Remember the introduction on ACT Reading

I recently noticed that a couple of my students were kept missing ACT reading comp questions that should have been very straightforward. Their reading was strong enough that they shouldn’t have been getting those questions wrong, and at first I wasn’t sure why they were having trouble. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that the questions giving them trouble consistently had answers located in the introduction.

What I suspect was happening was this: they saw a question without a line reference, and if they didn’t remember the answer, their immediate reaction was to panic and (subconsciously) assume  that the answer was going to be buried somewhere in the middle of the passage — somewhere very difficult to find. Basically, they were so used to assuming that things would be hard that it never occurred to them that they might actually be easy!

Had they simply scanned for the key word/phrase starting in the introduction and skimmed chronologically, they would have found the answer almost immediately. Inevitably, when I had them re-work through the questions that way, they had no problem answering them correctly.

So if you find yourself confronted with a straightforward, factual reading comprehension without a line reference and have absolutely no recollection of where the answer is located, don’t just jump to somewhere in the middle of the passage and start looking around.

Instead, figure out what word or phrase you’re looking for, and start scanning quickly for it from the very first sentence, pulling your finger down the page as you scan to focus your eye and prevent you from overlooking key information. You might come across the answer a lot faster than you’re expecting.

Strategies for finishing ACT Reading faster

The most common issue that students have on ACT Reading is time. Granted, the timing is tight: 35 minutes for four passages and 40 questions, or precisely 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage/ten question set. The timing, however, is not the whole story.

In reality, what presents itself as a time issue is often something else entirely. Most people assume that they have problems on ACT Reading because they can’t read fast enough when the real problem is that they don’t know how to read effectively enough to locate the requisite information in time. Yes, it is true that many ACT Reading questions are detailed-based and require the identification of a particular fact buried in the middle of a paragraph, but what many test-takers overlook is the fact that there are many strategies they can employ to quickly locate the necessary information — even if they have no recollection whatsoever of where it is.

In a roundabout way, the ACT can actually be more of a reasoning test than the SAT, and if you really want to improve your score dramatically, you need to treat it like one. Simply reading each passage fully, trying to absorb all of the information, and then going through the questions in order will have little to no long-term effect on your score.

The bottom line is that if you want to get through all four passages in time and obtain a high score, you must be willing to be flexible and shift your strategy to fit the question.That includes doing the following:

1) Skip around

When students with solid comprehension skills get stuck below a certain score on ACT Reading, it’s usually not because they spend a little too much time on every question, but rather because they spend far too much time on a handful of questions. When they learn to identify those potentially time-consuming questions upfront and go into the test planning to skip them, their score often jumps two or three points right away.

In general, if a question looks hard or time-consuming, skip it upfront and come back to it if you have time. Figure out a marking system so that you don’t forget do so. Your goal is to get as many questions right as you possibly can, so don’t sacrifice questions you can answer easily for questions that will take a lot of time and that you may not even get right. For example, if you know that “main point” questions are consistently problematic, don’t even look at them until you’ve answered every other question that set.

2) Learn to distinguish between “detail” passages and “argument” passages and treat them accordingly

For passages that focus more on details or descriptions without a real point, you can ignore this process; it won’t really get you anywhere.

For the passages that do focus on a single argument, however, you need to take the time to both determine and write down the main point. Keeping that information in mind when you answer the questions can save you unbelievable amounts of time.

3) Learn what information you can skip initially

This is another strategy that comes primarily into play when you’re dealing with a straightforward “argument” passage. Whenever you encounter a topic sentence that clearly indicates that the rest of the paragraph will just offer supporting details, you can skip the rest of the paragraph. If a question asks specifically about those lines, you can go back and read them closely, but remember: the topic sentence has already told you why those details were important, and there’s a decent chance that’s what the ACT will ask about.

4) Think logically about where information is most likely to be located

This may sound obvious, but very often when asked to locate a piece of information that they don’t recall, people begin re-reading the passage from the beginning. Don’t. If the passage discusses a movement chronologically and the question asks about an event that clearly must have happened toward the end of the movement, focus on the end of the passage.

In addition, when you’re trying to locate information that you simply don’t remember reading, just focus on the topic sentences to help you figure out where the topic is discussed. If you try to skim through the interiors of paragraphs, you’ll most likely just end up lost.

