Are you scoring in the 26–34 range on ACT Critical Reading? Do you want to raise that score as high as possible—to a perfect 36?
Getting to a 36 ACT Reading score isn't easy. It'll require perfection. But with hard work and my strategies below, you'll be able to do it. I've consistently scored 36 on Reading on my real ACTs, and I know what it takes. Follow my advice, and you'll get a perfect score—or get very close.
Brief note: This article is suited for students already scoring a 26 on ACT Reading or above. If you're below this range, my "How to Improve your ACT Reading Score to a 26" article is more appropriate for you. Follow the advice in that article, then come back to this one when you've reached a 26.
Most guides on the internet on how to score a 36 are pretty bad quality. They're often written by people who never scored a 36 themselves. You can tell because their advice is usually vague and not very pragmatic.
In contrast, I've written what I believe to be the best guide on getting a 36 available anywhere. I have confidence that these strategies work because I used them myself to score 36 on ACT Reading consistently. They've also worked for thousands of my students at PrepScholar.
In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring a 36 is a good idea, what it takes to score a 36, and then go into the 10 key strategies so you know how to get a 36 on ACT Reading.
Stick with me—as an advanced student, you probably already know that scoring high is good. But it's important to know why a 36 Reading score is useful, since this will fuel your motivation to get a high score.
Final note: in this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 36. But if your goal is a 34, these strategies still equally apply.
Understand the Stakes: Why a 36 ACT Reading?
Let's make something clear: for all intents and purposes, a 34 on an ACT is equivalent to a perfect 36. No top college is going to give you more credit for a 36 than a 34. You've already crossed their score threshold, and whether you get in now depends on the rest of your application.
So if you're already scoring a 34, don't waste your time studying trying to get a 36. You're already set for the top colleges, and it's time to work on the rest of your application.
But if you're scoring a 33 or below AND you want to go to a top 10 college, it's worth your time to push your score up to a 34 or above. There's a big difference between a 32 and a 34, largely because it's easy to get a 32 (and a lot more applicants do) and a lot harder to get a 34.
A 33 places you right around average at Harvard and Princeton and when it comes to admissions, being average is bad, since the admissions rate is typically below 10%.
So why get a 36 on ACT Reading? Because it helps you compensate for weaknesses in other sections. By and large, schools consider your ACT composite score more than your individual section scores. If you can get a 36 in ACT Reading, that gives you more flexibility in your Math, English, and Science scores. It can compensate for a 32 in one other section, for example, to bring your average back up to 34.
There's another scenario where a 36 in ACT Reading is really important. First is if you're planning to apply as a humanities or social science major (like English, political science, communications) to a top school.
Here's the reason: college admissions is all about comparisons between applicants. The school wants to admit the best, and you're competing with other people in the same "bucket" as you.
By applying as a humanities/social science major, you're competing against other humanities/social science folks: people for whom ACT Reading is easy. Really easy.
Here are a few examples from schools. For Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and U Chicago, the 75th percentile SAT Reading score is an 800, or equivalent to a 36 in ACT Reading. That means at least 25% of all students at these schools have a 36 in ACT Reading.
But if you can work your way to a 36, you show that you're at an equal level (at least on this metric). Even if it takes you a ton of work, all that matters is the score you achieve at the end.
I'll be honest—ACT Reading wasn't my strong suit in high school. When I started studying, I was scoring around the 31–32 range. I was always stronger in math and science.
But I learned the tricks of the test, and I developed the strategies below to raise my score to a 36. Now I'm sharing them with you.
Know that You Can Do It
This isn't just some fuzzy feel-good message you see on the back of a Starbucks cup.
I mean, literally, you and every other reasonably intelligent student can score a 36 on ACT Reading.
The reason most people don't is they don't try hard enough or they don't study the right way.
Even if language isn't your strongest suit, or you got a B+ in AP English, you're capable of this.
Because I know that more than anything else, your ACT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.
ACT Reading is Designed to Trick You. You Need to Learn How
Here's why: the ACT is a weird test. When you take the Reading section, don't you get the sense that the questions are nothing like what you've seen in school?
I bet you've had this problem: in ACT Reading passages, you often miss questions because of an "unlucky guess." You'll try to eliminate a few answer choices, and the remaining answer choices will all sound equally good to you.
