6 Tips to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

The ACT Reading Test is a fast-paced critical reading test where students needs to read 4 long passages, each with 10 questions, in only 35 minutes! In this section, many students struggle to even finish all 4 passages due to the time constraint and even the students who finish often feel rushed.

The challenge most students face on the Reading Test is understanding how to effectively manage their time and what makes an answer choice correct. In this post, I'll give you some tips and techniques that are critical for success on the Reading Test. If you master these few tips and techniques, you should see big improvements on your ACT Reading score.

1) Know Your Order

To make the best use of your time, you should answer the passages that you like first and save the passages that you hate for last. The passages on the ACT always appear in the following order:

  1. Literary Narrative - a passage adopted from a short story, novella, or novel

  2. Social Sciences - a passage on a topic from history, political science, economics, sociology, or psychology

  3. Humanities - a passage covering music, visual arts, theater, philosophy, architecture, or dance

  4. Natural Sciences - a passage focused on a topic from biology, chemistry, physics, or earth sciences

There are no passages that are necessarily easier or harder, but there may be passages that feel easier to you. As you practice on Reading section, keep in mind which types of passages are your favorites and which ones you like the least. If you like the Natural Science passage the best, start with that. If you hate the Literary Narrative passage, save it for last. In case you run out of time, it is best to rush on your least favorite passage rather than your favorite one.

2) Pace Yourself

On the ACT Reading Test, you will have to answer four long passages in 35 minutes. That means that you have 8-9 minutes per passage! I'll repeat that again to make sure you remember it...8-9 minutes per passage. Knowing how much time you have per passage is critical to being able to pace yourself correctly on the Reading Test.

Time management is critical for success on the ACT Reading Test.

The most common mistake that students make on test day is to either not finish the Reading Test and need to guess on questions at the end or to not leave enough time for the final passage and need to rush to complete a full passage in 5-6 minutes or less. Since there are only 40 questions on the Reading Test, any mistakes with time management can really hurt your score.

Once you complete each passage, take a look at the clock or your watch. If you are on pace or ahead of pace, just keep on working as you are. If you are a bit behind pace, know that you need to start working a bit faster to finish the test. Below is a timing breakdown of where you should be after each passage to finish the Reading Test.

It is also important to not get stuck on any one question for too long. If you spend more than 1 minute looking for the answer to a question and cannot find it in the passage, circle the question, bubble in your best guess, and move on. If you have time at the end of the test, you can always come back and answer any questions you guess on. If not, at least you did not get stuck on just one question for too long and had time to complete all 40 questions.

When you are practicing the Reading Test, be sure to time yourself strictly! Do not give yourself that extra minute or two on practice passages to finish the last few questions and see how well you did. If you do not practice with strict timing, it is very easy to mess up your pacing on test day and score far lower than you were on practice tests.

3) Annotate the Passage

As you are reading, annotate the passages. Remember, you are allow to write all over the test! Underline parts of the passage that seem important or interesting. The most difficult part of the Reading Test is time management, so effectively annotating the passage can help you find the correct parts of the passage much more quickly.

So what should you annotate? Here are a few common items that you should always underline in the passage:

  • Names

  • Dates or Numbers

  • Proper Nouns (basically anything that is capitalized)

  • Locations where the author or a character states his or her opinion or position

  • Any other specific details that jump out to you as important

Annotation is not fun, but it can really help your ACT Reading score.

After longer paragraphs, write down a word or two in the margin that summarizes the paragraph. For example, if a long paragraph details the narrator’s memories of his childhood, you can just write down the word “memories” or “childhood” next to the paragraph. All of this annotating will help you more quickly find the right part of the passage, saving you lots of time when you get to the questions.

4) Put Your Finger on the Right Answer

For an answer to be correct, it MUST be in the passage. That means that when you find the answer that you think is correct, you should be able to go back to the passage and put your finger on the exact word, phrase, or sentence that makes your answer correct. If you cannot put your finger on the specific part of the passage that makes your answer correct, you are probably picking the wrong answer.

