One of the first things my new students usually ask is whether they should read the passage or the questions first. My response: always, always the passage first.
Here’s why: the vast majority of reading questions on both the SAT and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the ACT are context-based. That is, you need to have a sense of the general argument or idea being presented in order to understand how a particular detail or piece of information fits into the larger picture. It’s really difficult to see how ideas relate when you only have part of the story.
The second question I usually get, though, is: Won’t I run out time if I spend all my time reading before I even look at the questions? To put it bluntly, no, you won’t. At least not if you approach the passage with the goal of understanding its overall argument rather than worrying about every little detail that might be just a tiny bit confusing. On the ACT, you should try to get through each passage in about three minutes; on the SAT, you can probably spend closer to five.
It might feel as if you’re taking more time upfront, but that extra time will pay off in the time you save by not having to search for information later. In addition, you may also want to answer some questions as you read the passage. When you get done, you’ll likely have more time to spend on less straightforward questions than you would have otherwise.
If, on the other hand, you just jump right to the questions, you’ll have to spend most of your time figuring out the significance or the function of the piece of information being asked about. You’ll have to hunt through the passage without any framework already in place, and you may overlook key areas that indicate a piece of information is contradicting or challenging an argument rather than supporting it. If you’re already read the passage, you’re a lot more likely to either remember on your own why the information was important or recognize the reason off the bat when you see it in the answer choice.
Remember: it’s the role the information plays in the overall argument, that matters — not the information itself. Yes, this tends to be more true on the SAT than the ACT, but the ACT has many “big picture” questions as well, and knowing the point of a passage can sometimes allow you to answer two or three questions immediately.