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:
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.
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.
Each of my students creates a “mistake journal” where they keep track of vital information about every single error they make as they practice:
Here are a few common reasons why people get questions wrong:
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.
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.
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:
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).
That leaves you 5 minutes (or a few seconds longer) for answering questions.
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.
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
Because the pace of ACT Reading is so fast, you need to get oriented to each passage as quickly as possible:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The four ACT Reading passages always appear in the same order:
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.
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.