ACT Reading Tips to get the correct answers and finish the exam with enough time to check over your work.

ACT Reading Tips for the Updated ACT Reading Test

Starting in 2021, there is a new question type on the ACT reading section. What kinds of ACT reading tips will help you attack these new kinds of questions, and do well on this section in general?

Read on for:

  • a quick rundown of the test structure
  • the 2021 update to the ACT reading question types
  • how to study more effectively, specifically for the ACT reading test
  • ACT reading tips for finding the one correct answer on every question
  • tips for reading and completing the test with enough time to double check your answers

If you’re short on time, this infographic gives you a very basic idea of what’s covered in this article.

A Quick Rundown of the ACT Test Structure

The ACT reading section is composed of 4 reading passages, with 10 questions per passage, which means you have to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes.

There are 4 passage types that always go in the same order:

  1. prose fiction
  2. social studies
  3. humanities (i.e. history and fine art)
  4. natural sciences

Note: You do not need any in-depth knowledge in these subjects to answer ACT reading questions. So spend more of your study time learning how to take this test (and do intense subject reading after you receive your high ACT scores.)

There are 3 categories of skills tested in this section:

  1. Key Ideas and Details (55-60% of exam): questions require you to summarize main ideas and passage themes; draw conclusions; and understand sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships
  2. Craft and Structure (25-30% of exam): questions ask you to define vocabulary in the context of the reading; identify author’s claims and purposes for writing; determine why an author chose to structure a passage a certain way; and differentiate between perspectives
  3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13–18% of exam): questions relate to understanding author’s claims; differentiating between fact and opinion; and evaluating evidence/information from various sources that are related by topic

ACT Reading 2021 Update: A New Type of Test Question

As of 2021, there is a new set of questions included on the reading section: Visual and Quantitative Information questions.

One passage of the ACT reading section now contains at least one graph, table, or figure related to the reading. To answer Visual and Quantitative Information questions, you will need to: 

  • interpret patterns in data
  • connect the information from graphics to the related text
  • understand how information given in graphics supports a main idea or conclusion of the passage

Visual and Quantitative Information questions contribute to your score in the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas category.

These kinds of questions are set up sort of like the ACT science questions, in that you use graphics/data to support an idea. To prepare for these passages, look at this sample question provided by the ACT and complete practice ACT science questions.

Related: Get 7 ACT science tips for success.

ACT Reading Tips for Studying Efficiently

Before we get into actual ACT reading question-answer strategies, let’s talk about how to get the most out of your precious study time. There are several parts of the ACT, as well as the college application process in general, so you really have to make this time count.

Related: Spending too much time on your college application essays? Read this 6 step guide to writing the Common App essay.

1. Take a few practice tests to get used to the exam structure and find your baseline skill level.

Throughout your English classes in school, you have focused mainly on writing essays and summarizing required reading materials.

You have probably never been exposed to this kind of exam before, one where:

  • the multiple choice questions are very carefully worded to sound confusing
  • there are vocabulary words you’re unfamiliar with
  • you have so little time to read and process texts

So, before trying to strategize, you should take some practice tests, to understand what you’re up against.

You can also use these initial exposures to the test to find your baseline skill levels.

How to Measure Your Baseline (and Progress):

When you’re first trying to figure out what reading skills and strategies you are strong (and weak) in, take the test the way you will on exam day.

Set up your own testing environment, including a timer set to 35 minutes.

Then, if possible, print out a practice ACT reading test and accompanying ACT bubble sheet.  Side note: If you’re going to practice all sections of the ACT (which you should), most of these practice exams and bubble sheets include each section of the ACT. So, print out the entire exam and save the other sections for later.

Start the timer and start the exam.

After the timer runs out, make a note of which question you’re on, then keep answering questions.

That way, you can see how close you are to finishing within the allotted time – which essentially tells you how well you are managing your time.

Taking full-length practice tests will help you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and progress much more than doing individual ACT reading questions ever will.

2. Go through your practice exam(s) and look for mistakes.

Always, always, always go through your practice tests as soon as you’re done with them.

But don’t just look at what you did well – look through the answer key and review the ones you missed.

Don’t passively note what the right answer is. Try to solve it again. Then analyze the question to figure out what tripped you up. 

Going through your mistakes like this makes you actively think about and recall what traps you won’t fall into. Essentially, this process helps you turn your weaknesses into strengths.

3. Take an online ACT prep course.

If you are the kind of person who has difficulty staying motivated or sticking to a schedule, an ACT test prep course can help you improve way faster than aimlessly and sporadically taking practice tests.

Get a top-scoring tutor online to evaluate your testing skills, guide your study plan, and hold you accountable from the comfort of your home.

Related: What are the benefits of online tutoring?

4. Reward yourself for making progress.

Yes, studying for the ACT can be very boring, and you don’t get markers like grades to show that you are progressing in your studies.

But you can (and should) reward yourself periodically for committing to improving your ACT reading scores.

