Strategies For The Reading Section Of The SAT And ACT

Our partner Michal Goldstein at ATX Test Prep shares best practices for the reading section of the SAT and ACT:

In the 1980’s, a then-young company called the Princeton Review pioneered a revolutionary strategy for taking the reading section of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Rather than immediately starting to scribble everything you know about the topic of a given passage, take time to read the questions carefully. Next, go through the passage line by line and simply find the information the questions ask for. It was a strategy that students and parents loved, giving a significant boost to the standardized-test reading scores of in-the-know test takers.

Most college-prep advisors still teach the same strategy today—but times have changed, and so have these exams. Both the College Board and the ACT have made significant changes, some of which make it more difficult for students to employ the Princeton Review approach. The ACT simply removed line references from most of its questions—so now rather than reading “Why does the author mention a hungry lizard in lines 12-15?” the question would read “Why does the author mention a hungry lizard?” The College Board, meanwhile, revamped the reading section of the SAT in 2016, organizing questions about the details of a given passage sequentially to reflect the passage’s development. 

So how should students approach the reading section of today’s exams? It depends on the test. 

How to approach the SAT reading section

At first glance, today’s SAT reading section looks like it always has: long passages followed by sets of 10 or 11 questions, for a total of 52 questions. But a closer look reveals that the five passages comprising the reading section are always presented in the same order: Fiction, Social Science, Natural Science, Great Debates, and Experimental Science. Now you’ll always know what the general topic of an upcoming passage will be—so if you feel more comfortable with certain types of passages, you can skip to those first. 

You get 65 minutes to complete the reading section of the SAT, which breaks down to a generous 13 minutes per passage. To keep yourself on track timewise, as you read, underline or annotate the text to note the kinds of details that you’ll likely be asked about, like the main idea or structure of a passage, the purpose of each paragraph, and evidence offered to support particular ideas or statements. 

Upon completing a first reading of a passage, take a moment to summarize what you’ve read to yourself. That way, you’ll already have an answer ready to go for the first question, about the passage’s main idea.

After that first question, the questions will map to the passage in sequential order. The first few will always focus on the opening paragraph of the passage, and the last few will always focus on the end. This makes it simple to answer the questions in order as you read through the passage a second time, rather than having to hunt through the entire text again with each question to find the details you need to answer it.

How to approach the ACT reading section

The ACT reading section has some similarities to the SAT. The topic of the reading passages is always the same—Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. They’re always in the same sequence, and each is followed by 10 questions. But there are some significant differences. For one, the questions are not in any particular order (though the first question is usually a main-idea question). And the ACT gives you just 35 minutes to complete the entire reading section, or under 9 minutes per passage. 

To stay on track, be extra-mindful of the clock. To navigate all four passages in the allotted time, shoot for spending 3.5 minutes to read each passage and 5 minutes to respond to the 10 questions about it. The ACT’s questions are straightforward and stick to the text—so the information you need to answer them should be clearly identifiable in each passage. 

For the SAT and ACT alike, it’s essential to spend time becoming familiar with the structure and pacing of the reading sections. In both cases, you’ll find that gimmicks like reading the questions first aren’t worth the time they take. Just make sure you’re reading for the kinds of information the exams typically ask test takers to know. Train yourself to read with an eye towards the kinds of information the exams typically ask about, and you’ll find the answers right in front of you.

Key Takeaways: 

• Leverage the order of reading passages to your advantage. If you’re comfortable doing them in order, go for it. If there are topics or passages that are difficult for you, skip to a passage you feel comfortable with.

• Get used to the timing and feel of each test. On the SAT, you have 13 minutes per passage—but on the ACT you have less than 9 minutes per passage. The SAT allocates far more time but asks more abstract, conceptual questions. The ACT is a sprint, but the questions are concrete and straightforward.

•Read actively for the kinds of things standardized tests want you to know: the main idea, the author’s primary concern, the purpose of specific details, etc.