Well, you throw up your hands and randomly guess.
This was one of the major issues for myself when I was studying ACT Reading, and I know they affect thousands of my students at PrepScholar.
The ACT is purposely designed this way to confuse you. Literally millions of other students have the exact same problem you do. And the ACT knows this.
Normally in your school's English class, the teacher tells you that all interpretations of the text are valid. You can write an essay about anything you want, and English teachers aren't (usually) allowed to tell you that your opinion is wrong. This is because they can get in trouble for telling you what to think, especially for complex issues like slavery or poverty.
But the ACT has an entirely different problem. It's a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country. It needs a solid test to compare students with each other. Every question needs a single, unambiguously, 100% correct answer.
There's only ever one correct answer. Find a way to eliminate three incorrect answers.
Imagine if this weren't the case. Imagine that each reading answer had two answer choices that might each be plausibly correct. When the scores came out, every single student who got the question wrong would complain to the ACT, Inc. about the test being wrong.
If this were true, the ACT, Inc. would then have to invalidate the question, which weakens the power of the test.
The ACT, Inc. wants to avoid this nightmare scenario. Therefore, every single Reading passage question has only one, single correct answer.
But the ACT disguises this fact. It asks questions that sound subjective, like:
- The author would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
- The first paragraph primarily serves to:
- In line 20, 'dark' most nearly means:
Notice a pattern here? The ACT always disguises the fact that there's always one unambiguous answer. It tries to make you waver between two or three answer choices that are most likely.
And then you guess randomly.
And then you get it wrong.
You can bet that students fall for this. Millions of times every year.
Students who don't prepare for the ACT in the right way don't appreciate this. But, if you prepare for the ACT in the right way, you'll learn the tricks the ACT plays on you. And you'll raise your score.
The ACT Reading section is full of patterns like these. To improve your score, you just need to:
- learn the types of questions that the ACT tests, like the one above
- learn strategies to solve these questions, using skills you already know
- practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes
The point is that you can learn these skills, even if you don't consider yourself a good reader or a great English student. I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this.
One last point: let's make sure we understand how many questions we can miss and still score a 36.
What It Takes to Get a 36 in Reading
If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test.
Unlike for English and Math, there's a large amount of variation in grading scale for the Reading and Science sections. On some tests, a certain raw score could get you a 36; on others, that same raw score could drop you down to a 34.
I've compiled the conversion tables from 4 official ACT practice tests to show you what I mean. (If you could use a refresher on how the ACT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)
|ACT Reading Score||Raw Scores|
|Test 1||Test 2||Test 3||Test 4|
Notice that Test 1 is the strictest grading scale out of the four. In this case, missing one question drops you to a 35; miss another and you'll drop to a 34; miss one more, and you drop to a 32. This is a very unforgiving test that requires perfection.
Test 2, on the other hand, is much more forgiving. You can miss two questions—with a raw score of 38—and still get a 36!
The reason these tests differ so much is that the ACT tries to make the scores from every test equivalent to all other tests. A 36 on one test should mean the same as a 36 on another. So if a test has particularly difficult passages or questions, they'll soften the curve.
Regardless: The safest thing to do is to aim for perfection. On every practice test, you need to aim for a perfect raw score for a 36. Notice that in three of the four tests, you needed a perfect raw score to get a 36.
Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 36. For example, if you're scoring a 30 now, you need to answer five to seven more questions right to get to a 36.
As a final example, here's a screenshot from my ACT score report. You can see that I likely missed one question, since I scored a 17 on Social Studies/Sciences. Also notice that a single mistake already drops me down to a 97 percentile—there are a lot of students who do extremely well on this test!
OK—so we've covered why scoring a higher Reading score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.
Now we'll get into the meat of the article: actionable strategies and reading tips that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.
Strategies to Get a 36 on ACT Reading
Strategy 1: Understand Your High Level Weakness: Time Management, Passage Strategy, or Vocabulary
Every student has different flaws in ACT Reading. Some people don't have good strategies for tackling the passage questions. Others don't read quickly enough and struggle to get through all the questions.
Here's how you can figure out which one applies more to you:
- Find an official ACT practice test, and take only the Reading section. We have the complete list of free practice tests here.
- For that section, use a timer for 35 minutes. Treat it like a real test.