The most common mistake that students make on the Reading Test is picking answers that could be correct or might be correct. If you have to tell a story to explain why your answer choice might be correct, that means you are wrong! When you find the right evidence in the passage and the correct answer, it should be obvious. If it isn't, then you should keep looking.

Keep scanning the passage until you can put your finger on evidence that makes your answer correct.

Generally, the correct answers are just re-worded versions of the information provided in the passage. Be aware for answer choices that are mostly true but not 100% correct. Details matter in this section, so even one word can make an answer choice incorrect. Be sure to be picky when working through the answer choices. In addition, the correct answer choice often seems boring. In general on the reading test, boring answers are good while the extreme answers are wrong.

5) Cross Out Incorrect Answers

One of the important skills in the Reading Test is learning how to spot what makes an answer choice incorrect. Remember for an answer to be correct, it must be in the passage and answer the question being asked. If you can understand not only what makes and an answer choice correct but also what makes one incorrect, finding the correct answer will be much easier.

Here are the 5 common types of incorrect answers on the ACT Reading Test:

1. Not In The Passage

Many answer choices are simply not in the passage. If any part of the answer choice is not in the passage, you can cross out that entire answer choice as being incorrect.

2. Too Specific

Certain answer choices are too specific. Often times, it is just a single word or a few words in an answer choice that can make it incorrect. If the answer choices is more specific than what is state in the passage, it's wrong.

3. Too Broad

Sometimes, answer choices can be too broad and do not match the passage or do not specifically answer the question being asked. Often times, these answer choices will make sense to you and will sound good, so you must be careful to avoid these temping choices.

Make sure your answer choice is specific enough to answer the question.

4. Opposite Of The Passage

Many incorrect answers on the ACT will be the opposite of what is in the passage. These answer choice often look correct because they do include words or phrases that you will recognize or remember from the passage. However, the answer choice is actually saying the exact opposite of what the passage does.

5. In The Passage But Not Answering The Question

This final type of incorrect answer choice is often the most difficult to avoid. These are answer choices that are in the passage, do match the passage, but do not answer the question being asked. You will be able to go to the passage, find the information, and match it with the answer choice. However, it will still be incorrect! This is why it is especially important to read the questions carefully on the Reading Test and make sure you are focusing on answering exactly what you are being asked!

Put that pencil to work! Cross out incorrect answers.

Cross off incorrect answers as soon as you know they are wrong. As you flip back and forth between the question and the passage, it is very easy for forget which answers you already ruled out. Crossing out wrong answers will ensure that you do not waste time re-reading answers that you already know are incorrect.

6) Work Forwards and Backwards In The Questions

To get better at this section, you should work both forwards and backwards. Working forwards means looking for the evidence in the passage that makes one of the answer choices correct (aka putting your finger on the correct answer!). However, sometimes finding the few words that make an answer correct can be difficult and time-consuming.

Work both forwards and backwards in the questions for the Reading Test.

That is why you should also work backwards! Working backwards is looking for what makes answer choices incorrect and crossing out any incorrect answers. For example, if you know that answer choices A, B, and C are incorrect, then you can confidently bubble in D as the correct answer even if you do not know exactly where the specific evidence in the passage is that makes D correct. Even the fastest readers can have trouble putting their finger on the answer for every single question, so mastering this skill will help you manage your time on the Reading Test much more effectively.

What To Do Now?

Now that you equipped with some new techniques and tips for the Reading Test, it is time for some Practice ACTs.

After you complete the practice test, review all of the questions (yes, ALL of the questions!). First, try to locate the evidence in the passage that makes the correct answer choice correct. As you do that, also look at each incorrect answer choice and identify what makes it incorrect. This drill will help you improve your understanding of right vs. wrong answer choices and should help you score better on future practice tests.

Once you feel ready for the real ACT, check out the 2018 ACT Test Dates and get signed up.

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