How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

You’ve probably noticed by now: the ACT Reading section isn’t much like English class.

You can be a sophisticated, insightful reader and still have trouble on the test. That’s because ACT Reading is a separate game with its own rules. To do well, you need to figure out those rules and develop the specialized skills that ACT Reading requires.

There are three steps involved:

  1. Get familiar with the playing field. That means learning the types of questions that the ACT asks and the kinds of answers it’s looking for.
  2. Practice a lot.
  3. Pay close attention to the kinds of mistakes you make. Do you have trouble with inference questions? Do you tend to pick an answer without reading all the choices? That’s exactly the information you need to help you focus your practice and raise your score.

Let’s assume that you’ve planned out a consistent study schedule using authentic ACT materials over at least a couple of months. (That’s steps 1 and 2). For now, we’re going to focus on the last step: exactly what to do with the feedback you get from all those practice passages.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Zeroing in on your errors is the single most important thing you can do to raise your score on ACT Reading.

Many students feel a powerful urge to toss their mistakes aside and dive right into the next practice passage. (“I missed four?? Arrg!! I know I can do better than that. Here, I’ll try again…”).

Doing that will get you nowhere.

You MUST look closely at your errors. Get to know them intimately.

Analyzing Mistakes to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

Each of my students creates a “mistake journal” where they keep track of vital information about every single error they make as they practice:

  1. What type of question was it? (Inference, vocabulary, detail…).
  2. Why did I get it wrong? (See below for some possible answers).
  3. What am I going to do differently next time I encounter a similar question?

Here are a few common reasons why people get questions wrong:

  • “I didn’t read the whole question.”
  • “I picked an answer without reading all the choices.”
  • “I picked a classic ACT “trap” answer.” (Take a look at the list below).
  • “The question asked about the whole passage, but I only related it to the last paragraph.”
  • “The question asked specifically about the last paragraph, but I related it to the passage as a whole.”

Don’t just think about this stuff: actually write it down in a notebook or on a spreadsheet. That may seem like a lot of work (and it is), but you’ll be amazed at how fast your ACT Reading skills will improve.

Some Common Kinds of “Trap” Answers

How to Improve ACT reading score--trap answers

These are tempting wrong answers that are wrong in predictable ways. Learn to spot them in the wild:

Answers that are too general. The question asks about the main idea of paragraph 7; the trap answer gives the main idea of the passage as a whole.

Answers that are too specific. The question asks about the main idea of the passage; the trap answer gives the main idea of paragraph 7.

Answers that are only half right. These are answer choices that have two parts. The first one sounds good, but the second is a deal-breaker. Say a question asks about a character in a Prose Fiction passage. The half-right answer says she’s “charming and generous.” You remember that the character is described as charming, so you pick that answer without noticing the second part of it. (The passage makes it clear that the character is not generous).

Answer choices that mention something that was stated in the passage, but don’t really answer the question. The question asks where an insect’s habitat is. A trap answer will say “Indonesia” because the passage tells us that scientists in Indonesia have been studying the bug.

Stay Focused

As you learn how to improve your ACT Reading score, you need to figure out exactly what mistakes you’re currently making and why. On top of that, the passages themselves are sometimes less than fascinating. The whole process takes sustained concentration.

That’s actually part of what the ACT is testing: how good are you at maintaining your focus on material that doesn’t feel fun or engaging?

Colleges want to know that you can handle the avalanche of reading that you’ll need to do as an undergraduate. Even if you’re a science star planning on a STEM major, you’ll still need to absorb a ton of written information, some of which won’t be inherently interesting to you.  

Think about what’s worked for you in the past when you’ve wanted to do well on a boring assignment.

Some strategies that I’ve heard from students:

  • “I break the assignment down into smaller steps.”
  • “I think about the long-term payoff.” (Like getting into your dream school).
  • “I force myself to be fascinated by the topic for the next ten minutes no matter what.”
  • “I practice catching myself in the moments when I start to space out.”

How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score: Core Strategies

How to improve ACT reading score: core strategies

Only read once, with pencil in hand.

ACT Reading is fast. You only have about 8.5 minutes to read and respond to each passage. So when you’re working on pace, you have to be ruthless.

Underline main ideas. Circle names and transition words. Try to get a sense of the outline of the author’s argument. Then move on to the questions.

(Sometimes students tell me, “But I can’t skim! I’m the kind of person who needs to understand everything before I start on the questions.” That’s a beautiful dream, but you have to let it go).

Aim to finish reading and annotating each passage within 3.5 minutes.

That leaves you 5 minutes (or a few seconds longer) for answering questions.

Don’t get trapped in a rereading “loop.”

If you hit a sentence or paragraph that makes no sense to you, don’t go back and reread it. Draw a line in the margin and skip ahead to the next clear idea.

Skip chunks of text that list details or examples.

Maybe you see a topic sentence like, Between 1890 and 1925, Lyon’s restaurants opened in all of Britain’s major metropolitan areas. You glance ahead and you see that the rest of that paragraph is a list of cities, dates, and the number of Lyons restaurants in each one. Instead of trying to cram all that into your brain, just draw a line down the margin and write a quick note to yourself (maybe locs, meaning “locations”). If you hit a question later that’s asking where there were restaurants on a certain date, you know where to look for that information. Otherwise, you can forget it.

Read the introduction.

You know that little paragraph in bold type, hanging out at the top of the passage? Many students skip right over it: a mistake that can cost them points.

Because the pace of ACT Reading is so fast, you need to get oriented to each passage as quickly as possible:

  • What’s it about?
  • What kind of language is it written in? (Early nineteenth-century baroque style with twisty syntax? Minimalist fiction with short sentences and lots of unspoken implications?)
  • What might the author’s purpose be? (Persuasive? Informative? Both?)

The intro paragraph gives you a head start on all that by telling you the title, author, and publication date of the selection. It also clues you into the intended audience by telling you where the piece originally appeared. A passage entitled “Seeking New Worlds” will be a completely different animal depending on whether it comes from Air & Space Magazine or a book on Buddhist philosophy.

Know which question-types are hardest for you and save them for last.

If you know that inference questions are a time-suck for you (or graph questions, or whatever it may be), plan to skip them and come back to them.

When You’re Short On Time

How to improve ACT reading score--short on time

What’s that? You say your test is coming up next weekend?

As you’re learning how to improve your ACT Reading score, nothing can take the place of consistent, focused practice. That said, here are three fast fixes that will help you grab some extra points right away.

1. Answer easier questions first.

In the time it takes you to answer one time-consuming question, you could zip through three easier ones. (Remember, they’re all worth the same number of points). If you can’t answer a question within 30 seconds, skip it and come back if you have time.

2. Do the passages in order from most interesting to least interesting.

The four ACT Reading passages always appear in the same order:

  • Prose Fiction
  • Social Science
  • Humanities
  • Natural Science

Most people have one that they prefer (usually either Fiction/Humanities or Social Science/Natural Science), and one that they like least (usually either Fiction or Natural Science). If you’re not sure, take a second at the start of the ACT Reading section to flip through the passages you’re given and decide which one looks most appealing. Maximize your score by doing your favorite one first and your least favorite last.

3. Create your own answers.

Before you read the answer choices, see if you can anticipate the correct answer. Maybe the question is asking for the location of the Burgess Shale. You remember that the passage said it’s in British Columbia. Now check the answer options and see if there’s one that matches the answer you have in mind. Bingo.

This doesn’t work on every question. But when it does, it speeds you up and helps you cut through the fog of tricky trap answers.