SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score: 8 Expert Tips

Posted by Allen Cheng | Oct 7, 2017 9:00:00 AM

ACT Strategies, ACT Reading

 

body_reading

Are you struggling with ACT Reading scores between 14 and 24? You're not alone—hundreds of thousands of students are scoring in this range. But many don't know the best ways to break out of this score range and score 26 or higher.

Here, we'll discuss how to improve your ACT Reading score effectively, and why it's so important to do so. Unlike other fluffy articles out there, I'm focusing on actionable strategies. Put these eight strategies to work, and I'm confident you'll be able to improve your ACT score.

Brief note: This article specifically targets lower-scoring students—i.e., those scoring below 26 on ACT Reading. If you're already above this range, my perfect 36 ACT Reading score article is more appropriate for you as it contains more advanced strategies. 

In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring high is a good idea, go over what it takes to score a 26, and then jump into our top ACT Reading tips and strategies.

Stick with me—this is like building a house. You need to lay a solid foundation before you can put up the walls and pretty windows. Similarly, we need to make sure we understand why you're doing what you're doing before we can dive into tips and strategies.

In this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 26. But if your goal is a 24 or lower, these concepts still equally apply to how you should study.

This is a pretty long article, so here's what we'll be covering (in case you want to skip around or review a section):

 

Getting a 26 on the ACT: Understand the Stakes

At this score range of 14-24, improving your ACT Reading score to a 26 or higher will dramatically boost your chances of getting into better colleges.

Let's take a popular school as an example: the University of California, Riverside.

The average ACT score of admitted applicants to UC Riverside is 23 (out of 36). Its 25th percentile score is 22, and its 75th percentile score is 28.

Furthermore, its acceptance rate is 56%. In other words, a little more than half of all applicants are admitted. But the lower your ACT score is, the worse your chances are of getting in.

In our analysis, if you score around 22, your chance of admission drops to just 43%.

But if you raise your score to 26, your chance of admission goes up to 75%—that's a really good chance of admission! And the higher your score gets, the more certain you are to get in.

In short, improving your ACT Reading score will bump up your average composite score. And improving your ACT composite score, even by just 5 points, can make a huge difference in your chances of getting into your target colleges.

For the Reading section, this is especially true if you want to apply to humanities majors and programs, such as English or communications. They expect you to have a strong Reading score. If you have a low one, they'll doubt your ability to do college-level humanities work.

Even if you're a math superstar and are applying to a science major, schools still need to know that you can process difficult texts at a college level. A low Reading score will cast huge doubt on you.

It's really worth your time to improve your ACT score. Hour for hour, it's the best thing you can do to raise your chance of getting into college.

Curious what chances you have with a 26 ACT score? Check out our expert college admissions guide for a 26 ACT score.

 

body_youcandoit

 

Know That You Can Get a 26 ACT Score or Higher

This isn't just supposed to be a vague happy-go-lucky message you see in a fortune cookie.

I mean, literally, you and every other student can do this.

In my job here at PrepScholar, I've worked with thousands of students scoring in the lower ranges of around 14-20.

Time after time, I see students who beat themselves up over their low scores and think improving them is impossible. They often say the following:

"I know I'm not smart."

"I just can't read passages quickly, and I don't know how to improve my ACT Reading score."

"I was never good at English, and my English teachers have never told me I did a good job."

This breaks my heart.

Because I know that, more than anything else, your ACT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.

Not your IQ and not your school grades. Not how Mr. Crandall in 10th grade gave you a C on your essay.

The key point here is that ACT Reading is designed to trick you—and you need to learn how.

Here's why: the ACT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you feel as though the questions are different from those you've seen in school?

I bet you've had this problem: with ACT Reading passages, you often miss questions because of an "unlucky guess." You try to eliminate a few answer choices, but the remaining choices all seem like they are equally likely to be correct.

So you throw up your hands and randomly guess.

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 loves this.

Normally, in your school's English class, your teacher tells you that all interpretations of a 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. They can get in trouble for telling you what to think, and they feel bad about restricting your creativity.

But the ACT has an entirely different problem. It's a national test, meaning it needs a level playing field for all students around the country. It's even used in many states as a statewide standardized test. As a result, the test needs to be rock solid. And every question must have a single, unambiguously, 100% correct answer.

 

body_bullseye

There's only ever one correct answer. Find a way to eliminate three incorrect ones.

