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Tips and Strategies for the ACT and SAT Reading Sections

Let’s continue our journey through strategies that can be applied to both the ACT and SAT. Today we’ll turn out attention to the passage-based reading comprehension sections. These portions of the ACT and SAT are quite similar, with some minor differences that we’ll discuss along the way. So without further ado, here’s an overview of what you should know going into the reading comprehension sections of the ACT and SAT.

Understand how the passages and questions are organized:

Both the ACT and SAT present you with a series of short passages (each less than 1000 words). After each passage you’ll be asked a series of questions about what you just read. Sometimes two shorter passages will be paired together. For these you’ll have to answer questions about each mini-passage separately, as well as questions that refer to both. All of the passages have line numbers. A question that cites line numbers is asking for something specific from that section of the passage.

The passages themselves are drawn from four broadly-defined fields: narrative fiction, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The ACT always gives you one from each of these fields, while the SAT selection process is more random. Neither exam requires a specialized understanding of the fields the passages are drawn from. Terms are either defined outright or their meanings can be inferred from the passages.

The SAT reading questions always follow chronological order. This can be helpful if you’re having trouble finding the answer to a particular question. If you’ve answered the question that comes before and the one that comes after, you have a pretty clear idea of where to look for the answer to a question that you’re stuck on. The ACT doesn’t follow this scheme; questions can be in any order. In other words, you can use the order of the questions as “map” to finding the correct answers on the SAT but not on the ACT.

Time management:

On the ACT you’ll have 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions (10 for each passage). This means you’ll have less than 10 minutes per passage to both read and answer questions. On the SAT you’ll be asked 67 questions, spread across two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, for a total of 70 minutes. 19 of those questions cover vocabulary, leaving you with 48 passage-related questions. Depending on how quickly you can tear through the vocabulary questions, you’ll have around 1-1/2 minutes per reading question. That’s before you even take actually having to read the passages into account.

Unless you’re an extremely fast reader, you won’t have time to read an entire passage in depth. Instead, you’ll want to get a general sense of what a passage is about and what its main points are. Read the first and last paragraphs, read topic sentences, and look for names, dates, times, lists, etc. Keep in mind you’ll be looking back at specific sections of the passage as you answer the questions. This is the time to do a closer reading of the parts of the passage that warrant a deeper examination.

To read or not to read the questions first:

Some tutors and study guides will tell you do a “cold” reading of a passage before you even think of looking at the questions. Others will say to look at the questions first and use them as a guide for what to focus on in the passage. In reality, this is not a simple either/or decision. There are various strategies you can employ if reading the passages first just isn’t working for you. One is to look at only the first question. Another is to read the questions but not the possible answers. A third, the one that works best for me, is to look for line numbers in the questions and use these as a guide on where to focus your attention in the passage. The point here is that there is no one single best approach for everyone. Do several practice tests and vary the method you’re using. Find a strategy that improves your score and that you feel comfortable using under pressure.

Understand the types of questions:

Being able to quickly recognize what exactly a question is asking you to do saves you valuable time. Every second you don’t have to spend unraveling a question is one more you can spend finding the correct answer. We’ll cover these in depth in a later blog post, but let’s go over them quickly here. Questions draw on two general skill sets: referring and reasoning. Referring questions want you to pick out a particular piece of information. Reasoning questions require you to analyze the information the question is asking about and draw some kind of conclusion. The types of questions you’ll be asked are: details, main ideas, compare and contrast, cause and effect, generalizations, the meanings of words in context, sequence of events, and the author’s voice/method/tone. Once or twice a passage a question will ask you for the wrong answer instead of the right one. The words not and except are your cue that a question is asking you to do the opposite of what you would normally do to answer it.