How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading – Part 2

ACT Reading Timing Tactics TL;DR:

General Approach to Passage as a Whole:

  1. Spend a MAXIMUM of 90 seconds skimming the passage
  2. If the first question is general (it almost always is), save it for last.
  3. Answer non-citation questions, using locators to find the answer in the passage.
  4. Answer citation questions.
  5. Answer the general question and any time trap questions. Or randomly guess on them.

General Approach to Answering Questions:

  1. Read the question, striking out extraneous language.
  2. If it’s a non-citation question, underline locators.
  3. Ignore the answer choices – first find the answer in the PASSAGE.
  4. Eliminate three answers that fail to summarize or paraphrase the answer in the passage with complete and total accuracy.

Time can easily slip away from us when we get caught up in reading. Though that’s usually a good thing, it can create problems on the ACT. Completing the ACT reading section within the time limit is a challenge for most students.

In Part 1, I discussed the critical relationship between ACT Reading speed and mastery of general ACT Reading technique. If you haven’t yet read that post, you should do so now. In a nutshell, what I said in Part 1 is that one of the biggest reasons students struggle (and often fail) to increase their speed on ACT reading speed is that they actually focus too much on speed, too soon. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. To understand why, read Part 1.

That said, if you’re already well on your way to mastering Hyper-Literal Reading but are still struggling with pacing on ACT reading, the following ACT Reading time management strategies are sure to help.

1) On the initial read-through, SKIM the passage. Do NOT read for deep comprehension.

This is by far the most important ACT Reading time management tactic. Most test takers waste so much time on their initial read-through of the passage that they doom themselves to failure right from the start.

It may seem like advising a skim on the initial read-through contradicts what I said Part 1. In that post, I emphasized the fact that mastering Hyper-Literal Reading is a critical foundation for developing speed on ACT Reading. After all, Hyper-Literal Reading requires being painstakingly meticulous, putting the passage “under a microscope”. Isn’t that the exact opposite of skimming?

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

This point is extremely important, so it bears repeating: On your initial read-through, examine the passage through a telescope. When you’re answering questions, examine the passage through a microscope.

When you first skim the passage, you should not be reading for full understanding. Your goal is simply to gain a general sense of the passage. It’s a “quick and dirty” approach – 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 top or bottom 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-through, you might not even get asked about these. If not, any time spent puzzling over them will have been wasted.

2) Make sure you aren’t answering general questions too soon.

On ACT Reading, the first question of every passage is usually a Main Point/Purpose question, or some other type of general question. Such questions require you to synthesize the passage as a whole. Why do you think the ACT makes a point to ALWAYS put general questions first on every ACT Reading passage? Do you think it’s because they’re trying to help you? No!

The reason ACT Reading passages invariably start with general questions is that this is the WORST time for you to answer them. You will have a much better sense for the passage as a whole AFTER you have answered all the other questions for that passage. These other questions require you to examine smaller elements of the passage. As you do so, the general thrust of the passage will begin to come into sharper focus.

Another reason we save General Questions for last is that they tend to offer very low Points Per Minute. Even after you’ve answered the other questions in the passage and thus have a better sense for the passage’s overall purpose or point, General Questions usually take more time to answer accurately. If by the time you’ve answered the passage’s other questions, you’re already overtime (for the passage), you should RANDOMLY GUESS on the General Question. This is a strategic decision. Instead of letting the TEST decide which questions you’re going to guess on (usually by working questions in order until you run out of time halfway through Passage 4), you are making that decision. This is a strategic choice because, by prioritizing higher points-per-minute questions and de-prioritizing low points-per-minute questions, you maximize your overall points per minute.

Thus, Main point questions (and Time Trap Questions) should be ignored until you have worked every other question for that passage.

3) Make sure you are underlining key words and phrases in the questions.

The first time you work through the questions, you should underline key words and phrases in the questions you’re not yet able to answer. For one thing, doing so helps you to more quickly find the answers in the passage (similar to locators in the science section). The idea is to avoid rereading the entire question. Just glance at your underlined words and phrases and ask yourself whether you just read about that or not. Rereading the questions may not seem like a big time waster, but keep in mind that on ACT reading, every second counts.

4) Except on easy questions, find the answer in the passage FIRST.

Ping-ponging is excessively going back and forth between the answer choices and the passage. This usually happens when students read the answer choices first, instead of going to the passage first, getting a clear idea of the answer, then focusing on eliminating answer choices that fail to restate that. Students end up reading an answer choice, thinking about it a second, going to the passage to check, thinking about it a bit more, going back to the answer choice, then back to the passage…yeah, bad idea – a pace and accuracy killer. Be systematic. Be disciplined. Execute the tactics. Whenever possible (and it usually is) go to the passage before reading answer choices.

5) Focus on elimination.

When you know how the passage answers the question, you sometimes don’t need to read beyond the first couple words of an answer choice. Remember, because of ploys like bait-and- switch, you must read the entire answer choice to confirm it’s correct. On the other hand, the instant an answer choice states something that contradicts the answer, it can be eliminated. Also make sure you strike out answer choices you’ve eliminated to avoid wasting time by inadvertently rereading them.

That’s all for now, but I’ll have more tips for you in Part 3. Stay tuned!

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