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How to Cram for ACT Reading

Boy with glasses reading a book and holding a pencil

With an ACT exam right around the corner, it’s more important than ever to fill your head with tips and tricks that will give you the best shot at a 36. Today I’ll talk about some ways to approach ACT Reading and help you cram before the official test date.

ACT Reading, while often easy in its subject matter, often presents problems to students because it has a highly restrictive time limit. As part of our approach, let’s split up the different skills you need to master in order to see the most success on ACT Reading:

  1. Reading Skills

  2. Problem-Solving Skills

  3. Time Management Skills

Skill #1: Reading Skills

You need to be familiar with how fiction and nonfiction passages are typically structured. For example, for fiction passages, you usually read a scene from a larger work. You need to be able to identify without too much background information the following: characters, setting, conflict, and resolution.

For nonfiction passages, you need to know how to recognize the thesis or main idea statement. You also need to know which sentences provide key points, such as topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs.

These are skills that you most likely have, and these are the ones that translate from your English classes to the ACT.

Here is an example of a main idea question from a nonfiction (social science) passage:

Most students should be able to answer this question with ease. The only hurdle is knowing that first paragraphs sometimes are not where you find the main idea. Instead they may serve as hooks (like cold opens in television shows) or counterpoints or demonstrative examples. When you read paragraph two in this passage, the main idea is crystal clear, and the language from the paragraph is nearly duplicated in the correct answer.

This is just one example of how you would apply your reading skills, but hopefully you see that you have a third of the battle done if you are a capable English student (and even if you aren’t, you most likely face more challenging questions in your classes, so you’re ready for the ACT).

There’s one more thing to remember: most students struggle with social science and humanities passages. They often do fairly well on literature and natural science. For a cram, you won’t be able to consume enough of any one passage type to be a master (if you aren’t already), but you can at least recognize strengths and weaknesses.

For your weaker passages, strategize by …

  • doing them last,

  • setting a strict time limit for solving, AND/OR

  • simply mapping the passage so you can return to it easily while answering questions.

Skill #2: Problem-Solving Skills

These skills are more focused on understanding the ACT format and knowing how to get the most from the questions AND answer choices. ACT Reading questions include the following bits of information (but not in every single question):

  • line references: you are given line numbers to solve the question

  • keywords: you are given a word or phrase with an obvious location in the passage

  • general ideas: you are asked about main idea or tone or another idea that encompasses the whole text

A vast majority of the questions can be solved with evidence from 1-2 sentences. But your goal should be to read the passage so carefully that you do not need to use the keywords OR line references. Just because the test gives you help doesn’t mean you should take it. The help often makes your solving take longer.

Another part of problem-solving is that you recognize the ease of the questions. The ACT isn’t as tricky as the SAT. Some questions will ask the occupation of a central character. Others will ask for the main idea of the passage and then later the tone (which are almost the same thing). Part of problem-solving is just having confidence to say that something is correct without double or triple checking in the text.

Let’s say you do get tripped up and don’t remember something from a passage. The ACT often uses direct phrasing from the passage in the questions. Here is an example of a natural science passage:

Notice how the phrase “change erratically from year to year” is actually taken straight from the passage. While you should definitely be suspicious if an answer regurgitates what the passages states, it seems that the question itself is fair game.

Here is another example, now from a social science passage:

While the phrasing is not as exact as the previous example, the repetition of “camera” makes it easy to spot this information. And the word “simulation” helps reinforce that you’ve found the right area of the passage.

Also, notice in both cases that the information is found within the middle of the paragraph. There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to searching for information, but usually if you don’t recall something from the passage, it is a detail deep within the text, so use a topic sentence to guide you, but assume that you need to look somewhere in the middle of the paragraph, scanning the keyword or key phrase all the while.

Finally, let’s look at a literature passage:

In this case, the question and answer match almost identically to the passage text. So obviously it would be wrong to say that you should totally discount matching phrasing as a correct answer. Really, the ACT can be this easy, and you just have to accept that it is a lot more straightforward than you probably expect.

Skill #3: Time Management Skills

One thing you should know right off the bat is that ACT Reading does not order its questions in the same sequence as the text of the passage; everything’s scrambled! For the meticulous reader, this is not a problem. For people who skim, they just waste more time trying to find the information to solve the question.

If you split the 35 minutes of the ACT Reading section, you have 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage. Most students assume that the best method for dealing with time is to simply skip the passage the first time around and go straight to the questions.

This makes sense, but usually investing 3-4 minutes into reading the passage carefully provides a stronger return because the questions are fairly straightforward. Basically, once you get the theme or message of the passage, then answering the questions is easier because often multiple questions will have similar answers (if not in their content then in their tone).

Summary of ACT Reading Tips

  1. Solve the passages in order of your strongest to your weakest.

  2. Read each of the passages carefully for 3-4 minutes with the goal of NOT looking back.

  3. If you skim, read the first and last sentence of every paragraph.

  4. Use obvious keywords in the questions and answers to help you find information in the passage.

  5. If you have forgotten a detail, look in middle paragraphs (and middle sentences of those paragraphs).

  6. Generally, broad answers are better than specific answers.

  7. Use the tone of the passage to help you determine the most correct answer choice.

  8. Remember that the ACT is sometimes that easy.

Last-minute anxiety about the ACT making it hard to focus? Our ACT tutors can take your stress and channel it into productive cramming before the test. Get our 1:1 ACT tutoring services before schedules book!


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