5) Circle major transitions and important information…

and don’t forget to consult those spots when you look back. That’s where the information that gets asked about will probably be. It’s a waste of time to make notes if you just end up ignoring them and skimming through random sections.

6) Take shortcuts

The ACT can be exactly like the SAT here, in the sense that there’s often a “back door” that will let you quickly answer what appears to be a complicated question.

For example: if a question asks about the order of a series of events and the answers list four different combinations, each with a different event first, you just have to figure out the first event. By default, only the answer that lists that event first can be right.

7) Learn when to look at the answers first and when to look at the passage (or your notes) first

Again, this requires that you be willing to shift your strategy to fit the question. If it’s a main point of passage question, you need to consult your notes about the main point. If it’s a main point of paragraph question, you need to read the topic sentence of the paragraph in question. If it’s an “all of the following EXCEPT’ question, you need to look at the answer choices first. You just have to do whatever will get you the answer fastest.

Don’t go too fast on ACT Reading

Here’s a cautionary tale for those of you who don’t have trouble finishing ACT Reading on time.

One of my students who had been doing quite well (around a 30) on ACT Reading suddenly started to see his score drop down into the low 20s. I wasn’t hugely concerned; it was finals week, he was stressed and exhausted, and it was normal for him to be less focused.

Nevertheless, I asked him to do a passage while I watched, just so I could see how he was working through things. I didn’t time him, but after maybe four or five minutes, he got convinced that he was running so far behind that it would be impossible for him to recover.

When I looked at the wrong answers he was choosing, they all seemed to be of the “half-right half-wrong” variety. It occurred to me that he was freaking himself about time, then rushing and missing questions he would have gotten right had he just spent a little bit more time on them.

So I asked him to try an experiment: I would time him on a passage, but I also wanted him to completely forget about time — even go a bit more slowly than normal — and just work carefully. Not only did he did he finish with 45 seconds to spare, but he also got every single question right. He was shocked.

So the moral of the story is: don’t rush. Even if you feel like you’re running out of time, you might not actually be doing so. Perception is not necessarily reality. It’s more important to work carefully and not get through all the questions than to get through all of the questions and get a lot of them wrong.

The ACT Reading curve is huge. Huge. Even if you don’t get to finish the last couple of questions, you can still get a score well above 30. You’re better off leaving a few questions blank and ending up with a 32 than you are trying to answer everything in pursuit of a 36 and ending up with a 28.

Three passages, not four

The single biggest problem that I have observed among ACT-takers is that they never have enough time to finish the entire Reading section. 40 questions in 35 minutes is a lot, and if you’re a slow reader, then it can be a disaster.

One possible way of handling that problem: skip one of the passages.

If you know you generally hate Prose Fiction, plan to skip that passage; if Science is usually awful, skip Science, etc. If you don’t have a preference, skim through the four when you first get the test and see which one looks least interesting.

Now I realize what you’re thinking: how can I possibly get a decent score if I omit a quarter of the section?

Here’s how: first, you’re not going to omit it completely. You’re going to pick a letter pair (A/F, B/G, etc.) and fill it in for every single answer for that passage. Statistically, you are almost guaranteed to get at least two questions right, usually three, and sometimes even four (although I wouldn’t bet on the last one).

You now have approximately 11 minutes and 30 seconds to spend on the remaining three passages. If you can use that extra time to get, say, 9/10 questions correct on each one, that already gives you 27 points. Add three more points from the omitted section, and that gives you a raw score of 30, which is usually equivalent to about a scaled score of 27 — not bad if you’ve been stuck at 23 or 24.

Now, let’s say you have a fantastic test and get 10/10 right on the other three passages. That’s a raw score of 30. Plus three points from the omitted test = raw score of 33 = scaled score of 30.

That’s right, a 30.

I will admit that this strategy can be risky. If it backfires, you can end up with a much lower score than what you started with, and sometimes that does happen initially. It also only works if your comprehension is generally very strong. But if that is truly the case, it’s important to stick with it because eventually it will pay off. If you’re a slow enough reader that there’s just no way you’ll ever get through all four passages, it might be the best chance you have to seriously increase your score.