have to hunt for them.

-ACT questions that ask about dates or years.

Although these questions may seem straightforward, the exact information rarely appears directly in the passage, and it is often necessary to perform some basic calculations in order to determine the answer.

-All of the following EXCEPT 

While you can often eliminate a couple of answers based on your memory of the passage, there’s often no way to be certain unless you go back and hunt for the others.

-Graphic/passage questions on the SAT

Particularly if you’re not ask comfortable with graph-based questions as you are with text-based questions, it’s a good idea to leave these questions until after you’ve answered all of the other questions in a set.

Why you should only use the official guides for SAT & ACT Reading

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you probably know that I’m not a big fan of the big-name test-prep guides (e.g. Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc.). But while I admit that they might have some merit for Math, the one section that you should absolutely and incontrovertibly not compromise on, at least in terms of taking practice tests, is Reading.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) The answer choices are problematic

The answers are either 1) improperly reasoned, 2) go outside the bounds of the passage — that is, they actually require you to have some outside knowledge of a subject in order to infer the answer to a question — or 3) force you to make irrelevant distinctions. What ultimately happens is that people walk away with the impression that the answers to questions are arbitrary, that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the readings themselves. It also makes it impossible to apply any sort of rigorous reasoning process to the test, when in fact it is precisely the refinement of that reasoning process that often leads to higher scores. SAT and ACT questions may feel tricky at times, but the right answer is still the only right answer, not something completely arbitrary cooked up by the test-makers.

2) The passages are wrong

This usually comes down to one issue: copyright. Most of the passages that show up on the SAT and ACT are taken from books published in the last couple of decades — that is, books still under copyright. In order to accurately mimic the test, therefore, it is necessary to use texts from recent works. The College Board and the ACT are able to gain permission for the works from the publishers; for whatever reason (money?), the major test-prep companies usually are not. As a result, those companies are forced to use either texts no longer under copyright (from books more than 70 years old) or have passages written specifically for them. Both of these have major issues.

First, texts more than 70 years old, while difficult, are not difficult in the precise way that real SAT/ACT texts are difficult. Their language, style, and subject matter are often old-fashioned, and they give the impression that the reading portions of both tests loftier and more overtly literary than they are.

On the other hand, passages written specifically for test-prep guides tend to be overly straightforward and factual, whereas real test passages are usually somewhat more complex both in terms of topic and organization.

So please, do yourself a favor: if you haven’t been using the College Board book or the ACT Official Guide for Reading, go out and get it. And if you’ve finished all the tests in it and want to study some more, sign up for the online program. And if you’re done with that, well, go on the Scientific American or Smithsonian magazine website and, and start reading.

The official list of things to circle on SAT & ACT reading passages

Warning: while this may look like an awfully long list of things to circle, chances are that only a handful of these words/phrases will show up on any given passage. This is also not intended to be a exercise in memorization; rather, it is to get you thinking about the kinds of ways in which authors indicate to their readers the most important aspects of what they’re trying to say.

Furthermore, the point of looking out for these things is not to turn your reading into a transition hunt at the expense of actually absorbing what you’re reading. Just circling transitions mechanically and not thinking about what role they play in the passage at large will not get you very far and may in fact make things harder for you. However, if you actively consider them in relation to the point of the passage once you’ve established it, they will help you establish a general “map” of the key places in the argument.

Major Transitions:





In fact


Of course



As a result

In addition










(Al)though/Even though







In comparison

In contrast

Just as…so





The answer is

Giving you the point:

The point is

The goal/aim is

To sum up

In other words

After all

In the end

The (main) idea

Important Information:






It is true/not true

It is clear/unclear

Strong Language:












“Unusual” Punctuation:

Question Marks – Indicate rhetorical questions. Questions are prime targets for inference questions because information is often implied but not stated.

Colons – Explanations Dashes – Explanations or supplementary (qualifying) information

Semicolons – Imply a relationship between two thoughts that is not necessarily spelled out — likely spot for inference questions to deal with

Words in quotes – Used figuratively. The answer to at least one question will depend on your understanding of how a word in quotes is being used, even if the question doesn’t ask about it directly. Often indicates skepticism.

Italicized words – Used to emphasize, underscore, call attention to, highlight

Could be true ? definitely true

One of the hardest things for many test-takers to adjust to on the SAT and ACT is the idea that English questions have answers that are both objectively correct and objectively incorrect. The truth, however, is that if you really want to improve your score, you need to approach each question with the attitude that there is only one answer. It might not be phrased in the way you would say it, or even be the answer that you would expect to see, but that doesn’t make it any less right.

Your English teacher might give you points for the creativity of your interpretations; ETS and the ACT will not. These tests are in no way, shape or form asking for your own personal interpretation or for speculation about what might be going on in a given passage; they are asking for what an author indicates is definitely going on in the passage. That means you need to base your answer exclusively on the exact wording that appears in the text and nothing else. If you have to twist the passage in any way to make the answer work, the answer is wrong.

In other words, match the question to the passage, not the passage to the question.