Reward yourself for spending a set number of hours every week on studying, consistently getting a new top score on practice exams, mastering a new test skill, or breaking testing time records.

You might begin to love the challenge that comes with setting higher goals. And if not, you still get to treat yourself.

ACT Reading Tips for Answering Questions Correctly

There are two skills you need to master when it comes to scoring well on the ACT reading section: answering questions correctly, and answering them quickly.

First, let’s look at how to get answers right.

1. Know that there is only one right answer.

Your English assignments are probably discussion based with a lot of flexibility when it comes to answering questions out loud or on paper.

But the ACT reading exam is standardized, meaning that there is one unambiguous correct answer for every question. If there wasn’t, then it’d be easy for students to contact ACT Inc. and demand their test be re-scored.

So every ACT reading question you encounter has one definite answer, even when it seems like two or three answers could feasibly answer the given question.

2. Don't debate. Eliminate.

Instead of debating which of the answers fits the best, just eliminate all the other choices.

This may seem hard, but every single word in an answer choice was used for a reason: to trip you up. One word, such as always or never, can be the difference between a correct and an incorrect answer.

Common reasons an answer choice is incorrect:

  1. too broad: the choice doesn’t exactly answer the question
  2. too narrow: the choice is too specific and doesn’t answer the whole question (often seen in “main idea” questions)
  3. opposite/inversed: the choice has all the right words, but the relationship is flipped
  4. unrelated detail: the choice is a true statement from the passage, but doesn’t really answer the question being asked
  5. out-of-scope: the choice contains information that was not included in the passage
  6. completely unrelated: the choice has nothing to do with the actual question you are supposed to answer

Get really good at identifying what makes an answer choice incorrect, and choosing the right answer becomes much easier (and faster.)

3. Predict an answer before you actually read through answer choices.

Before you even allow yourself to get tripped up by the wording, think about how you would answer the question yourself.

Then, as you’re eliminating choices, look for the answer that best aligns with the answer you thought of on your own.

ACT Reading Tips for Finishing the Test Quickly

As you grow more accustomed to the test’s format, and more aware of what makes an answer right or wrong, your speed should naturally improve.

But these reading strategies are critical if you want to finish your exam with time to double-check your answers.

1. Read the passage before the questions.

Unlike reading for the ACT science test, read the passage and then the questions during this part of the ACT.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • your working memory can only carry so much information, and trying to hold the questions, answer choices, and actual passage information in your head all at once might not work out well
  • many ACT reading questions are too broad; in the ACT science section, the questions are more specific and, in most cases, you can scan through passages to find the information you need to get the right answer 

You might also consider just reading the first few lines of each paragraph to get the main idea of the whole passage, and then going to questions. This is a useful strategy if you are a slow reader or processer, because you can answer “big idea” questions with this information. Later on, you can scan for keywords you need to answer more specific questions.

Don’t forget that there is now one passage with quantitative visual data in it – a passage that looks a lot like an ACT science passage. So, you may find some data analyzing strategies typically reserved for the science section useful for that one ACT reading passage.

Related: Here are 5 steps to improve your reading skills.

ACT Reading Tips for Focusing While Reading

You only have so much time to process huge blocks of text, and the pressure is on, which makes it really easy to get lost when you’re reading.

To combat the experience of “I have no idea what I just read”:

  1. Read actively. Don’t just passively read through material like it’s a story – read so that you hear the little voice in your head quickly scanning through the words.
  2. Pretend that you want to become an expert on whatever you’re reading for the next 8 or so minutes.
  3. Use these reading strategies for slower readers to stay focused on the ACT.

2. Fill out your bubble answer sheet last.

The very intense act of scanning through passages and answers questions requires a different kind of cognitive effort than shading in answers with your pencil.

So stopping to bubble in an answer on your answer sheet essentially breaks your concentration and pacing. You also risk losing your train of thought/memory.

So instead of this mental back-and-forth, circle your answer in your testing booklet and transfer your answers to your answer sheet after you’ve gone through all the questions.

Note: You have to give yourself enough time at the end to do this. Make sure you bring a watch to the exam and pay attention to how much time you have left.

3. Low on time? Cut your losses and guess.

When you run into questions you can’t answer quickly, make a note of them in your testing booklet. Try not to spend more than 8 minutes on any given passage.

Then, if you’ve answered all the other questions and you still have enough time to fill in your answer sheet, spend a little more time thinking about them.

If you’re short on time, cut your losses and just pick a letter. Choose a “letter of the day”, and every time you can’t choose a correct answer, just fill in that letter.

The ACT does not penalize you for wrong answers, so put down an answer for every single question.

Practice makes progress (and a perfect 36.)

It is difficult, but not impossible, to get a perfect score of 36 on the ACT reading section. If math or writing is not your strong suit, really aim to do well in this section.

You can also excel in the ACT science section, especially since one reading passage now includes some form of data you have to analyze. Studying for one section may help you improve in the other, so do practice questions for both around the same time.

Want to score higher on the ACT reading section? Enroll in our online ACT prep sessions

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