- If time runs out and you're not done yet, keep working for as long as you need. But starting now, for every new answer or answer that you change, mark it with a special note as "Extra Time."
- Grade your test using the answer key and score chart, but we want two scores: the realistic score you got under normal timing conditions, and the extra time score. This is why you marked the questions you answered or changed during Extra Time.
Get what we're doing here? By marking which questions you did under Extra Time, we can figure out what score you got if you were given all the time you needed. This will help us figure out where your weaknesses lie.
If you didn't take any extra time, then your Extra Time score is the same as your Realistic score.
Here's a flowchart to help you figure this out:
Was your Extra Time score a 32 or above?
If NO (Extra Time score < 32), then you have remaining content weaknesses. You might have weaknesses across a range of subjects, or a deep weakness in only a few subjects. (We'll cover this later). Your first plan of attack should be to develop more comfort with all ACT Reading subjects.
If YES (Extra Time score > 32), then:
Was your Realistic score a 32 or above?
If NO (Extra Time score > 32, Realistic < 32), then that means you have a difference between your Extra Time score and your Realistic score. If this difference is more than 2 points, then you have some big problems with time management. We need to figure out why this is. Are you generally slow across most questions? Or did particular questions slow you down more than others? Or are you spending too much time on reading the passage? Generally, doing a lot of practice questions and learning the most efficient solutions will help reduce your time. More on this later.
If YES (both Extra Time and Realistic scores > 32), then you have a really good shot at getting an 36. Compare your Extra Time and Realistic score—if they differed by more than one point, then you would benefit from learning how to solve questions more quickly. If not, then you likely can benefit from shoring up on your last skill weaknesses and avoiding careless mistakes (more on this strategy later).
Hopefully that makes sense. Typically I see that students have both timing and content issues, but you might find that one is much more dominant for you than the other. For example, if you can get a 36 with extra time, but score a 32 in regular time, you know exactly that you need to work on time management to get an 36.
This type of analysis is so important that it's a central part of my prep program, PrepScholar. When a new student joins, he or she gets a diagnostic that figures out specific strengths and weaknesses. The program then automatically customizes your learning so that you're always studying according to where you can make the most improvement.
No matter what your weakness is, my following strategies will address all weaknesses comprehensively.
Strategy 2: Learn to Eliminate 3 Wrong Answers
This strategy was by far the most effective for me in raising my Reading score. It completely changed the way I viewed passage questions.
I spent some time talking above about how the ACT always has one unambiguous answer. This has a huge implication for the strategy you should use to find the right ACT Reading answer.
Here's the other way to see it: Out of the four answer choices, three of them have something that is totally wrong about them. Only one answer is 100% correct, which means the other three are 100% wrong.
You know how you try to eliminate answer choices, and then end up with a few at the end that all seem equally likely to be correct? "Well, this can work...but then again this could work as well..."
STOP doing that. You're not doing a good enough job of eliminating answer choices. Remember—every single wrong choice can be crossed out for its own reasons.
You need to do a 180 on your approach to Reading questions. Instead of trying to find the one right answer, find a reason to eliminate three answer choices. "Can I find a reason to eliminate this answer choice? How about this one?"
You have to learn how to eliminate three answer choices for every single question.
"Great, Allen. But this doesn't tell me anything about HOW to eliminate answer choices."
Thanks for asking. One thing to remember is that even a single word can make an answer choice wrong. Every single word in each answer choice is put there by the ACT for a reason. If a single word in the answer choice isn't supported by the passage text, you need to eliminate it, even if the rest of the answer sounds good.
There are a few classic wrong answer choices the ACT loves to use. Here's an example question.
For example, let’s imagine you just read a passage talking about how human evolution shaped the environment. It gives a few examples. First, it talks about how the transition from earlier species like Homo habilis to neanderthals led to more tool usage like fire, which caused wildfires and shaped the ecology. It then talks about Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago and their overhunting of species like woolly mammoths to extinction.
So then we run into a question asking, "Which of the following best describes the main subject of the passage?" Here are the answer choices:
- A: The transition between Homo habilis and neanderthals
- B: The study of evolution
- C: How the environment shaped human evolution
- D: The plausibility of evolution
- E: The influence of human development on ecology
(I know the ACT only has four answer choices, but we'll just pretend they have five for this example to discuss the different kinds of wrong answers.)
