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ACT and SAT Reading: Common Errors

Jalen W.

This week we’re going to look at three of the most common errors that I have seen students make on the Reading sections of the ACT and SAT. While each student will find certain aspects of these sections easier and others more difficult, these are errors that I have seen students consistently make over the past several years. Therefore, it is very likely that you have struggled with at least one of the common error types detailed below.


Over Thinking a Question

SAT and ACT Reading questions are designed to be answered quickly. There just isn’t enough time on either exam for deep reflection on the possible answers to a question. Yet, wrong answers are often designed in such as way as to trick students into doing exactly that. If you suspect that an answer might be right but can’t provide a concise explanation why, set it aside and see if there are other, more obvious answers that are supported by the passage. Whatever you do, do not get stuck in the mindset of “it can’t be that simple.” For most questions, the answer will be relatively simple. Go into the questions assuming that the answers will be straightforward. Don’t consider a more complicated answer choice unless you have eliminated all of the simpler ones.


Not Looking Back at the Passage

Not referring back to the passage can create several problems for students. First, the correct answer to a question asking for a specific detail is often word-for-word identical to a phrase in the passage. Second, questions are not distributed evenly throughout a passage. This is especially true on the ACT, where a third to a half of the questions on a given passage can be based on the same one to two paragraphs. Therefore, rereading a given section of a passage in depth will, in all likelihood, make it easier to answer other questions.


Finally, the wrong answers are deliberately designed to mislead students. Here are just some of the tricks that ACT and SAT Reading wrong answer choices employ: factually correct answers not found in the passage, answers that sound like something the author would write, and choices that seem superficially correct but distort key details. Regardless of how perfect your memory of a passage might be, you will fall for misleading answer choices if you do not check them against the passage itself.


Letting Your Own Knowledge Influence Your Answers

Every correct answer must be supported by the passage in some way. An answer must either be stated outright or be something a reader can piece together from various parts of the passage. Answer choices that require students to draw on outside information or reflect on their own experiences must, by the design of the ACT and SAT, be automatically wrong.


This is possibly the most common error I have encountered, and it is one of the most difficult to overcome. No matter your interests or life experiences, sooner or later you will come across a passage where you know more about the subject than what is presented in the passage or have strong personal feelings about the subject. As soon as you realize that you are reading a passage that speaks to you personally, take a moment to put your own opinions on and knowledge of the subject aside. As you are answering the questions, keep asking yourself if you are bringing more to a question than what is contained in the passage. Taking your own ego out of the question answering process can be challenging, but the more you practice, the easier it will become.

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