 

Imagine if this weren't the case. Imagine that a Reading question had two answer choices, both of which might be plausibly correct. When scores come out, every single student who got the question wrong would probably complain to ACT, Inc., about the test being wrong or misleading.

If this were true, ACT, Inc., would then have to throw out the question, which is a huge hassle. Have too many of these incidents, and there'd be a big scandal about the ACT failing to do its job.

ACT, Inc., wants to avoid this nightmare scenario. Therefore, every single Reading passage question has only one correct answer.

This is an important concept to remember. It makes your life a lot easier—all you have to do is eliminate the three wrong answer choices to get the single right one.

But the ACT purposely disguises this fact to make life more difficult for you. It asks questions that are typically worded as so:

  1. It can reasonably be inferred that:
  2. Which of the following best describes:
  3. The author's contemporaries for the most part believed:

Notice a pattern here? The ACT always disguises the fact that there's only 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 do the following:

  • Learn the types of questions the ACT tests, such as the ones above
  • Learn strategies to solve these questions using skills you already know
  • Practice with a lot of realistic 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. 

First, though, let's see how many questions you need to get right to get a 26 on Reading.

 

What It Takes to Get a 26 in ACT Reading

If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test. Remember that we're aiming for a Reading test score of 26, out of 36.

Here's the raw score to ACT Reading Score conversion table. (If you could use a refresher on how the ACT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this guide.)

Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled
40 36 29 26 19 19 9 12
39 35 28 25 18 18 8 11
38 34 27 24 17 17 7 10
37 33 26 23 16 16 6 10
36 32 25 23 15 16 5 8
35 32 24 22 14 15 4 7
34 31 23 21 13 14 3 6
33 30 22 21 12 14 2 5
32 29 21 20 11 13 1 3
31 28 20 19 10 12 0 1
30 27            

Source: Official ACT Practice Test 2017-18

Note that if you're aiming for a 26 in ACT Reading, you'll need a raw score of 29/40. This is a 72% score.

This has serious implications for your testing strategy. In essence, you only need to get right about 3/4 of all Reading questions. We'll go into more detail below about what this means for your approach to this ACT section.

Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you'll need to get to a 26. For example, if you're scoring a 20, you'll need to answer about eight more questions correctly on ACT Reading in order to get a 26.

Once again, if your goal is a 20, the same analysis applies. Just find your target raw score using the chart above.

OK—so far we've covered why scoring a higher ACT Reading score is important, why you're fully capable of improving your score, and the raw score you'll need to get in order to hit your target score of 26. I hope a lot of this was useful and changed how you thought about ACT prep.

Now, we'll get into the real, working strategies you should use in your ACT Reading prep.

 

8 Strategies to Improve Your Low ACT Reading Score

In this section, we introduce our eight best strategies that are guaranteed to raise your low ACT Reading score.

 

Strategy 1: Save Time on Reading Passages by Switching Your Reading Strategy

From the thousands of students I've worked with, by far the most common problem students have with ACT Reading passages is that they keep running out of time before they can get through all the questions.

This is a problem because, unlike ACT Math, the passage questions aren't arranged in order of difficulty. Therefore, by not completing all the questions in time, you could miss easy questions at the end that you would have gotten right if you'd only had enough time.

What's the cause of this? The most common one I see is that students are reading the passages in far more detail than they actually need to be. Once again, this is a consequence of what you learn in English class. In English, you've probably gotten (stupid) tests that quiz you about what Madame Bovary said in a particular scene, or what color Tom's T-shirt was. So of course you've learned to pay attention to every single detail.

The ACT is different. For a passage that's 90 lines long, there will be only 10 questions. Many of these don't even refer to specific lines—they talk about the point of the passage as a whole, or the tone of the author.

The number of questions that focus on small, line-by-line details is low. Therefore, it's a waste of time to read a passage line by line, afraid that you'll miss a detail they'll ask you about.

 

body_skimming
The best way to read a passage: skimming it on the first read-through. 
 
 

This is why I recommend that all students try this ACT Reading passage strategy:

  • 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 finish reading the passage within three minutes, if possible.
  • Next, go to the questions. If the question refers to a line number, go back to that line and try to make sense of the text around it.
  • If you can't answer a question within 30 seconds, skip it. (More on this strategy later.)