As you're reading these answer choices, a few of them probably started sounded really plausible to you.
Surprise! Each of the answers from A–D has something seriously wrong about it. Each one is a classic example of a wrong answer type given by the ACT.
Wrong Answer 1: Too Specific
A: The transition between Homo habilis and neanderthals
This type of wrong answer focuses on a smaller detail in the passage. It’s meant to trick you because you might think to yourself, "well, I see this mentioned in the passage, so it’s a plausible answer choice."
Wrong! Think to yourself—can this answer choice really describe the entire passage? Can it basically function as the title of this passage? You’ll find that it’s just way too specific to convey the point of the overall passage.
Wrong Answer 2: Too Broad
B: The study of evolution
This type of wrong answer has the opposite problem—it’s way too broad. Yes, theoretically the passage concerns the study of evolution, but only one aspect of it, and especially as it relates to the impact on the environment.
To give another ludicrous example, if you talked to your friend about losing your cell phone, and he said your main point was about the universe. Yes, you were talking about the universe (since we all live in this universe), but you were talking about only a tiny, tiny fraction of it. This is way too broad.
Wrong Answer 3: Reversed Relationship
C: How the environment shaped human evolution
This wrong answer choice can be tricky because it mentions all the right words. But of course the relationship between those words needs to be correct as well. Here, the relationship is flipped. Students who read too quickly make careless mistakes like these!
Wrong Answer 4: Unrelated Concept
D: The plausibility of evolution
Finally, this kind of wrong answer preys on the tendency of students to overthink the question. If you’re passionate about arguing about evolution, this might be a trigger answer since any discussion of evolution becomes a chance to argue about the plausibility of evolution. Of course, this concept will appear nowhere in the passage, but some students just won’t be able to resist.
Do you see the point? On the surface, each of the answer choices sounds possibly correct. A less prepared student would think that all of these were plausible answers.
But plausible isn't good enough. The right answer needs to be 100%, totally right. Wrong answers might be off by even one word—you need to eliminate these.
Carry this thought into every ACT Reading passage question you do and I guarantee you will start raising your score.
Strategy 3: Predict the Answer Before Reading the Answer Choices
As we've discussed already, the ACT is designed to goad you into making mistakes by putting really similar answer choices next to each other.
In Strategy 2, we covered the strategy of ruthless, unforgiving elimination of answer choices.
Here's another Strategy that works well for me. Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question.
Gaze into your crystal ball and predict the right answer.
This strategy is exactly designed to counteract the trickiness of the answer choices.
If you don't apply this strategy, your thinking process likely resembles something like this:
"OK, I just read the question. Answer A is definitely out. B can kind of work. C...it doesn't exactly fit, but I can see how it can work." and so on.
By now, you've already fallen into ACT, Inc.'s trap of starting to muddle the answer choices.
Take the opposite approach. While you're reading the question, come up with your own ideal answer to the question before reading the answer choices. This prevents you from getting biased by the ACT's answer choices, especially the incorrect ones.
If it's a "Big Picture" type question asking about the main point of the passage, answer for yourself, "What would make a good title for this passage?"
If it's an "Inference" question, answer for yourself, "What would the author think about the situation given in the question?"
Even if you can't answer the question straight away—for example, if you have to refer back to the line number to remember what the passage was saying—try to form a hunch briefly before looking at the answer choices.
(There are of course some detail-oriented questions that are hard to solve this way. For example, questions that ask "All of these were mentioned as details EXCEPT FOR" require you to look at the passage. Even in these cases, you can form hunches about details that you remember reading about, and those you don't.)
The key here is that the passage must support your answer choice. Every correct answer on ACT passages needs to be justified by the passage—otherwise the answer would be ambiguous, which would cause problems of cancelling questions I referred to earlier.
Note that this only works if you can read and understand passages well! That's why I don't recommend this strategy yet before you hit a 26 level since you're more likely to come up with the wrong answer choice in your head.
Strategy 4: Experiment with Passage Reading Strategies and Find the Best for You
In your prep for the ACT, you may have read different strategies for how to read a passage and answer questions. Some students read the questions before reading the passage. Others read the passage in detail first.
At your high level, I can't predict which method will work best for you. We're going for perfection, which means that your strategy needs to line up with your strengths and weaknesses perfectly, or else you'll make mistakes or run out of time.
