Unlike many high school English classes, the SAT and ACT reading sections do not leave a lot of room for creative interpretations of passages. Instead, these sections involve “close readings” of texts — they ask you to carefully read a passage and use evidence from the text to support your answers. In this way, these exams test the type of critical reading skills you will use in college. Even though there are many differences between standardized tests and the reading you will complete in college classes, our critical reading strategies can help you to do well on the exams you’ll take to get into your dream school, and successfully tackle challenging texts you’ll encounter once you’re there.
Strategy 1: Get into the habit of pre-reading
It’s a lot easier to understand a passage when you have some context about what you’re reading. In college, professors will often introduce reading assignments to you or encourage you to do some research to introduce the readings to yourself. There’s no exact way to replicate this on the SAT or ACT, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get an idea of what a passage is about before reading it. In order to contextualize often complex and confusing excerpts on the SAT or ACT, the first thing you should read is the short paragraph that comes right before each passage, which will give you the title, author, and year the text was written. After that, you can try reading the questions that accompany a passage, which will indicate what you should focus on when reading. These pre-reading exercises will set you up for success by framing a passage’s big picture.
Strategy 2: Refrain from using too much background knowledge
All reading involves the reader’s own observations and knowledge, but it’s often best to limit your use of background knowledge on the book or topic of a given SAT or ACT reading passage. This is because relying on background knowledge will enable you to draw on past experience rather than on evidence from the text when answering questions. It’s helpful to have some knowledge of the book, article, or topic at hand for context purposes, but keep in mind that this should not be at the expense of a careful reading of the author’s argument (in the case of nonfiction texts) or literary narrative (in the case of fiction texts).
Strategy 3: Learn how to skim texts effectively
On the SAT or ACT, as in college, you’ll find that you have a limited amount of time to do quite a bit of reading. We’re sure that you’ve heard the advice of skimming passages before, but how exactly do you do that? Rather than skipping over lines and paragraphs, focus on increasing your reading speed while honing in on the key parts of a text. In the case of the SAT and ACT, these are the parts that address the questions. One way to do this is to stop “hearing” each word in your head as you read. Our brains can process information faster than we mentally create word sounds, so reading without echoing the sounds of words in your head will help you move through passages more efficiently. We also advise that you track the text with a pencil or with your finger, which will level out the speed at which your brain sees and understands the words.
Strategy 4: Underline key parts of each passage
As you’re skimming an SAT or ACT reading passage, underline the parts that relate to key words from the questions. This will help you to actively engage with the content rather than passively look over words. When underlining, it’s important to strike a balance — you don’t want to leave the entire page unmarked, but you also don’t want to underline everything. Instead, focus on key words and phrases from the questions, and underline phrases and lines from the text that are associated with them. This will help you both to determine what matters in the text, and easily find a way back into the passage as you work through the questions.
Strategy 5: Use what you know to figure out what you don’t
You will often encounter words you don’t know as part of vocabulary-in-context questions on the SAT and ACT reading sections. No matter how much you’ve read, it’s impossible to know every word that could appear on these exams. The good news is that we need all parts of a sentence to express a thought, meaning that you can use context clues to figure out the meaning of a word you’re not familiar with. To do this, read the sentence with the word in question, as well as the surrounding sentences. Then, using your understanding of these sentences, determine whether the word is positive, negative, or neutral. Finally, substitute a word that makes sense in the context of the sentence. You can also apply this strategy to clarify confusing phrases and sentences.
Jumping over SAT and ACT reading section hurdles can be a daunting task, but with a combination of strategic thinking and practice, you can not only succeed on these standardized tests, but also prepare yourself for the challenges of reading texts in college and beyond.