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Becoming a Master ACT Detective
Fewer things look more similar, but are actually more different, than the ACT and SAT reading sections. Both contain passages of English content, followed by questions meant to gauge your understanding of those passages. However, while the SAT reading section is all about trickery and logical reasoning, the ACT reading section is all about ludicrous time restrictions.
The SAT reading section contains questions such as:
“If the author of Passage 2 were to evaluate the “assumption,” in lines 41-47 of Passage 1, what would most likely NOT be one of his conclusions about how this assumption affects his overall thesis?”
Someone get the barf bag.
ACT reading questions are much more straightforward. They’re basically asking two things:
- Did you understand the passage?
- Can you remember details from the passage?
They’re much more like this:
“Why did Brian hate his uncle Max?”
“Why did the market remind of Joelle of his upbringing?”
“Who is Mrs. Turnsten?”
“What does the author cite as a major reason for oil’s scarcity?”
Etc., etc., etc. If you want to take a look at some real ACT reading problems, you can take a peek here:
Some of the questions are a bit more in-depth than others, but for the most part, they’re remarkably straightforward. With all that in mind, why does this section manage to frustrate some of the brightest teen minds in the country? If you read my guide to ACT math, you might have a darn good idea: timing.
Time is Not Your Friend
At least, not on the ACT reading section. This section forces you to answer 40 problems, and only gives you 35 minutes to solve them. That’s already less than a minute per problem, but there’s another issue: you also have to read four long, dense, boring passages!
If you take the reading into account, you actually have way less than a minute per problem. Slower readers are obviously at a disadvantage here (and my online ACT program, Green Test Prep, will show you some quick, easy ways to enhance your reading speeds and pick up more information on these passages in less time). However, regardless of your reading speed, your time on the ACT reading section is still extremely limited.
However, if you use two simple strategies, you’ll both enhance your speed and better use the time you have available to you. There are countless strategies that’ll help you to improve your ACT reading scores, but these are two of the big ones:
- Budget your “read” vs. “problem” time like a MANIAC.
- Don’t pick right answers – kill wrong answers instead.
Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these guys so that we can start to put them to use!
The Beauty of Keeping a Budget
If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other, it’s this: “how much time should I spend reading the passage, and how much time should I spend answering the problems?” It’s the age old problem of both the ACT and SAT reading sections. After 13,000+ hours of experience teaching these tests, I’ve found that there’s only one right answer:
The amount of time that YOU spend reading vs. answering problems is whatever amount of time allows YOU to understand the passage enough to answer the questions within the time limit.
Not much an answer, right? But it’s the only answer. Everyone is different. Some people can fly through a passage in 30 seconds and pick everything up. Other people take ten times that long. No matter who you are, only one thing matters:
You need to be able to pick up the main idea of the passage, see how the parts fit together, and build a “mental table of contents” for the entire passage that you can look back to later on.
You do NOT need to remember every detail of the passage. If they ask what adjective was used to describe Uncle Max’s farm, go back and look. You don’t need to know the chemical name for deep sea oil. But you do need to know where to find that information and how it fits into the story as a whole.
The only way to get good at doing this is to practice, practice, practice. You need to read with three goals in mind:
- Do I know what this passage is about?
- Do I understand how the different paragraphs are fitting together? Why is what’s being said being said, and why in this order?
- Where can I find specific details later if I need them?
Remember: ACT reading problems are straightforward. But if you don’t understand the passage, you won’t be able to answer a question like this:
Why did the author move to the farm?
And if you don’t have any recollection of the narrative order of the passage, you won’t be able to answer a question like this:
Why does the author’s little brother always get scared when he sees spiders?
You don’t need to remember the exact reason. But you have very little time to answer each question – if you need to re-read the entire passage just to find this one detail, you’re cooked! On the other hand, if you remember that “the spider thing was right toward the end,” you’ll be able to find the answer with time to spare.
How long does it take you to draw these three elements from a reading passage? I don’t know. But you can find out. Here’s how:
- With clock in hand, try reading a passage at your “normal” pace. When you’re done, see if you can answer the three questions above. If you can, then you’re good to go!
- If you can’t answer those questions, you need to spend more time reading, and practice reading until you can answer them every time.
- If you can answer the questions, but you’re still running out of time on the section, you need to start picking up the reading speed by “skimming” a bit more while still actively trying to answer the three key questions.
You need to constantly experiment. You should be working on every reading passage with a watch on, paying intense attention to the time you’re spending reading vs. answering the questions.
It’s all a balance. If you understand the main idea of the passage, why everything is being said, and where to find the details, the problems won’t take much time! If you go into the problems without these ingredients, they’ll take way more time to answer! You need to find the balance between reading time vs. question time that’ll allow you to finish the reading section each and every time.
Obviously, this takes a bunch of work, but it’s well worth it. If you want a full, step-by-step guide on how to complete this process in time for your ACT, check out Green Test Prep, which has taught thousands of students to complete the same procedure and boost their scores!
Once you get your reading vs. question time sorted out, you still need to master skill #2:
Don’t Be a Chooser – Be a Killer
If you read my guide to ACT English, you already know that proving something right is a very challenging concept, whereas proving it wrong can be extremely easy.
Whenever I work with my one-on-one students, I ask them to go through a very silly, but very instructive, exercise. I have them grab the book in front of them, and I ask them what it’s made of. Without pause, all of them give me the same answer: “paper!”
I then make a simple demand: prove it!
Suddenly, they fly into a panic.
“The pages tear easily,” they say.
“Yeah – so does tin foil. Keep going.”
“So is plastic.”
“Most books are printed on paper!”
“So you’re saying nothing is printed on anything other than paper?”
After a while, they all give up. None of them can prove that the book is printed on paper. But here’s the weird thing: the book is printed on paper! Why is it that they have so much trouble proving something that is so obviously correct!?
Next, I ask them to do something else:
“Prove that the book is NOT a fish.”
In half a second, the answers come in:
“It doesn’t have gills.” Done. All fish have gills.
“It doesn’t smell like anything.” Done. All fish have a scent.
In a half a second, my students can prove a concept wrong. It’s easy to do. Yet they all have TONS of trouble proving something right. What does this have to do with the ACT reading section?
Three of the Answers STINK
Your whole life, you’ve been trained to find the right answer. Yet, when it comes to ACT reading, you’ll be much better off finding the three wrong answers. You’ll also be much faster.
Most of my students spend a ton of time “arguing on the behalf of” every single answer choice. They spin their wheels endlessly, listing every reason why the answers could be OK. This isn’t just bad practice – it’s also extremely slow.
Instead, when you work on an ACT reading problem, I only want you to ask yourself one question: what’s HORRIBLE about this answer choice?
Remember: three of the answers are WRONG. Factually, unequivocally, no-doubt-about-it WRONG. One of the answers isn’t.
Just go at every single answer choice and ask the same thing: what stinks about this thing? Three of the choices will let you know. One of them won’t.
You’ll know you’ve found the right answer when, no matter how hard you try, you can’t find anything wrong with it. Because there ISN’T anything wrong with it – because it’s right!
This might sound like a subtle shift, but it makes an absolutely enormous difference. If you stop focusing on what’s good about answer choices, and start focusing on why they’re horrible, you’ll end up with a much clearer, much faster, much less frustrating experience.
Right now, click on this link and try it out:
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how well this works!
Now that we’ve covered the “common stuff” shared by both the ACT and the SAT, it’s time to get into the wierdest section of them all: ACT Science. For that, continue to:
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