What I will do, however, is go through the most effective methods. You'll then have to figure out through your test data which one leads to the highest score for you.
Passage Method 1: Skim the Passage, then Read the Questions
This is the most common strategy I recommend to our students, and in my eyes the most effective. I prefer this one myself.
Here it is:
- Skim the passage on the first read through. Don't try to understand every single line, or write notes predicting what the questions will be. Just get a general understanding of the passage. You want to try to finish reading the passage in three minutes, if possible.
- Next, go to the questions. If the question refers to a line number, then go back to that line number and understand the text around it.
- If you can't answer a question within 30 seconds, skip it.
This strategy is a revelation for students who used to close-read every detail about a passage and run out of time.
This skimming method works because the questions will ask about far fewer lines than the passage actually contains. For example, lines 5-20 of a reading passage might not be relevant to any question that follows. Therefore, if you spend time trying to deeply understand lines 5-20, you’ll be wasting time.
By taking the opposite approach of going back to the passage when you need to refer to it, you guarantee reading efficiency. You're focusing only on the parts of the passage that are important to answering questions.
Critical Skill: You must be able to skim effectively. This means being able to quickly digest a text without having to slowly read every word. If you're not quite good at this yet, practice it on newspaper articles and your homework reading.
Passage Method 2: Read the Questions First and Mark the Passage
This is the second most common strategy and, if used well, as effective as the first method. But it has some pitfalls if you don't do it correctly.
Here's how it goes:
- Before you read the passage, go to the questions and read each one.
- If the question refers to a series of lines, mark those lines on the passage. Take a brief note about the gist of the question.
- Go back to the passage and skim it. When you reach one of your notes, slow down and take more notice of the question.
- Answer the questions.
Here's an example passage that I marked up, with questions on the right. Notice that beyond marking the lines and phrases referenced in the question, I left clues for myself on what's important to get out of this phrase.
In the hands of an ACT expert, this is a powerful strategy. Just like Method 1 above, you save time by skipping parts of the passage that aren't asked about. Furthermore, you get a head start on the questions by trying to answer them beforehand.
But there are serious potential pitfalls to this method if you're not careful or prepared enough.
Here's one: when you first read the questions before the passage, you won't have enough time to digest the actual answer choices (nor will they make sense to you). So you have to make your best guess for what the question is asking when you're writing a note along the passage.
In some cases, this can lead you astray. Take this example from above:
When I read the question, I saw that it referred to lines 75-76, starting with "Like an eagle." So I marked this in the passage and added a note to myself: "Meaning?"
The problem is, it's not obvious what this is supposed to mean. What does it mean for a person's words to "slip regally and strike with awful ease?" This is especially difficult with figurative language.
If I were the obsessive type, I might struggle for far too long trying to understand what this means. What meaning am I supposed to extract from these lines? How deeply should I read into this?
But when I read the answer choices, I can see the answer choice is actually pretty obvious. The line is referring to the rich customer's words. It has nothing to do with the narrator and her relationship with her parents.
It's clear then that the answer is G. The customer is implying that most of the house is dirty, and that the narrator's mother should take care to find a place where there aren't cockroaches scampering about.
Critical Skill: You need to have so much experience with the ACT Reading section that you can anticipate what the question is going to ask you for your notes to be helpful. If you're not sure of this, you can easily be led down the wrong track and focus on the wrong aspect of the passage.
Passage Method 3: Read the Passage In Detail, then Answer Questions
This method is what beginner students usually use by default, because it's what they've been trained to do in school. Some beginner books like Princeton Review and Kaplan also suggest this as a strategy.
It's my least favorite method because there are so many ways for it to go wrong. But for the sake of completeness, I'm listing it here in case it works best for you.
Here's how it goes:
- Read the passage in detail, line by line.
- Take notes to yourself about the main point of each paragraph.
- Answer the questions.
As you might guess, I don't like this method for the following reasons:
- By reading the passage closely, you absorb a lot of details that aren't useful for answering questions.
- The notes you take aren't directed toward helping you answer the questions.
- By interpreting the passage ahead of time, you risk being led astray.
But this might work especially well for you if you're very good at reading for understanding, and if you have so much expertise with the ACT that you can predict what the test is going to ask you about anyway. This can also work if taking notes forces you to read the passage much more closely than you would otherwise.
