Broadly speaking, time-based ACT Reading problems tend to fall into two categories.
The first category involves students who cannot even come close to finishing ACT Reading in time. At 35 minutes, they might still be only halfway through the third passage, and often their scores are stuck somewhere in the low 20s. Even if they’re solid readers, they need to radically change their approach in order to see significant improvement.
The second category typically involves students who are scoring in the mid-high 20s. Their overall comprehension is strong, and they could likely answer nearly all of the questions right given just 10 more minutes, but they can’t quite seem to get there in the allotted time.
If you fall into the second category, this post is for you.
Let me start by saying that when it comes to ACT Reading, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.
What do I mean by this? Well, let me put it this way: one of the biggest traps students fall into is to assume that if they’re aiming for a high score, they need to try to answer every question. The more questions right, the higher the score. Every question right = perfect score.
That’s an entirely reasonable assumption, but things don’t always work that way in practice. In reality, trying to answer every question can hurt more than it helps — especially if the curve is significant, and even more so if you’re already scoring well.
This is actually true for a lot of tests, but because the time constraint is so extreme on the ACT, it’s the best illustration of that principle I’ve encountered.
After tutoring ACT Reading for a certain number of years, I had a bit of a “duh” moment. I’d always assumed that students were running out of time because they were spending too much time reading the passages, or because they were working through the questions just a little too slowly.
Basically, I took it for granted that even though a student might routinely need less time on, say, Social Science passages, and more time on Prose Fiction, the timing issue could be dealt with at a macro level — that is, the timing primarily needed to be adjusted on a per-passage basis.
What I eventually figured out, though, was that students who were scoring well but not in the stratosphere were usually getting tripped up by a small number of individual questions that could appear on any passage type — even ones they normally did very well on. They weren’t slow readers, but those few questions were costing them inordinate amounts of time, causing them to fall behind on the entire rest of the section and then get other, easier questions wrong because they were so rushed.
It therefore stood to reason that if those few, problematic questions could be avoided, those students would get more of the other questions right, and their scores would rise.
But in order for that to happen, they had to 1) be able to recognize which questions they were most likely to lose time on; and 2) be willing to not even try to answer those three or four questions.
When it first occurred to me to suggest this strategy, I expected some pushback. After all, people aiming for a high score don’t normally want to answer fewer questions.
Luckily, the first few students I mentioned it to had been prepping long enough to have a pretty good sense of what would give them trouble. They were also desperate enough to be done with standardized testing that they were willing to deliberately sacrifice a few questions without protest. They knew that if they kept doing what they were doing, their scores would stay the same.
To my slight surprise, and to their considerable surprise, they were able to move from the 28-29 range to the 31-32 range. Problem solved.
But sometimes, of course, it isn’t possible to know that a question will be so time consuming until you’re halfway through.
And if you haven’t spent that much time prepping, it’s also possible that you don’t have a good sense of which questions are most likely to give you trouble.
Both of those are fair points. In regards to the first one, yes, sometimes you will get tripped up — there is no way to know for sure, in advance, just how long it will take you to answer a particular question.
That said, there are some general guidelines you can use to identify potentially time-consuming questions:
1. Big-Picture Questions
If you haven’t really gotten the gist of a passage and immediately find yourself confronted with a question that asks about the passage as a whole, it’s probably not the best place to start. And if you’re ever tempted to answer a question by rereading the passage from the beginning, that’s a great sign you shouldn’t be answering the question at all.
2. Gut Reaction
If you read a question and your first thought is “HUH??!!! What is that even asking?” just skip it. You don’t have time to sit and sort it out. Because this is the ACT, that probably won’t happen often; if it does, pay attention. Likewise, if you read a question and have absolutely no inkling about what the answer could be OR where it might be located, that’s also a sign it could cost you a lot of time. Leave it for last, and if you don’t have time, move on to the next passage.
3. I, II, and III
Often, there’s no quick way to answer multiple-response/roman numeral questions. Note that these questions themselves are not necessarily difficult, but answering them can in some cases require so much hunting through the passage that they’re just not worth it.
Remember that while the answers to many, if not most, ACT Reading questions are stated more or less directly in the passage, that is not the case for inference questions. If you have trouble making the leap from the literal wording of the passage to the rephrased version in the answer choice, you can be prepared to drop one or two of these questions if necessary.