ACT Reading Timing Tactics TL;DR:
General Approach to Passage as a Whole:
- Spend a MAXIMUM of 90 seconds skimming the passage
- If the first question is general (it almost always is), save it for last.
- Answer non-citation questions, using Locators to find the answer in the passage.
- Answer citation questions.
- Answer the General Question and any Time Trap questions. Or randomly guess on them.
General Approach to Answering Questions:
- Read the question, striking out extraneous language.
- If it’s a non-citation question, underline Locators.
- Ignore the answer choices – first find the answer in the PASSAGE.
- Focus primarily NOT on finding the right answer but rather on ELIMINATION. Your goal is to disqualify the three Distractors – that is, the three wrong answers that fail to summarize/paraphrase the answer in the passage.
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 made the point that starting slow in order to master fundamental ACT Reading accuracy techniques (most importantly, Hyper-Literal Reading) is itself a tremendous help in mastering ACT Reading time management. 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 actually focus too much on speed, too soon. I realize that sounds like a contradiction, but trust me – it’s true.
What follows is for those who have already studied Part 1, are well on their way to becoming expert at Hyper-Literal Reading, but are still struggling with pacing on ACT reading. If that’s you, the ACT Reading time management tactics below are sure to help.
1) 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.
2) Make sure to underline Locators on Non-Citation 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.
3) 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.
4) 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!