In all other cases, I haven't seen this strategy work very well.
Choose Which Works Best for You, Based on Test Data
Because I can't predict which one will work best for you, you need to figure this out yourself. To do this, you need cold, hard data from your test scores.
Try each method on two sample test passages each, and tally up your percentage score for each. If one of them is a clear winner for you, then develop that method further. If there isn't a clear winner, choose the one that feels most comfortable for you.
As part of our PrepScholar program, we give you advanced statistics on your score performance so that you can experiment with methods that work best for you.
Strategy 5: Understand Every Single Mistake You Make
On the path to perfection, you need to make sure every single one of your weak points is covered. Even just two mistakes will knock you down from a 36.
The first step is simply to do a ton of practice. If you're studying from free materials or from books, you have access to a lot of practice questions in bulk. As part of our PrepScholar program, we have over 1,500 ACT questions customized to each skill.
The second step—and the more important part—is to be ruthless about understanding your mistakes.
Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.
I've seen students who have done 20 practice tests. They've solved over 3,000 questions, but they're still nowhere near a 36 on ACT Reading.
Why? They never understood their mistakes. They just hit their heads against the wall over and over again.
Think of yourself as an exterminator, and your mistakes are cockroaches. You need to eliminate every single one—and find the source of each one—or else the restaurant you work for will be shut down.
Here's what you need to do:
- On every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about.
- When you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
- In a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by question type (vocab questions, big picture questions, inference questions, etc.).
It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.
By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.
No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.
Always Go Deeper—Why Did You Miss a Reading Question?
Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't get this question right." That's a cop out.
Always take it one step further—what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?
Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a Reading question, and how you take the analysis one step further:
Elimination: I couldn't eliminate enough incorrect answer choices, or I eliminated the correct answer.
One step further: Why couldn't I eliminate the answer choice during the test? How can I eliminate answer choices like this in the future?
Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or answered for the wrong thing.
One step further: Why did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this?
Vocab: I didn't know what the key word meant.
One step further: What word was this? What is the definition? Are there other words in this question I didn't know?
Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're missing questions.
Yes, this is hard, and it's draining, and it takes work. That's why most students who study ineffectively don't improve.
But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.
Reviewing mistakes is so important that in PrepScholar, for every one of our 1,500+ practice questions, we explain in detail how to get the correct answer, and why incorrect answers are wrong. We also point out bait answers so that you can you can learn the tricks that the ACT plays on test takers like you.
Bonus Tip: Re-solve the Question Before Reading the Answer Explanation
When you're reviewing practice questions, the first thing you probably do is read the answer explanation and at most reflect on it a little.
This is a little too easy. I consider this passive learning—you're not actively engaging with the mistake you made.
Instead, try something different—find the correct answer choice (A-D or F-J), but don't look at the explanation. Instead, try to re-solve the question once over again and try to get to the correct answer.
This will often be hard. You couldn't solve it the first time, so why could you solve it the second time around?
But this time, with less time pressure, you might spot a new reason to eliminate the wrong answer choice, or something else will pop up. Something will just "click" for you.
When this happens, what you learned will stick with you for 20 times longer than if you just read an answer explanation. I know this from personal experience. Because you've struggled with it and reached a breakthrough, you retain that information far better than if you just passively absorbed the information.
It's too easy to just read an answer explanation and have it go in one ear and out the other. You won't actually learn from your mistake, and you'll make that mistake over and over again.
Treat each wrong question like a puzzle. Struggle with each wrong answer for up to 10 minutes. Only then if you don't get it should you read the answer explanation.
Strategy 6: Find Your Reading Skill Weaknesses and Drill Them
Reading passage questions might look similar, but they actually test very different skills. At PrepScholar we believe the major passage skills to be:
#1: Big Picture/Main Point: What is the main point of the passage or paragraph?
#2: Little Picture/Detail: What does this small detail mean? Where in the passage was the following detailed mentioned?
#3: Inference: What would the author most likely feel about the following hypothetical scenario?
#4: Vocabulary in Context: What does this word or phrase mean in the context of the passage?
#5: Author Method: How does the author construct the passage? What is the author's purpose in utilizing the following method?
Each of these question types uses different skills in how you read and analyze a passage. They each require a different method of prep and focused practice.