These steps are important because Reading questions ask about far fewer lines than the passage actually contains. For example, lines 5-20 of a 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 you could've spent elsewhere.

Some students take this strategy to the extreme by reading the questions before the passage. If a question refers to any specific line or lines, they mark those in the passage. This then gives them a guide to focus on important lines when they actually start to read the passage.

Different strategies work for different students. You need to try out different ones so you can see which one gives you the best results. But by and large, I'm confident that you're spending way too much time reading the passage.

 

Strategy 2: Learn to Eliminate the 3 Wrong Answers

I talked above about how the ACT always has one unambiguously correct 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?

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.

 

body_800reading_answers-1.jpg

You have to learn how to eliminate three answer choices for every single Reading question. 

 

"Great, Allen. But this doesn't tell me anything about how to eliminate wrong answer choices."

Thanks for asking. There are a few classic wrong answer choices the ACT loves to use. Here's an example:

Imagine you just read a passage focusing on how human evolution shaped the environment. It offers a few examples. First, it talks about how the transition from earlier species such as Homo habilus to neanderthals led to more tool usage like fire, which caused wildfires and thus shaped the ecology. It then talks about Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago and their overhunting of certain species, such as the woolly mammoth, to extinction.

Sounds like a plausible passage, right? It fits into that weird style of ACT Reading passages that's oddly specific about a topic you've likely never thought deeply about before.

We then run into a question asking, "Which of the following best describes the main subject of the passage?" Here are our possible answer choices:

  • A: The transition between Homo habilus 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

(Note that we're using five answer choices for illustration even though the ACT only has four.)

As you're reading these answer choices, a few of them probably started sounding really plausible to you.

Surprise! Each of the answers from A-D has something seriously wrong with it. Each one is a classic example of a wrong answer type given by the ACT. Let's look at how we can tell these are incorrect.

body_toospecific

Wrong Answer 1 (A): Too Specific

A: The transition between Homo habilus 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 was 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?

In this case, you’ll find that A is just way too specific to convey the point of the overall passage.

body_toobroad

Wrong Answer 2 (B): Too Broad

B: The study of evolution

This type of wrong answer has the opposite problem than the one above—it’s way too broad. Yes, theoretically the passage is about the study of evolution, but only one aspect of it (human evolution) and particularly as it relates to its impact on the environment.

To give another crazy example—let's say you talked to your friend about losing your cell phone. He says the main point of your conversation was the universe. Well, while you were talking about the universe in some form (you're part of the universe just like everyone else is!), this was actually only a tiny, tiny fraction of your conversation.

Just the same, answer choice B is far too general.

body_reversed

Wrong Answer 3 (C): 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. The passage is about how humans affected the environment—not the reverse. Students who read too quickly make careless mistakes much like these because all the words sound right at a glance!

body_unrelated

Wrong Answer 4 (D): 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 in your personal life, this might be a trigger answer since any discussion of evolution becomes a chance to argue about its plausibility. Of course, although this concept appears nowhere in the passage, some students just won’t be able to resist choosing answer choice D.

 

Do you see the point? On the surface, each of the answer choices sounds possibly correct. But possibly isn't good enough. The right answer needs to be 100%, totally right. Wrong answers might be off by even one word—and you need to eliminate those.

Carry this thought into every ACT Reading passage question you do.

 

body_weaklink
Next strategy: find your weak links and fix them. 

 

Strategy 3: Find Your Reading Skill Weaknesses and Drill Them

ACT Reading passage questions might look similar, but they actually test very different skills. At PrepScholar, we've categorized the major passage skills as follows:

  1. Big Picture/Main Point
  2. Little Picture/Detail
  3. Vocabulary in Context
  4. Inferences
  5. Author Function

That's a good number of skills! More than is obvious when you're reading a passage on the test.

Each of these question types uses different skills in regard to how you read and analyze the passage. They each require a different method of prep and focused practice.

If you're like most students, you're better at some areas in Reading than you are at others. You might be better at getting the big picture of a passage compared to an inference. Or you might be really strong at understanding the author's tone but not so strong at figuring out the meaning of a phrase in context.

If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. You have a lot of homework, you have extracurriculars (for example, maybe you're an athlete or a member in your school band), and you have friends to hang out with.

This means that 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.

 

body_stressedstudent-1.jpg

 

I'm not.

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 this: they wasted their time on subjects they already knew and didn't spend enough time on their weaknesses.

