Beat The Clock on ACT Reading (Part 2): Skimming

Completing the ACT reading section within the time limit is a challenge for most students. In Part 1 of How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading, I discussed the first and most important skill you must develop in order to master fundamental ACT Reading: Hyper-Literal Reading. If you haven’t yet read that post, you should do so now. As I pointed out, one of the biggest reasons students struggle (and often fail) to effectively increase their speed on ACT Reading is that they spend far too much time deliberating (i.e., going back and forth between two or three answer choices, with no sure way of knowing which is correct). In this post, we’ll tackle another very powerful ACT Reading time management tactic: skimming.

The First Time Through the Passage, Do NOT Read. Instead, SKIM!

In terms of pure ACT Reading time management tactics, this one is by far the most important. The sad truth is that most test takers waste so much time on their initial reads of the passages that they doom themselves to failure right from the start. It’s time to put that failure-inducing approach away forever!

“Wait … Isn’t This A READING Test? And You’re Telling Me NOT to Read???”

It may seem like advising test takers to skim ACT Reading passages goes against the very idea of a reading test. It also may seem like this advice contradicts what I said Part 1. In that post, I emphasized the fact that mastering Hyper-Literal Reading, which demands extreme attention to detail, is a critical foundation for developing both accuracy and SPEED on ACT Reading. Hyper-Literal Reading is painstakingly meticulous. It means putting the passage “under a microscope”. Isn’t that the exact opposite of skimming?

Yes, it is. But here’s the important point: you are only to skim on your INITIAL READ of the passage. After your initial read, when you are actually answering questions and have located the precise part of the passage that answers a question, THAT is when you must switch to reading in a very careful, precise, detailed, hyper-literal fashion.

This point is extremely important, so it bears repeating: Think of reading on ACT Reading passages as having two major phases: the Initial Read (that is, when you read the whole passage before answering questions) and the Question Read (when you read small parts of the passage, in order to answer specific questions). On your INITIAL “read”, don’t actually read. Instead, SKIM. Examine the passage through a telescope. On the other hand, On the Question Read, when you’re answering questions, examine the relevant parts of the passage through a microscope. That is when you use Hyper-Literal Reading, NOT on the Initial Read!

On your INITIAL “read,” don’t actually read. Instead, SKIM. Examine the passage through a telescope. You will NOT gain a deep understanding of the passage from the skim. That is FINE.

On the other hand, On the Question Read, when you’re answering questions, examine the relevant parts of the passage through a microscope. That is when you use Hyper-Literal Reading, NOT on the Initial Read!

At this point, you may be wondering why I so strongly advise skimming instead of carefully reading on your first pass through the text. The reason is related to two things:

  1. The design of the ACT Reading section
  2. The limits of human short-term memory


The ACT Reading Test is significantly different in many ways from the typical tests you take in school. One of those differences is the primary type of memory involved. In school, you are generally given what are called “achievement” tests. This type of exam aims primarily to measure your knowledge of a particular topic the teacher has taught in class, and which you were assigned to study and learn. Doing well on achievement tests depends on your long-term memory. If you studied the subject, understood it, and stored that knowledge in long-term memory, you simply retrieve the information from long-term memory on test day.

But tests like the ACT and SAT are not achievement tests. Rather, they are “standardized” exams that, instead of primarily testing your KNOWLEDGE of a subject, instead focus test certain SKILLS (e.g., logical reasoning, analysis, etc.). On the ACT Reading Test, you have, on average, eight minutes and 45 seconds per passage. That is, in just under nine minutes, you have to read a rather long passage and answer ten questions. Obviously, there is no time to study the passage for deep comprehension, understand its major themes and finer subtleties, and store all of that information in long-term memory so that you can then retrieve your new-found knowledge in order to answer the questions. If you approach ACT Reading in this way, your strategy will be woefully misaligned with the actual design of the exam. As a result, you will score FAR below your potential. Instead, on standardized exams like the ACT, we must rely primarily on short-term memory.

As you will see in what follows, the sneaky devils who design the ACT are well aware of the weaknesses of our short-term memories. And they’ve intentionally crafted the ACT Reading Test to exploit those weaknesses.


Limitation #1: Quantity of Information

ACT Reading’s design forces us to rely much more on short-term memory than do the “achievement” tests we’re faced with in school. This can be a serious problem because our short-term memories don’t have very much capacity. How many pieces of information are humans able to store in their short-term memory? (Those of you who’ve taken AP Psych may know this one.) The answer is five to nine.

That’s right – the capacity of the human short-term memory is anywhere from as little as five to a maximum of nine pieces of information. Obviously, the typical ACT Reading passage contains far more than a dozen pieces of information – more like several dozen! To that, consider how quickly even those five to nine pieces of information fade. How often have you been introduced someone and then, two minutes later, realized you no longer remember their name? Unless you make a conscious effort to repeat the name to yourself over and over (something we obviously cannot do on the ACT, since we are constantly reading new information and/or answering questions), forgetting new names is not the exception, it’s the rule.

Thus, because of the natural limitations of the human short-term memory, students who try to read ACT passages carefully up front, then answer questions based on their memory of the passage, are setting themselves up for frustration and failure.