Luckily, there aren't very many unique skills on ACT Reading. There are only five above, compared to 18 for ACT English, and 24 for ACT Math. The passage tends to repeat these types of questions over and over again for the entire section.
The flipside is, getting better at these skills is often a bit harder than mastering a narrow math skill like trigonometry. Because you've been reading and making logical arguments your entire life, bad habits are a lot harder to unlearn.
If you're like most students, you're better at some areas in Reading than others. You might be better at getting the Big Picture of a passage, compared to the Inference. Or you might be great at reading passages quickly, but bad at memorizing details.
If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. This means for every hour you study for the ACT, it needs to be the most effective hour possible.
In concrete terms, you need to find your greatest areas of improvement and work on those.
Too many students study the "dumb" way. They just buy a book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve, they're shocked.
Studying effectively for the ACT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to cover all your bases with a very thin layer of understanding.
What these students did wrong was they wasted time on subjects they already knew, and they didn't spend enough time on their weaknesses.
Instead, studying effectively for the ACT is like plugging up the holes of a leaky boat. You need to find the biggest hole, and fill it. Then you find the next biggest hole, and you fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.
How does this relate to ACT Reading? You need to find the sub-skills that you're weakest in, and then drill those until you're no longer weak in them. Fixing up the biggest holes.
Within reading, you need to figure out whether you have patterns to your mistakes. Is it that you don't get Inference questions? Or maybe you're really weak at interpreting details? Or from Strategy 1: is it that you're running out of time in reading passages?
For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is. When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you then need to find extra practice for this subskill.
Say you miss a lot of inference questions (this is typically the hardest type of question for students to get). You need to find a way to get focused practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes.
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Strategy 7: Force Yourself to Be Fascinated by the Passage Subject Matter
The ACT has passages about a lot of weird topics. Victorian novels, underwater basket-weaving, and the evolution of gerbils are all fair game.
It's unlikely that you're naturally thrilled about all the subjects you'll read about.
This makes it easy to tune out when you're reading the passage. This makes it harder to answer the questions, which will make you more frustrated.
Instead, adopt this mindset: For the next 10 minutes, I am the world's most passionate person about whatever subject this passage is about.
Force yourself to care about what the passage is telling you. Pretend that your life depends on understanding this passage. Maybe you're about to give a lecture on this subject. Or someone's holding a puppy hostage if you don't answer enough questions correctly.
When I was preparing for the ACT in high school, I even took this so extremely that I ended up genuinely interested in whatever the passage was telling me about. I remember reading a passage about Native American life and thinking, "Wow, I'm really glad I just learned this." (I know this sounds crazy.)
If you stay engaged while reading, you'll understand the passage so much better, and you'll answer questions with way more accuracy.
Strategy 8: Finish With Extra Time and Double-Check
Your goal at the end of all this work is to get so good at ACT Reading that you solve every question and have extra time left over at the end of the section to recheck your work.
I'll admit, this is hard for the ACT. You have 35 minutes for 40 questions, which means less than 10 minutes per passage and less than 60 seconds per question on average. After reading the passage, this might mean less than 30-40 seconds per question.
But you get better at speed. In high school and even now, I can finish the 40 minute Reading section in 30 minutes or less. I then have 10 minutes left over to recheck my answers two times over.
The best way to get faster is, as explained above, to choose an efficient reading strategy that works best for you, and to do so many questions that you're fluent at interpreting what the ACT wants you to do.
Here are some time benchmarks that might help:
- You should finish skimming a long passage within three minutes. This ultimately means less than two seconds per line.
- If a question takes you more than 30 seconds to solve, and you're not within 30 seconds of the answer, skip it immediately.
If you can do this well, you'll get a little less than a minute per remaining passage question.
What's the best way to double-check your work? I have a reliable method that I follow:
- Double-check any questions you marked that you're unsure of. Try hard to eliminate answer choices. Make sure that the passage supports your answer.
- If I'm 100% sure I'm right on a question, I mark it as such and never look at it again. If I'm not sure, I'll come back to it on the third pass.
- At least two minutes before time's up, I rapidly double-check that I bubbled the answers correctly. I try to do this all at once so as not to waste time looking back and forth between the test book and the answer sheet. Go five at a time ("A J D F B") for more speed.