Studying effectively for the ACT is like plugging up holes in a leaky boat. You need to find the biggest hole and fill it. You then need to find the next biggest hole and fix that, too. Soon you'll see that your boat isn't sinking at all.

How does this relate to ACT Reading? You need to find the sub-skills you're weakest in and then drill those until you're no longer weak in them. Fixing up the biggest holes.

With ACT Reading, you need to figure out whether you have patterns in your mistakes. Are you consistently running out of time on reading passages? Having trouble with Inference questions? Really struggling with interpreting details?

For every question you miss, you must identify what type of question it is. Once you notice patterns in the questions you miss, you need to practice this sub-skill extra hard.

Say you miss a lot of inference questions (this is typically the hardest type of question for students to get). Your goal is to find a way to get focused practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes and improve.

Bonus: If all of this is making sense to you, you'd love our ACT prep program, PrepScholar.

We designed our program around the concepts in this article, because they actually work. When you start with PrepScholar, you’ll take a diagnostic that will determine your weaknesses in over forty ACT skills - in Reading, English, Math, and Science. PrepScholar then creates a study program specifically customized for you.

To improve each skill, you’ll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score.

There’s no other prep system out there that does it this way, which is why we get better score results than any other program on the market.

Check it out today with a 5-day free trial:

Get 4 More Points on Your ACT, GUARANTEED

 

Strategy 4: Only Use High-Quality ACT Reading Sources

ACT Reading passages are very specific in how they work. ACT Reading questions, too, are very specifically phrased and constructed to have bait answers.

If you want to improve your Reading score, you have to use realistic ACT Reading sources. If you don't, you'll develop bad habits and end up training the wrong skills.

Think about it like this: let's say you're trying out for a baseball team. Instead of practicing with real baseballs, you decide to practice with Wiffle balls instead. It's a lot cheaper and easier, and hitting the ball makes you feel good.

So you train and train and train with a Wiffle ball. You understand how the Wiffle ball curves when it's thrown, how to hit it, and how to throw it.

Finally, you try out for the baseball team. A pitch comes, but it's way faster than you've ever practiced with before. It doesn't curve like a Wiffle ball does.

Swing, and a miss.

You've trained with the wrong thing, and now you're totally unprepared for baseball.

 

body_600reading_wiffle.jpgThis is not real baseball.

 

ACT Reading works in the exact same way. Train on badly written tests, and you'll develop poor habits and unhelpful strategies.

The very best sources for ACT Reading passages are official ACT practice testsThis is why we include official practice tests in our ACT prep program—we can gauge your progress and train you on the real thing.

Unfortunately, there's a limited number of official practice tests: five free PDFs online, and five in the old third edition of the official ACT prep guide (the newest edition includes three practice tests, but these overlap significantly with the free ones online). 

Thus, to have enough questions to practice on, you'll need to find other sources of questions.

The first suggestion is to use prep resources customized for the ACT.Be careful, though—most companies release poor quality passages and questions (most books you see on ACT Reading are pretty terrible, frankly).

This is especially harmful for ACT Reading because the style of passages and what questions ask are complex, as opposed to ACT Math which is more straightforward.

To write realistic questions, you need to understand the test inside and out. That's why at PrepScholar, we've created what I believe are the highest quality Reading questions available anywhere. This is what we've done:

  • We've deconstructed every available official ACT practice test, question by question, answer choice by answer choice. We've statistically studied every question type on the test, and we understand exactly how questions are phrased and how wrong answer choices are constructed. 

  • As head of product, I'm responsible for content quality. I hire only the most qualified content writers to craft our test content. This means people who got perfect scores on the ACT, who have hundreds of hours of ACT teaching experience, and who graduated from Ivy League schools.

This results in the most realistic, highest quality ACT Reading questions.

Even if you don't use PrepScholar, you should be confident that whatever resource you do use undergoes the same scrutiny as we use. If you're not sure, or you see reviews saying otherwise, it's best to avoid it.

For more tips on what ACT resources to use, learn what my favorite ACT Reading books are.

 

Strategy 5: Don't Focus On Vocab

Vocab gets way too much attention from students. It feels good to study vocab flashcards because it seems like you're making progress. "I studied 1,000 vocab words—this must mean I improved my score!"

This is why other test prep programs love teaching you vocab—you feel as though you're learning something and it's worth your money. But the truth is, learning vocab doesn't really help you.

