The ACT reading section seems like it should be almost intuitive for the high achieving high school student. After all, you’ve been in an English or reading course since you began primary school. Yet, the ACT reading section is not an easy test even for the highest achieving high school students. This is because like any standardized exam, you have to understand the test and apply strategies to score in the top percentiles. However, this is arguably one of the easiest sections to improve your score with test taking strategies because most of the answers are located inside of the test. Beyond that, this section can serve as strong evidence to college admissions committees of your ability to excel in a university setting. This is especially important for students who are considering majoring in humanities or liberal arts, where the ability to critically analyze large volumes of literature is a necessary skill set.
New to the ACT? Start Here
How is my ACT Score Calculated?
For those just beginning their ACT preparation journey, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the test is scored. The maximum score you can achieve on each individual section is 36. Your individual section scores are then averaged into your composite score. Both your individual section scores and composite score are reported to universities and compared to other students within percentiles of their applicants and national percentiles. So, what defines the difference between say a 34, 35 and 36 on the reading section of the ACT? Surprisingly, only one question typically defines the difference between these three scores. This is important to keep in mind when deciding if a retake or delaying your exam is worthwhile in order to get the extra few points or an extra question or two correct. I also encourage many of my students to have an idea of the 75th percentile score for their target schools. Knowing this can help you set a reasonable score goal and will often ensure that your application will be reviewed thoroughly by the admission committee.
Related: How to Superscore ACT Scores
How are ACT Reading Section Answer Choices Designed?
Now that you understand how the test is scored, it is important to understand how the ACT is crafted. Standardized tests in general are designed differently from your typical high school setting where you have been taught to critically read. Where your high school teachers have likely encouraged you to think about all of the possible interpretations, the ACT only has one correct answer. The test writers are required to write questions in such a way that is completely unambiguous. There is absolutely no other correct answer. In doing so, they have actually created an advantage for you. If you understand what the question is asking, you can reasonably arrive at the right answer with the simple knowledge that there is no other answer that could feasibly be correct in addressing the question.
Tip 1: Identify Common Phrases or Words
One way to utilize this advantage is to identify common phrases or words that can confuse students. A piece of advice I give every student I tutor is that the best way to prepare for a test is to work through and analyze as many practice problems and practice exams as possible. A simple method to add on to this is that each time you take a practice passage or exam, make a list of common phrases that you struggled with. Common examples of these include words like “most likely” or “most nearly”. Ask yourself what these mean in context or what the test writer aimed to accomplish in writing each question. Over time, this will allow you to understand the test writer and anticipate what questions are truly asking rather than what is written.
Tip 2: Identify Common Question Types
Analyzing your test for question and answer types can also be a useful strategy in preparing for the ACT. Common question types include main point, details, inference, utilizing vocabulary, and author’s point of view. Common distractor answer types can include too broad, too specific, unrelated topics, and many more. You can find a complete breakdown of every question type here. As you review exams, understand your mistakes and label each question or answer into its respective category. Keep a log of how many questions you encounter of each type and what types of questions you are missing. I often recommend students use an excel sheet to track progress. This is a great way to analyze your progress and your common mistakes so that you can effectively spend your time studying for and improving upon your weakest areas. This strategy can apply to preparing for all of the sections of your ACT. It can also serve as a tool and assist you in deciding when you feel adequately prepared to sit for the exam.
Tip 3: Predict the Correct Answer
In answering questions, an approach some students will take is going through answer choices and thinking, “Can I eliminate this answer for any reason?” This allows the test taker to directly confront distractor answers or loopholes that the test writer may have intentionally created. In doing so, you further play into the thought that there can only be one correct answer. Another strategy to approach questions is to answer the question prior to reading the answer choices. Often students are fairly intuitive in predicting or creating a correct answer to a question. However, in a high stress environment with multiple options available some students struggle to find clarity. By creating an answer to the question before clouding your judgment with multiple choices you allow yourself to think more clearly when approaching a question. This will decrease the likelihood that you will be swayed by the second best or ambiguous answer. It is important to note that this strategy will not work for everyone as it can be a time intensive strategy. This is a strategy that would be ideal for an individual who commonly finds themselves second guessing an answer and changes their answer at the last minute to the second-best answer for the question.
Related: What is a Good ACT Writing Score?
Tip 4: Time Yourself when Taking Practice Exams & Experiment with Test-Taking Techniques
Speaking of… time is one of your most important resources on this section of the ACT. Many students find they are short on time — struggling to finish their exam. Timing your practice passages and tests is arguably the best way to develop a sense of timing for test day. In developing your internal clock for the test, you can then begin to try various strategies on how to approach passages for the ACT. That being said the perfect strategy is the one that you feel most comfortable with and are able to utilize while completing the test within the allotted time. Each student will approach the test in a different way. So, I recommend most students try different techniques before deciding on one. I was a traditional test taker and chose to read the passage all the way through, underline various portions and ultimately refer back to the questions as I went through the passage. Some students may choose to read the questions first to guide their reading of the passage. Others may choose to only skim the passage and then dig into the content of the passage as they work to answer questions. And others may choose not to read the passage at all and instead will use the questions to anchor their reading of different sections in the passage.
Tip 5: Utilize a Spreadsheet to Track your Progress & Create a Study Schedule
In applying the different strategies, it can be useful to track your progress with each reading strategy through the testing and practice passage excel sheet as well. This gives you a clear metric to guide your decision on which strategy to use. Again, it is crucial that you’re applying all of these strategies in a timed setting to ensure success on your test day. Most importantly, it is crucial to have a plan on how to study for an exam of this magnitude. Find a resource that works for you and stick with it! The best resource is the one you can finish in the time you set aside to study for this exam. I often recommend students pick a test date and then determine how many days they would like to study leading up to their exam (for example 100 days). For other 1, 2, and 3-month study schedules, you can also start here. Then take the number of practice problems, tests, and pages in your review books and divide them by the number of days you will be studying. (Note: This excludes days off, sick days, or holidays.) This should comprise your daily goal in preparing for the ACT and should be a non-negotiable component of your testing preparation. This is by far the most important strategy in succeeding in all sections of any standardized test– set a goal for yourself and stick to it.
Most importantly, try to enjoy this process. In our experience providing ACT and SAT tutoring here at MyGuru, we find that the more you enjoy learning and growing the more likely you are to succeed on this test. While it can be taxing to manage all of your high school obligations, extracurricular activities, and ACT preparation, it is helpful for your future development and learning to balance multiple obligations as a college student and eventually as a working individual. Find what works best for you and stick to it. Study hard and best of luck!
About the Author
Jordan Salley is a senior ACT and SAT tutor MyGuru, a boutique provider of customized, 1-1 tutoring and test prep services. She has been providing ACT, SAT, and MCAT test prep services for several years, and is currently in medical school.