The Perfect Balance: Optimizing Your
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
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
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.