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ACT Reading Tips

ACT Reading Tips

How should you prepare to ace the ACT Reading section? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, including 11 tips, to earn a top score!

Tess H.
Tess H.
Test Prep

How should you prepare to ace the ACT Reading section? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, including 11 tips, to earn a top score!

What is on the ACT Reading?

Knowing what to expect on the ACT Reading section is the best way to prepare yourself. Standardized testing can be anxiety inducing and the ACT experience is no exception. Familiarizing yourself with the format of the Reading subsection will help ease any anxiety!

ACT Reading Format

The ACT Reading section is very predictable. It will consist of four passages followed by a set 10 of multiple-choice questions. The four passages are always in the following order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Questions on the reading subsection refer to a section of the passage, either specific lines or a paragraph, and assess the student’s reading comprehension related to what is directly stated in the passage and implied meanings.

ACT Reading Question Types

Luckily for students, you can know what types of questions to expect on each of the four passage types. The Prose section will be a contemporary passage, often an excerpt from novels or short stories. These novel or short story excerpts are often about family dynamics and emphasize diversity. The question types you can expect to follow this passage are more likely to test your comprehension of implied meanings rather than the facts stated in the passage. You should pay close attention to the settings, atmosphere, and the relationships between characters.

The second passage type, Social Science, may cover a variety of topics such as anthropology, archaeology, business, economics, or politics. The organization of the social science passage will be logical, with clear topics and concise transitions. The author may take a neutral position on the topic or may share their own opinions.

ACT Reading Timing

As outlined in ACT 101, there are 35 questions to answer in 40 minutes on the ACT Reading section. This subsection will be the third of the four, immediately following the Mathematics section. The pace of the ACT Reading section is the same as the ACT Science subsection, at just over a minute per question.

Our experience has shown the best way to practice your pacing is to give yourself unlimited time on the first practice ACT Reading section you take. Then, on the second practice section you take, limit yourself to 60 minutes. Finally, narrow the time to 40 minutes (the true length of the section). This method will allow you to build accuracy and speed as you get more comfortable with the format of the Reading section.

Taking full, strictly-timed sections for practice builds your test-taking stamina. It’s best to simulate as many test conditions as possible. This includes taking your ACT Science practice sections Sunday morning to get a feel for your energy levels the time of the day when you’ll take your ACT. If possible, you should also bubble in your answers to account for the time that it will take.

Examples of each question type on the ACT Science section are available at PrepScholar.

ACT Reading Score

How is ACT Reading scored?

The ACT Reading section is scored the same as the other four subsections: each correct answer contributes a point to the raw score. There is no deduction for wrong answers or guessing, so you should always answer EVERY question. The raw score, or number of correct answers, is then converted to a “scale score” out of 36.

What does a 36 on ACT Reading mean?

To be in the top 20% of scores on the ACT Science section, you should aim for a “scale score” of 25. To be in the top 10%, you should aim for a “scale score” of 29. And to be in the top 5%, you should aim for a “scale score” of 31.

Why is ACT Reading so hard?

The ACT Reading section is particularly challenging for students because of the time needed to read the passages. Most students' first inclination is to read the full passage before answering the question, but if you do this you will surely run out of time. You will only have about a minute per question and this does not take into account the amount of time you will spend reading the passage.

Another reason why students find the reading section difficult, aside from timing stressors, are related to the passage and question content. The four passage types will vary in difficulty depending on your familiarity with each type. This means that some students may get stuck on an unfamiliar passage type, losing time. One of the ACT’s favorite tricks to confuse students on the reading subsection is including correct information from the passage in an answer choice without actually answering the question. Make sure you keep in mind what the question is asking you to find and choose the answer that best addresses the question.

11 Tips for the ACT Reading Section

The most important information to study for the ACT Reading section is the organization of the passages you will encounter. As mentioned earlier there are four question types which will always be presented in the same order. Familiarizing yourself with sample passages of each type will allow you to recognize your preferences for ordering the passage types. Beyond familiarizing yourself with sample passages and mock ACT reading sections, Ivy Tutors has collected 11 specific tips which have been shown to improve student performance.