If you notice yourself spending more than 30 seconds on a problem and aren't clear how you'll get to the answer, skip and go to the next question. Even though you need a near perfect raw score for a 36, don't be afraid to skip. You can come back to it later, and for now it's more important to get as many points as possible.
Quick Tip: Bubbling Answers
Here's a bubbling tip that will save you two minutes per section.
When I first started test taking in high school, I did what many students do: after I finished one question, I went to the bubble sheet and filled it in. Then I solved the next question. Finish question 1, bubble in answer 1. Finish question 2, bubble in answer 2. And so forth.
This actually wastes a lot of time. You're distracting yourself between two distinct tasks—solving questions, and bubbling in answers. This costs you time in both mental switching costs and in physically moving your hand and eyes to different areas of the test.
Here's a better method: solve all your questions first in the book, then bubble all of them in at once.
This has several huge advantages: you focus on each task one at a time, rather than switching between two different tasks. You also eliminate careless entry errors, like if you skip question 7 and bubble in question 8's answer into question 7's slot.
By saving just five seconds per question, you get back 200 seconds on a section that has 40 questions. This is huge.
Note: If you use this strategy, you should already be finishing the section with ample extra time to spare. Otherwise, you might run out of time before you have the chance to bubble in the answer choices all at once.
Strategy 9: Be Ready for Turbulence in Scores
Now you know what it takes to achieve perfection in ACT Reading.
You know the best strategies to use for tackling the passage. You know how to identify your weaknesses and learn from them. You know how to save time, and you know to stay engaged while reading a passage.
Even despite all this, sometimes a passage just won't click with you.
Of all ACT sections, I find that Reading has the most volatile score. How you vibe with a passage has a big impact on your score. You might get a string of questions wrong just because you couldn't really understand what the passage was really about. This doesn't happen on Math or Writing.
No matter what happens, you need to keep calm and keep working.
You might swing from a 36 on one practice test to a 32 on another. Don't let that faze you. Remember from the scoring charts above that there's a huge variation from test to test, which also suggests that students tend to vary significantly from test to test. Don't start doubting all the hard work you've put in.
Keep a calm head, and, like always, work hard on reviewing your mistakes.
This might even happen on the real ACT. You might get below your target score and be crestfallen.
Pick yourself up. This happens. If you've consistently been getting 36's on practice tests, you should take the test again and try to score higher. Very likely, you will. And because many schools nowadays Superscore the ACT, you can combine that new 36 with your other sections for an awesome ACT score.
Strategy 10: Don't Focus On Reading Other Texts
One strategy for ACT Reading I hear proposed often is to read a lot of advanced writing like the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker. Their logic is, the more you practice reading, the better you'll get at ACT Reading. This seems so plainly obvious that many don't question it.
I don't fully agree with this approach.
As I mentioned above, ACT Reading tests very specific skill sets—can you read a passage of a certain length and type, and can you answer specific types of questions about it.
When you're reading a text casually, you're not going to treat it with the same type of scrutiny and mindset. You're in more of a general understanding mode, trying to get the gist of the reading. You're not actively in the mindset to pick apart what specific lines mean, or to infer what the author would feel about a specific situation.
If you'd have to force yourself to read an hour a day to pick up this habit, it's far more effective to practice on ACT Reading passages. The skills you'll use align far more closely this way.
Now, if reading these texts is already part of your regular routine, by all means continue doing it. You're likely reading at a very high level, and you can only get better at reading more quickly and with better comprehension.
But if these kinds of texts are difficult for you, or you don't regularly do this as a habit, focus your time on the ACT. Your score will thank you.
(Note that reading in general is a fantastic habit, and as a nation we don't do enough of it. It can lead to a lot of personal growth, so I encourage you to do it for your overall growth—just not if the purpose is to improve at ACT Reading).
Those are the main strategies I have for you to improve your ACT Reading score to a 36. If you're scoring above a 26 right now, with hard work and smart studying, you can raise it to a perfect ACT Reading score.
Even though we covered a lot of strategies, the main point is still this: you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.
Keep reading for more resources on how to boost your ACT score.
We have a lot more useful guides to raise your ACT score.
Read our accompanying guide to a 36 on ACT Math.
Read our complete guide to a perfect 36, written by me, a perfect scorer.
Learn how to write a perfect-scoring 12 ACT essay, step by step.
Make sure you study ACT vocab using the most effective way possible.
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.