If you’re taking the ACT and find the Reading section to be a challenge, you’re probably looking for some quick ways to improve your scores. Well, you’re in luck. Here are our top 10 tips for acing the ACT Reading section!
Tips for Reading Passages
Tip #1: Start with Your Most Comfortable Subject Matter
The structure of the ACT Reading section is very consistent. There will be four topic areas in the same order every time: Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. If you know that one or two of these will be easier for you to get through based on your interest in the subject matter, you should target those ones first.
If, for example, you're more of a science person and end up running out of time on the last passage, you could be missing out on some easy points. Instead, you should skip straight to the subject where you're most comfortable. That way you know you’re getting the most out of your reading section score.
Tip #2: Skim the Passage First (Or Skip Straight to the Questions)
One tactic is to skim first so you get a sense of the main ideas of the passage before reading the questions. The best way to skim is by reading the introduction and conclusion along with the first and last sentences of each body paragraph. You’ll save time and be able to answer most big picture questions about the passage. You can go back and read certain parts of the passage more closely later if necessary.
Another tactic is to skip the passage at first and go straight for the questions. You can answer most detail questions without reading the full passage. Later, when you move onto big picture questions, you'll already have a sense of the main ideas of the passage based on what you learned in answering other questions. You can always go back and skim the passage, paying special attention to the introduction and conclusion, if you're struggling with big picture questions.
Tip #3: Get Interested in the Passage
It’s easy to adopt a negative attitude about the passages and treat them as a chore you just have to get through. However, you’ll have a much better time if you persuade yourself to be interested in the material you’re reading.
Some of the passages present interesting information that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise. If you think of this as a learning experience, you’re more likely to absorb the material. That means a better performance on the questions and a more pleasant testing experience overall!
Wear a party hat if you think it will get you in a more festive mood. If your peers judge you, just say you're going to an awesome party after the test and THEY'RE NOT INVITED.
Tips for Answering Questions
Tip #4: Use Connotation and Keywords
When you’re thinking about how to answer a question, look for words and phrases that will help you determine positive or negative connotation as well as keywords that provide context clues about the answer. If you can figure out whether an answer should have a positive or negative connotation, this will help eliminate at least a couple of choices.
If you can find keywords that indicate a contrast or a comparison in the passage (such as "however" or "rather than"), that can also lead to logical conclusions about the type of answer you want.
Here's an example where we can detect connotation and use it to eliminate answer choices:
The passage indicates that at the time Frank and Sigwarth presented new evidence supporting the small-comet theory, Frank most nearly felt:
A. relieved but bitter about how he had been treated.
B. grateful that ridicule of his work would end.
C. proud that he had been proved right.
D. satisfied and filled with anticipation of glory.
The passage reads that after the new evidence was presented:
Rather than gloating or anticipating glory, Frank seemed relieved that part of a long ordeal was ending. "I knew we'd be in for it when we first put forth the small-comet theory," Frank conceded, "but I was naive about just how bad it would be. We were outvoted by about 10,000 to 1 by our colleagues."
Here, we see the words "Rather than", which tip us off to a contrast. We know for sure that Frank was NOT "gloating or anticipating glory". This means choice D can be eliminated for sure. Choice C can also be crossed out because pride wasn't the main component of Frank's feelings (as evidenced by the fact that he wasn't gloating about his accomplishment). The words "relieved" and "ordeal" show that Frank was just happy to be less vulnerable to criticism - he didn't have the energy to throw his success in everyone's faces.
For the remaining two answer choices, you can see that there is a very strong adjective in the form of the word "ridicule" in choice B. This makes choice B questionable, because it doesn't seem like Frank's colleagues actually made fun of his work. They just didn't believe his theory. Choice A fits much better, and the word "relieved" is even used in the passage to describe Frank's feelings.
Based on this question, you can see that paying attention to keywords is a beneficial strategy for eliminating answer choices on the ACT.
Tip #5: Predict the Correct Answer
When answering a reading question, try to think of the correct answer in your own words first. This will help you to avoid pitfalls with confusing answer choices. If you already have an idea of what the answer should be, you won’t get tripped up by answer choices that seem plausible but aren’t objectively correct.