  1. Manage your time efficiently and effectively. Remember to bring a watch with you on the test day! This ensures that regardless of whether you are able to see a clock or timer in your testing room, you will have access to the time. We have discussed the timing of the ACT Reading section at length in this article, but the most important pacing that you should attempt to stick to is about 8-9 minutes per passage. This allows for about 3 minutes of reading or referencing the passage and 5 minutes for questions. If you find you are spending longer than 9 minutes on a passage, move on to the next and come back if you have time at the end of the section. Most ACT students are not able to complete all four passages on the reading section, so managing your time and ensuring you are pacing yourself appropriately gets you one step closer to scoring a 36!
  2. Read the pre-paragraph. This paragraph will be located prior to each of the four passages in the reading subsection. You will be able to identify the pre-paragraph because it will be in a different font than the passage. This short introductory paragraph will give you context for the following passage, such as an overview of the passage’s main idea. Students find that the 10 seconds it takes to read this information grounds them in what to expect from that author in this particular context and helps them to decide which order to read the passages.
  3. Know what types of questions to expect. You should be able to anticipate the type of questions based on their associated passage type. The humanities passages, which focus on the arts, will have questions that ask about the author's voice or the feelings that the author is trying to evoke from the reader. For the natural science passage, pay attention to the key details. The questions associated with the natural science passage will likely require you to take an evidence-based approach while answering. This means there will often be two-part questions which ask you to also identify evidence from the passage which supports your answer. When answering a question attached to the social sciences passage you will likely be asked what you think the author would agree with. These questions are testing your retention of the main subject or idea of the passage. Lastly, when answering questions following the literary fiction passage, you should be able to identify the big idea or the bigger picture of the passage.
  4. Read the first paragraph. Take time to carefully read the first paragraph. Similar to the pre-paragraph this first paragraph of the passage will contain context and main ideas that will be supported throughout the passage. If you have time, you should also read the transition from the first to the second paragraph to grasp as much of the passage's context through the least amount of reading.
  5. Answer questions with references first. Importantly, you can answer the questions on the reading section in whichever order you chose. You should answer the easiest questions first. This first set of questions will often provide you with line numbers or paragraph numbers, which shortens the amount of reading you will be required to do. As you go through the questions, make sure to underline any referenced lines or vocabulary-in-context and bracket paragraphs referenced specifically in questions. Answering the questions which refer you back to the passage will also help you gather information for later questions which may indirectly reference the same lines or paragraphs.
  6. Eliminate extreme answer choices. This section will contain difficult answers that are attempting to trick you by inaccurately applying information from the passage in an incorrect answer. One way to quickly eliminate answers is avoiding extreme answers that may be “too much” or “too narrow”. When there are multiple similar answers, the more moderate answer is likely correct. In short, if you ever see a question with answers that say “always, never, the best, or the worst,” those answers are incorrect.
  7. Read Actively. If ever you find yourself reading something that is not sinking it, or in other words you are reading passively, then you must refocus yourself. You will constantly find yourself going between the questions and answers, so being an active reader is essential to help yourself save time looking for answers in the passage later. Refocusing yourself can take as little as 10 seconds and will ultimately save you time. Take a moment to adjust your posture, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Return to reading the passage when you are again able to devote your full attention.
  8. Find the answer. You shouldn’t be relying on your memory to answer the questions following the passage. Rather, as we have stated earlier, you should be actively flipping between the questions and passage, finding the answer to the questions being asked. The main skill being tested by the reading section is your ability to quickly and efficiently identify the information requested by the question and then find that information in the corresponding passage.
  9. Never assume. Your job on the ACT reading section is to find information that is given to you. This means that you shouldn’t be relying solely on your intuition or previous lessons in English/Language Arts classes to guide you. Your only task is to identify the question being asked and locate specifically in the passage where the information was stated or implied. You will be able to distinguish implied meanings from assumed meanings by identifying specific vocabulary or sentence structure which support an implied meaning. An assumed meaning will not be backed up by any direct or indirect messages from the passage.
  10. Practice your ACT Reading tips. The best way to prepare for the ACT reading section… Read! Read! Read! This may seem simple enough, but do not underestimate the power of reading more and particularly being an attentive reader. The ACT reading section is essentially a test of how fast and accurately you can understand and analyze a passage. These skills are mastered through attentive reading as frequently as possible! You should make an attempt to read more in your daily life, whether it be stories, nonfiction, or even magazines and newspapers on your favorite topics.
  11. Invest in ACT Prep with Ivy Tutors! If you’re still struggling to hack the ACT Reading section, Ivy Tutors Network can help! Our expert ACT tutors know all the tips and tricks for excelling high on the exam. With a little personalized attention, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your target score – or higher!

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