The Perfect Balance: Optimizing Your Time
The Perfect Balance: Optimizing Your Time
As is probably abundantly clear to you by now, the Reading Test demands a little extra something from you: in addition to answering its questions, you must digest approximately 3,000 words worth of information. In order to be effective on this test, you must achieve an optimum balance between the time you spend reading the passages and the time you spend answering the questions. For instance, if you sweat over the first passage, painstakingly making sure you know its every little detail, you’ll probably run out of time before you get to the last passage. On the flip side, if you breeze through the passages, registering a word here and there, you’ll probably have a hard time answering the questions. The lesson here is that you need to find the perfect balance.
There’s no formula for this perfect balance; in fact, what’s “perfect” varies from person to person. Below, we’ll give you some general strategies for rationing your time on the Reading Test. We think these strategies work well for most people, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide what works best. Our strategies can help you, but you should complement them by taking timed practice Reading Tests. By practicing frequently, you can determine your ideal reading speed—the speed that allows you to get through the passages quickly while understanding what’s being said.
Reading the Reading Test
Because the Reading Test quizzes you on your understanding of general themes and specific information in each passage, your instinct is probably to read the entire passage carefully, making sure you don’t miss anything that can be covered in the questions. If you had unlimited time, this method of reading would probably make sense, but you don’t have unlimited time; in fact, you have extremely limited time.
There are only ten questions accompanying each passage. These ten questions cannot cover the entire content of a passage, so reading for every detail is a waste of time. When reading an ACT passage, read carefully to understand general elements: the topic, theme, argument, etc. When you see details that seem important, don’t fuss painstakingly over those details. Instead, lightly note them in your mind and perhaps make a quick mark in the margin. This way, you’ll reduce wasted time and gain a good enough comprehension of the passage to answer questions that cover general aspects of the passage correctly. You’ll also have a good enough sense of the passage’s layout, so that when the passage asks about specific information, you’ll be able to go back quickly to the passage, check the information, and choose the correct answer.
Achieving the Perfect Balance
You may be thinking that finding the perfect balance is easier said than done. Well, yes, that’s probably true. But there are methods you can use to find this balance.
Read the Passage First, Then Answer the Questions
We suggest that you read the passage first and save the questions until you’re done reading. Read the passage quickly and lightly for a general understanding. Pay active attention to what’s going on, but don’t get bogged down trying to assimilate every detail. By the end of your first reading, you should understand the themes of the passage and the argument, if there is one. We definitely don’t mean that you should ignore the meat of paragraphs and focus only on their first sentences; if you do that, you won’t understand the passage.
Reading for a general understanding means you don’t have to memorize all the specific facts of the passage. The author uses specific facts to support an argument, but as you read, you should be more concerned with their cumulative effect (i.e., the larger argument) than with the specific facts themselves. If you get to a point in a passage where the author lists a bunch of facts to support an idea, you can make a quick note of the list in the margin for future reference (for more on this, see “Scribble, Doodle, Underline”).
The only time you should slow down and go back is if you lose the flow of the passage—if you realize you don’t know what’s happening, what’s being argued, or what in the world that entire last paragraph was about.
Read the passage with an awareness of the general questions you might be asked. What is the author’s goal in writing the passage? What are the tone, themes, major points, and so on of the passage? When you finish a passage, you should be able to answer these questions and also have a sense of the passage’s layout. Reading on the ACT is like taking a tour of a room—you have to know the layout of the room, but you don’t have to know the location of every knicknack.
After you finish the passage, go to the questions. Since you read the passage with the big picture in mind, you should be able to answer the general questions dealing with main points, point of view, tone, etc. When you get to a question on a specific detail, don’t immediately look at the answer choices to avoid being influenced by “trick” answers. Instead, articulate to yourself exactly what the question is asking. Then quickly go back to the passage and come up with your own answer to the question. Finally, choose the answer that best matches yours.
If you get to a question that is very hard and threatens to take a lot of time, place a mark next to it, skip it, move on to the next question, and come back if you have time. You should not, however, move on to the next passage while leaving a blank question behind you. Answer all questions dealing with a passage while the passage is still fresh in your mind.
Why “Passage First, Questions After” Is a Good Strategy
Some test prep books advise you to look at the questions first to find key words, and then to read the passage with an eye to answering the questions. While this strategy seems good on paper, it’s really quite difficult in practice, especially in high-pressure situations like taking the ACT. Imagine trying to remember what 10 questions ask while reading an unfamiliar passage, simultaneously trying to get the gist of it and looking for possible answers to the questions. That’s like trying to chew gum while patting your head, rubbing your stomach, and singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” In addition, because some of the questions ask for specific details, you’ll feel pressured to pay close attention to the passage line by line, which takes too much time. Ultimately, the “questions first, passage after” strategy can be extremely confusing as well as extremely difficult to execute.
“Passage first, questions after” is really just common sense. Using this method, you can avoid the confusion caused by other strategies. Again, think about the passage as a room and the answers to the questions as objects within the room. If you follow the other test books’ strategy of “questions first,” you’ll be left groping helplessly for the objects in a completely dark room. If you follow our strategy (in other words, if you use common sense), you’ll have turned on the lights first, making the objects much easier to find.
Scribble, Doodle, Underline
Once upon a time, you learned that a pristine ACT test booklet is a sad ACT test booklet. Here, on the Reading Test, you have an opportunity to give your friendly test book a happy buzz by scribbling and underlining away in it. You won’t be doing all this scrawling simply for the benefit of the ACT booklet, though; any marking you do will help you when it’s time to answer the questions.
You’re probably wondering how you’ll know what to underline without having read the questions. Indeed, that does seem like the tricky part. But the point of underlining is not to pinpoint specific answers to questions; in fact, if you could underline answers, you’d be wasting time underlining them when you could be filling in a bubble on the answer sheet.
The point of underlining, then, is not to highlight correct answers, but to assist you when you refer back to the passage for those answers. You can use your underlines and notes as a map through the passage, so you don’t waste time covering passage territory for a second time. As long as scribbling and underlining don’t take up a significant amount of time (you should not be drawing straight lines or printing neatly), any marginal notes and underlines will help and guide you when you answer the questions.
Underlining the topic sentence of each paragraph (it’s not always the first sentence) will help you keep on top of the argument’s direction. These underlines will serve as handy reference tools when you need to refer back to the passage. Because you’re reading for the general point of a passage and its component paragraphs, you do not need to know every single illustrative example. When you encounter a sentence or a section that looks like it will enumerate examples to support a point, you can quickly glance at the section, then scribble “eg” or “ex” or some other mark in the margin to let you know that this is an example. If a question asks you for specific evidence that demonstrates a certain point, you can refer back to the relevant passage by glancing at your notes and then moving down to the section marked “eg” or “ex.” You can also use numbers to mark items in an extended list. Underlining key phrases that help relate parts of the passage, such as “subsequently,” “on the other hand,” and “in contrast” will also help you map your way through the passage.
Take a practice Reading Test and exercise your wrists making marginal notes and underlines. Soon you should be able to develop a scribbling system that works for you.
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