Reading is a deceptive section on the ACT. It looks so simple—no vocabulary laden sentence completions like the SAT, just basic reading passages with questions. Yet the reading part of the ACT isn’t as simple as it first appears.
In order to be an effective college admissions test, the ACT has to structure questions to fool intelligent high school students. Think about it. Would colleges use ACT scores if everyone got all the questions right? How would Harvard know to let in? Admissions tests have to be structured so that grades are distributed along the entire grading scale. As a result ACT reading passages contain easy, medium, and hard questions.
ACT reading is intended to represent college-bound reading situations. You need to
- Read for detail and precise meaning
- Understand main ideas and the sequence of events
- Make generalizations and draw inferences
- Compare similar answers to find the “best” response
- Go beyond what is written and evaluate implied meanings
Just because you’ve been successful on high school reading comprehension tests, don’t assume the ACT reading will be easy.
The first challenge is completing the section in 35 minutes. ACT reading passages are always divided into four categories: prose fiction, social studies, natural science, and humanities. Each passage has ten questions. You may decide you can only finish two or three and you will “letter of the day” the rest. Don’t feel you need to answer questions in order. If you don’t like the prose fiction passage, skip it and move on to the rest of the section.
Skim each passage before you begin, but don’t spend more than a couple minutes on the passage before beginning the questions. ACT reading questions appear in mixed-up order. Unlike the SAT, the ACT questions do NOT tend to follow the order of the passage. Expect to jump from the beginning of the passage to the end and back to the middle. As you skim, make note of where to find information, so you can come back to answer detail questions.
Like all the other sections of the ACT, reading success depends on accuracy. Determine how many questions you need to answer correctly in order to earn the score you want. If you need 25 questions, you can complete three of the passages and “letter of the day” the fourth passage. This means you now have 30 instead of 40 questions to complete in 35 minutes. You have more time per question, so you can go back to the passage, find the answer, jot down your solution, carefully evaluate and compare the answer choices before selecting an answer.
Although the ACT doesn’t have as much vocabulary as the SAT reading section, don’t underestimate the section. Be ready to read, interpret and analyze on a college-bound level, keeping in mind that accuracy is more important than finishing every question.