If the question is confusing to you, you can rephrase it in your own words before you even look at the answers to make it a bit easier. Usually, ACT Reading questions have pretty straightforward wording, but sometimes they can be confusing. If you think you might get the question muddled, write down what it's asking in your own words before choosing an answer.
Tip #6: Eliminate Incorrect Answers
This is the fundamental rule of ACT Reading: There's only one absolutely correct answer, and you will be able to find concrete reasons to get rid of all the other choices.
Learning to eliminate wrong answers is vital because it’s much easier to get rid of the duds than to find the correct answer right away. Instead of puzzling over a couple of answers that you think might be right, you should think about why at least one of them has to be wrong. Train your focus on finding reasons to get rid of answers - every incorrect answer has something completely wrong about it.
It’s your job to find reasons to eliminate answers until you are left with only one correct choice!
If it helps, you can eat a milk dud for each time you eliminate a dud answer. The horrible stomachache you get later will be a helpful reminder of just how wrong the answers were.
Tip #7: Skip Difficult Questions
If you struggle with running out of time on ACT Reading, which is one of the major challenges of this section, this tip is super important! If you find yourself lingering on a Reading question for more than 30 seconds, skip it and move on. Sticking with one difficult question for too long can jeopardize your chances of getting to easier questions later in the section.
Especially on the ACT, it’s critical to have a strong grasp on time management. Since there’s only one Reading section, you need to make sure you get to all the questions. Circle the questions you skip on the first pass so that you can come back to them once you finish going through the whole section.
Also, keep in mind that the ACT has no guessing penalty! If you're still totally stumped by a question after you come back to it, pick a letter at random and bubble it in. You can miss up to ten questions on the ACT reading section and still end up with a 25, so depending on what your target score is, you can give yourself some leeway for guessing.
Bonus Math Question: If the correct answer choices for all the ACT Reading questions have equal chances of being correct, and you guess the same letter for 10 questions, how many points should you get, just by guessing? (Answer: you have a 1/4 chance of choosing the right answer choice, which x 10 = at least 2 points!) Long story short: guess the same letter pair (A/F, B/G, and so on) for questions that stump you and you have no idea how to answer.
Tip #8: Double Check Your Answers
If you have time at the end of the section, don’t waste it! Take the opportunity to go back through your answers and make sure you’re happy with all of them. This is the best way to eliminate any silly mistakes you might have made on the test.
To make sure you're doing this in the most efficient way, circle any questions you're slightly unsure about in the section as you go along (even if you end up bubbling in an answer). That way you can just double check questions that confused you instead of wasting time checking questions that were no-brainers in the first place.
Tip #9: Bubble at the End
You can increase your efficiency on the ACT by waiting until the end of the section to bubble in all of your answers. You'll avoid looking back and forth between the test booklet and answer sheet during the test, which saves a few seconds per question. Just circle your answer choices in the test booklet when you first go through the questions.
Be careful about using this tip though! You should only do it if you already know you can get through all the questions with 3-5 minutes to spare.
Tip #10: Remain Calm
Since there’s only one Reading section on the ACT, it’s important to keep it together and move forward even if you come across questions that stump you. Don’t let yourself get flustered by difficult questions.
If you run up against something you can’t answer, just skip it and continue with the section. You might come back to it at the end and realize it wasn’t as hard as you initially thought. Confidence is key!
Stay as cool as a cucumber. Are cucumbers really any cooler than other vegetables? I mean, clearly carrots and broccoli are trying too hard. But what about cauliflower? All the flair of broccoli but with a little more subtlety. I'll have to think about this.
Tips for Reading Passages:Start with your most comfortable subject
Skim first (or skip the passages initially and read the questions)
Get interested in the passages
Tips for Answering Questions:Use connotation and keywords
Predict the answer
Eliminate wrong answers
Logistical Tips:Skip difficult questions
Double check answers
Bubble at the end
Don’t freak out
Remember to focus on in-depth strategies for improvement before applying these tips. You can’t just put a bandaid on a shark bite (or whatever other mortal wound you want to envision as a proxy for ACT content weaknesses). If you can master your content weaknesses AND follow these ACT Reading tips, you’ll be on your way to a great Reading score!
If you want to be super prepared for whatever the test throws at you, check out my article on the hardest questions you'll see on the ACT Reading section.
Here's a link to our complete study plan for the ACT so you can get started preparing for the test!
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.