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Increase Your ACT Reading Score

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.

Keys to the ACT English Section

Section one of every ACT is a 45-minute English section with 75 questions testing students’ knowledge of grammar and usage.  This part of the test is divided into five passages of 15 questions each.  The idea is that each passage represents a piece of student writing and the questions help test takers make peer review edits to the grammar, punctuation, style, and organization of the piece.

More than half of the questions test what the ACT writers call “usage and mechanics”, in other words rules of grammar.  These questions often present an underlined portion of the passage and students much pick the best choice.  The first answer choice is always “no error” which is correct about 20 to 25% of the time.

The remaining questions focus on what the ACT labels “rhetorical skills”, organization, style, and overall purpose.  My best tip for these questions if to think of writing the way your seventh grade English teacher taught you.  Each essay has a thesis statement or purpose.  Each paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the overall thesis.  Every example in the paragraph supports the topic sentence.  For most juniors and seniors this is a very simplistic and formulaic way of writing, but if you look at the ACT English questions with this in mind, you will score better.

ACT  English, unlike SAT writing, tests punctuation.  You will need to be familiar with proper uses for commas, apostrophes, and semicolons.  The rest of the grammar errors are similar to those found on the SAT and include:  subject / verb agreement, pronouns, modifiers, adjective and adverb errors, and ambiguity errors.

Here are a few tips to earn your best score on ACT English:

  • Read the entire sentence, not just the underlined portion.  Sometimes the error is in the connection between the two parts.
  • Compare answer choices.  What changes?  If the only difference in the answer choices is the placement of the commas, you know you are dealing with a punctuation question.
  • Keep in mind the passages are intended to represent student writing and will not be perfect.  Be ready to identify information which is out of place or irrelevant.
  • Re-read your answer choice into the entire sentence before you select it.  Does it fix the initial error without adding any new ones?
  • When answering organization or style questions, take time to identify the author’s purpose.  Why did he or she write the passage?  Why is a particular example given?

ACT English passages contain easy, medium, and difficult questions.  The hard questions are mixed in with everything else, so pay attention.  As I mentioned in a previous article, your score depends on the number of questions you answer correctly.   You may choose to answer three or four of the five passages and “letter of the day” the remaining questions.  Accuracy is always key.

 

Next week I’ll give my top 5 tips for ACT math.

 

The Single Best Strategy To Improve Your ACT Score

 

Your ACT score is based on how many questions you answer correctly in each of the four graded sections.  Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not deduct any points for wrong answers, so it benefits you to answer as many questions as possible.

Here’s the key to improving your ACT score:  answering everything doesn’t mean you have to attempt every question.  Accuracy is essential.

Some students make the mistake of attempting every question.  This only makes sense if you are already an exceptional test taker scoring in the top 90%.  If you are trying to earn a 28 or higher on any section, go ahead and work every question; you’ve already proven your ability to dominate the test.

Most students who attempt all questions end up rushing to finish and making careless mistakes along the way.  In their hurry to complete every question, their overall accuracy is diminished. You will do better to focus on accuracy which means you will probably have a number of questions that you either don’t know how to do or do not have time to finish.

I’m suggesting you slow down and focus on your target.  Take time to spot each question, line up your sights, and attack.  You become the sniper picking off ACT questions for points.  Most students use a buckshot method.  They hurry through the test shooting at every question in desperation to hit points.  They get some, but miss more because they never take the extra few seconds to line up a shot.

Slow down and strive to get all the questions you answer right.  You may be able to complete four of the five English passages (60 of 75 questions), 45 of 60 math questions, three of the four reading passages (30 of 40 questions), or six of seven science passages (35 of 40 questions) with this type of focused accuracy.  Now you are earning more points than you ever did before.

But what about the questions you don’t complete?  Aren’t these wasted points?  (Here’s where this strategy is exceptional.)  For any question you don’t do, fill in your “letter of the day.”  Pick a letter A, B, C, or D that you will use for every question for the entire test. (Only math has five answer choices, so E isn’t a good choice.) If you pick one letter and stick with it for the entire test, you will get some of your guesses right, statistically, 1 in every 4.

There is no better letter.  Pick your favorite and bubble straight down the line for every question you don’t know how to solve or don’t have time to work.  If you used different letters for each guess, you could get them all wrong.  You won’t get all of your “Letter of the Day” guesses right, but with four answers to choose from, you are bound to get some additional points.

Before you take the actual test, get a free, full-length practice test from your school counselor. Take the practice test timed and evaluate your results.

So now you are earning more points by targeting the questions you can focus on and solve correctly and for every hard question you don’t have time to attempt, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right by guessing.  This is the single best strategy to improve your ACT score no matter what subject you are attempting.