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How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

If you’re having trouble on the ACT Reading test, here are some tips that can help you improve from 21 to 36.

There aren’t any “concepts” to learn.

Unlike with ACT English, Math, and even science, there isn’t any “stuff” that you need to know – no terms, concepts, formulas, etc. You just need to know how to read effectively and efficiently; everything that you need to answer the questions is on the page. In fact, relying on outside knowledge in the ACT Reading section can get you into trouble – the test makers often create trap choices based on what makes sense in “real life” or in other circumstances. But if it’s not mentioned or implied in the passage, the answer isn’t correct – even if it’s “true”!

Get used to the passage and question types.

The ACT Reading tests the same four passage types:

Passage I: Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative

Passage II: Social Science

Passage III: Humanities

Passage IV: Natural Science

In addition, while the questions aren’t in any kind of order (difficulty, chronology, etc.), there is a logic to approach the questions in an effective way. For the core strategy for tackling ACT Reading, as well as the answer to the common question, “Should I read the passage first or go straight to the questions?”, check out the ACT Reading Bootcamp here.

Manage your time effectively.

The biggest obstacle separating students from their target score is the limited time you’re given to read through four passages and answer forty questions. Thirty-five minutes is just not enough time to do all that work comfortably, so you will have to keep the pace up if you hope to finish the test.

One way to maximize your time usage is to do the questions in an efficient order. Here’s the key point: doing the questions in the order they’re presented – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,…, 39, 40 may seem the “easy” and “natural” way to tackle the test, but I guarantee that if you do the questions in this order, you are doing them inefficiently! Instead, you want to attack the questions from specific (e.g. those with line references) to general (questions about the passage as a whole). This allows you to pick apart the passage in an orderly way while also allowing you to get a better grasp of the passage as a whole so that you can answer the general questions after you’ve completed all the specific ones.

Another tactic is to use a strategy I call “Circle & Return.” The point of this strategy is to ensure that you’re using your limited time to the best effect by doing all the “easy” questions before you invest a ton of time into the hard questions. This strategy is especially important for the Reading section, where students often find themselves getting bogged down on a question in the middle of the test because they feel they “have to” finish it before the move on. This goes back to what I mentioned above – if you’re not skipping around within a section and are simply doing the questions in order, you’re likely being inefficient.

Here’s the basic idea: Whenever you come upon a a) problem that is difficult and can’t be answered immediately, or b) a problem that you can answer but requires more time to confirm the answer, don’t spend the time during the middle of the test working that single problem. You don’t have the luxury to get bogged down in a single question, especially if it’s at the beginning or middle of the test. So bubble in the answer you have up to this point (if any), circle the question in your test booklet, and return to it after you’ve completed the ACT Reading section. This will ensure that you’ve completed all the other questions, and any other time you have remaining can be used cleaning up these circled questions.

One type of question that often eats up students time is what I call “Reverse Fact Find.” This is a question that reads something like, “All of the following were mentioned in the passage EXCEPT…” The problem with these questions is that you have to go back and verify that four of the five choices WERE mentioned and one of the five WASN’T. It’s an absolute time killer and MUST be left until the end. Imagine spending three minutes on this question and then having to guess on four questions at the end because you ran out of time. Even assuming you get the hard question right, trading four questions for one is bad math!

This may not sound like much of a strategy, but trust me: it’s absolutely critical to doing well on the ACT Reading section. If you find yourself running out of time consistently, it’s likely that you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on a few difficult questions. You need to identify those questions that are going to be difficult & time consuming, circle them, and come back to them later. You can’t afford to spend even TWO minutes on a single question if you want to finish the test!

Note: Whenever you skip questions, be careful to bubble in your answers correctly. If you skip #16 but then bubble in the answer to #17 in the bubbles of #16, and then the answer for #18 in the #17 space, and so on…you’re gonna have a bad time. 🙁

Take practice ACT Reading tests.

The only reliable way to improve on this section is to work real ACT Reading practice problems. It’s best to do these questions as part of an entire section (or even an entire ACT test), and you must do them under the time limits (35 minutes). You can download four real ACTs here in addition to learning more about the ACT Red Book, a source of another five real practice tests from the makers of the ACT. Video solutions for the four real ACTs can be found in the ACT Reading Bootcamp; you can also find question-by-question, choice-by-choice solutions to the five Real ACT Prep Guide (Red Book) tests here.

Once you run out of real tests, you could move on to “third-party” sources like Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc. But be careful with those resources, especially for Reading practice. These books try their best, but it’s simply very difficult to produce passages and questions that closely align with the ACT’s style. This is not to say that you shouldn’t use them at all, but only use them A) when you’ve run out of real tests, and B) with the knowledge that they’re not perfect models of the real test. Having an expert ACT tutor or teacher help you identify questions and answer choices that are inaccurate is a good way of using this material without getting hung up on the differences.

Get help.

The ACT can be self-studied, but many students find that getting some extra help from a knowledgeable teacher, tutor, or friend can make a big difference. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have. You also might be interested in becoming a member of Reason Prep for full access to all the ACT Study videos and resources. You can learn more about the Members Area here.

About the Author:

I’m Rob Schombs, the founder of Reason Prep, creator of these videos, and your test prep tutor. I earned a BA in Chemistry (2006) and an MA in Science and Technology Studies (2009) from Cornell University. In 2010 I started tutoring SAT, ACT, math, chemistry, and writing full-time, and Reason Prep followed shortly after!