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Tips for Annotating ACT and SAT Reading Passages

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Today we’re going to look at two of the most popular strategies for annotating critical reading passages on the ACT and SAT: underlining and note-taking. These techniques can help you to better understand passages and answer questions more easily. However, underlining and note-taking need to be employed carefully and deliberately in order to be truly effective on ACT or SAT passage-based reading.

Limit What You Underline

I strongly recommend underlining key parts of a passage as you read it. Underlining helps to reduce the “Easter egg hunt” aspect of answering the questions and helps to ensure that you don’t lose track of an important piece of information. In order for underlining to be effective, you need to limit the type and scope of information that you are marking. I suggest underlining parts of the passage that contain the following information: the main idea (or thesis), any counter-arguments, the conclusion, transitional words, and lines cited in questions.

The main idea should be fairly self-explanatory, as questions always ask about it. Recognizing counter-arguments and conclusions can be useful for several types of questions. Transitional words can help you figure how a passage is constructed. “However, yet, etc.” usually signal a shift in an author’s approach. They are your clue that he or she is changing gears. “Additionally, moreover, etc.” let you know that the author is continuing to build upon what he or she has already written.  Underlining sections of the text that are cited in the questions helps you to remember to focus on these particular lines while reading the passage.

Make Notes Short and Simple

Effective ACT and SAT note-taking is different from how you were probably taught to take notes in English classes. Writing long, involved notes in the margins of passages is impractical and counterproductive. First, you risk running out of time if you dive deeply enough into a passage that your thoughts require extensive documentation. Second, you legitimately risk inadvertently introducing experiences and opinions into your notes that are not actually found in the passage.

Treat ACT/SAT notes as labels for what is already contained within a passage. One to three words are usually sufficient to help you remember why a section of a passage is important. Instead of writing out what the main idea of a passage is, just write “Main idea!” next to the relevant section of the text.  You can use this “labeling” technique in conjunction with underlining to help you remember why you marked the particular lines that you did.

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