Fortunately, vocab doesn't play more than a minor role in your ACT Reading score.

This has always been less of a problem for the ACT than the SAT, which used to feature vocab-heavy Sentence Completion questions. Thankfully, the SAT removed these questions in 2016.

But still, a lot of students look for ACT vocab lists to study with, and it's just not a good use of time.

The only real questions you'll need to use vocab skills for are the Vocab in Context questions. Here's an example of one from an official ACT practice test:

As it is used in line 13, the word popular  most nearly means:

A) well liked
B) commonly known
C) scientifically accepted
D) most admired

Wait—"popular"? They're asking a question about the word "popular"?

Yes, it's a common word, but the key to this question is understanding how it's used in context. Popular can mean all the things listed in the answer choices, but only one of them is actually correct in this case.

Here's the source sentence:

It includes the area known in popular legend as the Bermuda Triangle.

In this case, popular is used to describe a legend that's well known, so answer choice B is the best choice. 

Here are examples of words you'll need to understand in context on the ACT:

  • adopted
  • concentrated
  • humor
  • nostalgia
  • read
  • something

These are all reasonable words you've probably heard before. The trick to these questions is to actually understand how the word is used in the passage—not to focus on what you think it means.

So don't waste too much of your time studying vocab, and think twice before you're convinced by someone that it's a good use of your ACT prep time.

 

body_vocabcross.jpg

Don't spend a lot of time studying vocab—most likely, it's not the best use of your time.

 

This time is far better spent learning how to deal with Reading passages better. There are so many more questions about passages that it's a better use of your time to learn passage strategies and how to answer Reading questions.

 

Strategy 6: Skip the Most Difficult, Time-Consuming Questions

Here's an easy strategy most students don't do enough.

Remember what I said above about raw scores? To score a 26, you only need a raw score of about 29 (that's 29 correct answers out of a total of 40 Reading questions). This varies from test to test, but it's pretty consistent in general.

What does this mean? You can completely guess on 15 questions, get four of them right by chance, and still score a 26 on Reading.

Once again, you can completely guess on almost 40% of all questions and still hit your goal!

 

body_skip
Skip questions carefree like this woman.

 

Why is this such a powerful strategy? 

It gives you way more time on easy and medium difficulty questions—the questions you have a good chance of getting right.

If you're usually pressed for time on the ACT Reading section, this will be a huge help.

Here's an example: on the Reading section, you get 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. This is usually pretty hard for most students to get through—it's just 52 seconds to answer each question, including the time it takes to read each passage.

The average student will try to push through all the questions. "I've got to get through them all since I've got a shot at getting each question right," they think. Along the way, they'll probably rush and make careless mistakes on questions they should have gotten right. And then they spend five minutes on really hard questions, making no progress and wasting time.

Wrong approach.

Here's what I suggest instead. Try each question but skip it if you're not getting anywhere after 30 seconds. Unlike math, the Reading passage questions aren't ordered in difficulty, so you can't tell right away which questions are harder or easier. You need to try each one but then skip it if it's costing you too much time.

By doing this, you can raise your time per easy/medium question to 100 seconds per question or more. This is huge! It's a 100% boost to the time you get per question. As a result, this significantly raises your chances of getting easy/medium questions right.

And the questions you skipped? They're so hard you're honestly better off not even trying them. These questions are meant for 30-36 scorers. If you get to 26, then you have the right to try these questions—but not before you get to 26.

How do you tell which questions are going to take you the most time? This varies from person to person, but here are a few common question types:

  • Questions without a line number that make you hunt for a detail: You'll spend a lot of time rereading the passage looking for a certain detail if you can't remember where it was originally mentioned.

  • "EXCEPT" questions: These are specifically designed to waste your time. They'll ask something like, "The author mentions all of these details EXCEPT: ... " and your job is to find which three are mentioned and which one isn't. 
  • Inference questions that ask you what the author most likely meant: These are usually quite difficult because they take multiple steps to solve: (1) What did the author explicitly say in the passage? and (2) What does the author most likely mean?

But don't just take my word for it. You need to figure out your own weaknesses after doing a lot of practice. They might not be the same question types as the ones above.

Approach your Reading prep with this in mind. If you notice yourself getting stuck on a question, pay attention to what type of question it is and see whether there's a pattern. For example, do you always get stuck on that particular question type?