Let’s look at an example:

Newspaper editor and political commentator Henry Louis Mencken was a force of nature, brushing aside all objects animal and mineral in his headlong rush to the publicity that surely awaited him. He seized each day, shook it to within an inch of its life, and then gaily went on to the next. No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken opinions debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard.

9. In lines 4-5, the words “seized” and “shook” help establish which aspect of Mencken’s personality?

(A) His code of honor
(B) His sense of humor
(C) His vindictiveness
(D) His intensity
(E) His petulance

What words does the author use to describe Louis Mencken?

He was “a force of nature.” He “brushed aside objects…in his headlong rush.” He “seized each day and shook it…then went gaily onto the next.”

So Louis Mencken was like a whirlwind. He threw himself into things and did them as fully as possible. All this clearly points to (D) because someone who behaves like this is pretty intense.

If you were to read the question first and then just glance through the passage, however, you might just pick up on words/phrases like “brushed aside,” “seized,” and “hotly debated,” all of which are pretty negative, you might go for (C) or (E) instead. Now, Louis Mencken could have also been vindictive in his life. He could have also been petulant (irritable or ill-tempered).

But if you read carefully, this particular author is not actually saying either of those things about Mencken in this particular passage.

Read something by Oliver Sacks

Remember the movie Awakenings? Actually, if you’re in high school now, you’re probably way too young to actually remember the movie, but you may have stumbled across it on late-night cable at some point: it’s the one with Robert DeNiro, about a guy who suddenly wakes up after being in a coma for decades… It got nominated for a couple of Academy Awards.

Anyway, if you’re wondering what on earth a movie released all the way back in 1990 could possibly have to do with standardized test-prep in 2011, the answer is: quite a bit. You see, Awakenings is based on a book of the same name, a book that was written by a man named Oliver Sacks. Sacks is a neurologist who happens to have a fascination with unusual illnesses involving the brain: people who have strokes and suddenly develop extraordinary musical abilities, or those who are unable to identify the faces of their loved ones, despite having perfect vision (an affiction from which Sacks himself suffers). He is also one of the authors whose works appear on both SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading Comprehension.

I think that there are a couple of reasons why test-makers are so partial to Sacks’ work: its written in a style just accessible enough to be comprehensible to non-specialists but also just sophisticated enough to be challenging to many high school students. It deals with a subject matter that is culturally neutral but that at the same time presents a distinct point of view.

In short, it’s the College Board and the ACT’s dream come true. It’s also incredibly interesting reading, particulary when not condensed into 85 lines and accompanied by 10-12 questions. So if you’re looking to acquaint yourself with the kind of reading material that tends to show up on these tests, you can start by reading something by Oliver Sacks. Who knows? You might even like it.

Books by Oliver Sacks:


An Anthropologist on Mars

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Island of the Colorblind



How to take effective notes on SAT & ACT Reading

When I used to tell students to write down every step of their reasoning process on Reading questions, their typical reaction was, “But doesn’t that take too much time?” While perfectly understandable, that thinking is based on the assumption that writing things down on a standardized test is somehow akin to writing in, say, English class. It isn’t. As a matter of fact, it’s not even close. It’s not about thinking things over leisurely or making them sound nice or being original. It’s about keeping yourself actively and sharply focused on the information you’re looking for, and it needs to be done fast. So in the service of that end, here are some general rules:

1) Keep it very, very short

Five or six words tops for your main point, three or so for anything else. Note-taking should not noticeably cut into the time you spend either reading or answering questions. That means:

2) Abbreviate like there’s no tomorrow.

Draw symbols, arrows, whatever you need to get the point across fast. Vowels and full words are your enemies. No one is grading you on your eloquence. The only thing that matters is that you understand what you mean and are able to use that information effectively.

Compare, for example, the following two versions of the main point for an imaginary passage about the effect of World War II on women’s roles in American society

Way too long: World War II had a positive effect on the lives of American women because it expanded their traditional roles by allowing them to find jobs outside of their homes for the first time.

Good Length: WWII + b/c women ? jobs

The first version takes up a lot of time to write, the second one virtually none. Guess which one is more effective at keeping you focused.

3) Write down arguments, not facts

Let’s go back to that pretend WWII passage and imagine that it’s about Rosie the Riveter (come to think of it, this might actually be in a real passage somewhere). You can’t just write “Rosie the Riveter;” that tells you nothing.

Instead, you want to write something like, “RR impt b/c inspired US wmn” (Rosie the Riveter was important because she inspired American women).

4) Circle transitions, not nouns

Transitions such as “however” and “furthermore,” and “because” tell you why information is important. Simply underlining the information itself will tell you nothing and will probably do little to help you answer the questions. Do not ever circle any form of the verb “to be.”

5) Focus on the argument of the overall passage, not the individual paragraphs

You don’t need to to write the argument of every paragraph when you do an initial read-through. Figuring out where a particular paragraph fits into a passage’s overall argument in something you can deal with when you encounter a specific question about that paragraph. At absolute most, you could do something like +, +, – for two paragraphs that support a point and one that contradicts it, but anything more will get