Limitation #2: Quality of Information

But it gets even worse because of the “quality” of the information emphasized by ACT Reading questions. When I speak of “quality” here, I mean “type”. What type, or quality, of information do you think ACT Reading focuses on: major themes or supporting details? Unlike many reading-oriented tests in school, the vast majority of ACT Reading questions ask NOT about the “big ideas” or main themes but rather small (often seemingly petty) details. And guess which type of info we’re better at remembering? If you guessed that we’re better at recalling the gist of what we’ve experienced than we are at remember the details, you are correct!

Our inherent weakness with remembering details, coupled with ACT Reading’s focus on details, makes it even less likely that we will be able to rely on our memory of the passage to accurately answer questions. Even if you spent a full five minutes scouring the passage on your initial read, do you think you’d be able to recall all the intricacies of the passage at the level of detail necessary to consistently answer the questions quickly and accurately? Not a chance!

Because humans are bad at remembering details, and because ACT Reading questions focus on details, it makes no sense to spend a lot of time and effort on your initial read of the passage, aiming for deep comprehension. In order to answer most questions accurately, you’ll be forced to return to the relevant parts of the passage as you are answering questions. In other words, any time you spent carefully scouring the passage for deep comprehension on your initial read is a costly waste of time!

The Folly of Relying on Memory for ACT Reading: An Illustration

If you’re still not convinced, here’s an illustration to help you visualize what you’re up against. Imagine that one day your teacher walks up to your desk, hands you a picture of a city, and asks you to study it carefully for five minutes, with the goal of remembering as much as possible. At the end of the five minutes, you’ll be tested to see how much you can remember. It’s an aerial picture (taken from the sky above), so you can see the entire layout of the city. As you study the picture, you mentally note the major landmarks, freeways, and boulevards. You even jot some notes down on the picture on various sites you think might be important.

When your time is up, the teacher asks you to put the picture on your desk, face-down. Next, the teacher asks you if you can remember the shopping mall near the beach (not the one downtown). You’re in luck! You remember it! In fact, you predicted that the shopping mall might be a site of interest, so you even noted it on your map. How smart you are!

“Great!” says your teacher. “Now, surrounding that shopping mall by the beach were three parking lots: one to the east, one to the south, and one to the northwest. I want you to recall the northwest parking lot.” At this point, you’re still satisfied with yourself – it didn’t occur to you that a parking lot might be something important to remember. Still, you do remember seeing cars parked around the mall. So far, so good!

“Now,” continues your teacher. “Starting from the lot’s northern end, please bring to mind the third row of cars in that northwest parking lot. In that row, was a black Honda Accord. Remember that?” Uh-oh. Your confidence just vanished. But wait, it gets worse. Your teacher isn’t done yet: “On the front driver’s side door of that black Honda Accord – the one in the third row of the northwest parking lot outside the beachside mall – was of course a door handle. Here’s the question I’d like you to answer: was that door handle black, chrome, or gray?”

I think you get the point. It doesn’t matter how carefully you studied the map – there is simply no way you could recall that level of detail. In order to answer the teacher’s question, you’d have to have another look at the map – and probably use a magnifying glass! The same principle applies on ACT Reading. Because most of the questions focus on small, often seemingly trivial, details, it is totally unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to answer most questions based on your memory of the passage after the initial read-through, no matter have carefully you did so. Instead, you must skim so that you have time to return to the passage and “put it under the microscope” as you are answering each question.

But Wait … It Gets Even WORSE!

Sorry to say, I’ve got even MORE bad news. It turns out that, even when we DO manage to store and retain information in our short-term memories, those memories are very susceptible to being manipulated by misinformation and “leading questions” – a type of question that uses the power of suggestion to trick, or “lead”, subjects into misremembering their experience. If you think that such tactics are beneath the tricky devils who design the ACT, you’re very naive! The bad news is that, yes, the ACT Reading section uses misinformation and the power of suggestion on both questions and wrong answers (which are actually called “distractors” in the test writing profession) to manipulate your memory of the passage, to get you to think you remember reading something that in fact was never stated in the passage.

The Bottom Line: On Your Initial Pass Through the Text, Do NOT Read. Instead, SKIM!

Taken together, all of the above makes one thing crystal clear: you cannot and should not rely on your memory to answer most ACT Reading questions. And, since that is true, it’s clear that – on your initial read of the passage, it is a costly WASTE OF TIME to read carefully for deep comprehension on your initial read of the passage. Instead, you must SKIM!

As you skim the passage on your first read, you should NOT be reading for full understanding. Your goal is simply to gain a general sense of the passage. The approach here is “quick and dirty” – too superficial to see exactly how all the bits and pieces fit together; just attentive enough to get a basic sense of what those bits and pieces are. Pay attention to main ideas (often at the tops or bottoms of paragraphs). Don’t bother trying to sort out all the supporting details. Don’t stop or slow down to try to make sense of opaque figurative language, or Byzantine explanations of scientific processes, or confusingly-worded elaborations. For all you know on the initial read, there might now even be any questions about these parts of the passage. And if no questions require you to comprehend these tricky bits of the passage, any time you spend puzzling over them will have been wasted. Since you’re reading this post on ACT Reading time management, I probably don’t have to tell you that there is NO time to waste!

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