 

Strategy 7: Understand All Your Reading Mistakes

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed a question, you'll make that mistake over and over again.

Think about it like learning how to cook. The first time you learn to chop vegetables, you might cut your finger accidentally. Ouch—that hurts. But you quickly learn from your mistakes—you start to keep your fingers away from the knife and hold the knife differently. After all, if you don't learn from your mistake, you'll keep cutting your finger over and over again.

Why would you treat ACT prep any differently?

Too many students scoring at the 18-24 level refuse to study their mistakes.

It's not fun. I get it. It sucks to stare your mistakes in the face. It's draining to learn skills you're not good at.

So the average student will skip reviewing their mistakes and instead focus on areas they're already comfortable with. It's like cozying up with a warm blanket. Their thinking goes like this: "So I'm good at Big Picture questions? I should do more Big Picture problems! They make me feel good about myself."

The result? No score improvement.

You don't want to be like these students. So here's what you need to do instead:

  • On every practice test or question set you take, mark every question that you're even just 20% unsure about.

  • When you grade your test or quiz, review every question 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 can do to avoid making this mistake in the future. Have separate sections by subject and sub-topic (e.g., Big Picture, Little Picture, Inference, etc.).

It's not enough to just think about it and move on, or to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.

For Reading Passage questions, you must find a way to eliminate every incorrect answer. If you were stuck between two answer choices, review your work to figure out why you couldn't eliminate the wrong answer choice.

If you don't do this, I guarantee you will not make progress.

But if you do take this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflections on why you might've missed them.

 

body_noexcuses

No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.

 

Strategy 8: Guess on Every Question You Don't Know

You probably already know this one but if you don't, you're about to earn some serious points.

The ACT has no guessing penalty. This means you have no reason not to guess and fill up every blank on your answer sheet.

So before you finish the Reading section, make sure every blank question has an answer filled in. When you look at your answer sheet, you shouldn't see any blank questions.

For every question you're unsure about, make sure you guess as best you can. If you can eliminate even just one answer choice, this gives you a much better shot at getting it right—from 25% to 33%.

If you have no idea, just guess! You still have a 25% chance of getting it right, after all.

Most people know this strategy already, so if you don't do this, you're at a serious disadvantage. 

 body_bubbling

 

Here's a bubbling tip that will save you a few minutes per section.

When I first started taking tests 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. This was my pattern: finish question 1, bubble in answer 1. Finish question 2, bubble in answer 2. And so forth.

This approach 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, and then bubble all of them in at once at the end.

This has a couple of huge advantages:

  • You focus on each task one at a time, rather than switching between two different tasks.
  • You 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 three minutes and 20 seconds on the Reading section. This is huge! These extra seconds can buy you time to solve three more questions, which will dramatically improve your score.

Be very careful, though, as you do not want to run out of time before you've bubbled in all your answers. Definitely make sure you bubble in your answers to that point with at least 10 minutes remaining. If the proctor calls time and you haven't bubbled in any answers yet, you're going to get a 1 on Reading!

 

Overview: How to Raise Your Low ACT Reading Score

These are the eight main strategies I have for you to improve your ACT Reading score. If you're scoring 12, you can improve it to 18. If you're scoring 20, you can boost it to 26. I guarantee you'll get a score increase, as long as you put in the right amount of work and study using the tips I've given you above.

The main point is this: you need to understand where you're falling short and constantly drill those weaknesses. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes—in other words, don't ignore any of them.

This is really important to your future. Make sure you give ACT prep the attention it deserves— before it's too late and you get a rejection letter you didn't want.

If you want to go back and review any of the strategies, here's a quick listing:

 

What's Next?

We have a lot more useful guides you can use to raise your ACT score.

For ACT Reading, learn the #1 fundamental, most important strategyIt's an expansion of one of the strategies in this guide and certain to raise your score.

Curious how to prep to get a perfect ACT Reading score? Read our in-depth guide to getting a perfect 36 on the Reading section for our 11 best tips.

What's a good ACT score for you? Figure out your ACT target score today using our step-by-step guide.

 

Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep classes. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our classes are entirely online, and they're taught by ACT experts. If you liked this article, you'll love our classes. Along with expert-led classes, you'll get personalized homework with thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step, custom program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

Try it risk-free today:

Get 4 More Points on Your ACT, GUARANTEED

 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Allen Cheng
About the Author

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.



Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!