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Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Tips for ACT Reading

Is the ACT Reading test getting you down? Believe me, we know that the test is full of long, sometimes boring, seemingly pointless texts (don’t worry, there’s good news on the way!) While we wish we could wave a magic wand and make the passages suddenly fascinating, that’s outside of our powers. What we CAN do, though, is point you in the right direction with a few tips to guide your practice and your performance on test day.

ACT Reading Test Tips

Rely on the Passage

You might open your test booklet to find that the first passage is by Hemingway, your favorite author—and your heart soars. Or you might open your test booklet to find that the first passage is by somebody you never heard of—and your heart sinks. Here’s the bad news: Hemingway fans, you’re not going to benefit from your obsession. The good news is that you won’t be penalized for all of then non-Hemingway passages you ALSO have to tackle. Because guess what? Everything you need to answer ACT Reading test questions can be found in the texts on the ACT Reading test.

It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s true: the ACT can’t test you on any outside knowledge. So if you’re stumped on a question, or frustrated with a passage, take a deep breath and remember that the answer is somewhere on the page in front of you. Your job is to find it.

 Take Notes

You might be able to recite Pi to the seventy-fifth place. Maybe you have a photographic memory. On the reading test, none of this matters. With the hundreds of students I’ve worked with, I’ve seen SO clearly, time and again, that taking notes on the reading test is one practice that really separates high and low scorers on the ACT. You might be a natural reader—good for you! That doesn’t mean that you won’t accidentally get sloppy (happens to the best of us). It doesn’t mean that you’re going to remember what a particular word meant in context, or how two paragraphs relate to each other. Maybe you’re not a natural reader—this is a way to systematize your practice and conquer this section. In either case, do yourself a big favor and get in the habit of taking brief notes during your practice tests. You’ll thank yourself, come test day. 

Clarify Point of Views

One thing that taking notes will do is to help you avoid test traps. One of the ACT Reading test traps is confusing point of views. As you go through the passage for the first time, make sure to distinguish whether an opinion belongs to an author, a source the author’s citing—or if there’s even an opinion being expressed at all. A quick “author disagrees” or “pro of author’s plan” jotted in the margins of your test booklet can mean an easy point later on.

General Tips for the ACT

Identify Your Strengths

If you’ve hit a plateau in your studying, one thing to keep in mind is to keep practicing with questions in your strongest areas. Why? Because those are points you absolutely want to get on test day. If you don’t keep up practice in those areas, you might forget a principle, or start to take more time on them. We’re not saying ignore your problem areas—just don’t work on them to the exclusion of your strengths, either.

Start With What You Know Best

When given a list of problems, we’re used to approaching them from #1 and proceeding sequentially. Guess what? You might actually do better on the ACT if you skim the section in front of you and then approach the areas you know best first. This particularly applies if you tend to run out of time in the section. Make sure you’re getting the “easy” points before you go after the “hard” ones!


We’d never recommend that guessing be your first strategy—but sometimes it can be a great tool. Of course, educated guesses are far better than blind guesses—and the more answer choices you can eliminate, the more likely you are to get the answer correct. But take note: if you only have three minutes left in the section and have ten questions left to answer, you probably won’t have time to work through all of them. Putting in a random answer for the remaining questions—pick your favorite letter and go with that—will most likely provide you with greater benefits than trying to scramble through one last problem will. The ACT doesn’t penalize students for wrong answer choices, so don’t be afraid to guess!

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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is a TOEFL and SAT/ACT blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and is currently a doctoral candidate at University College London. She has taught the TOEFL for six years, and worked with nearly 1,000 students in that time. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. When she’s not teaching or studying, she’s either riding (horses), or writing (fiction), a pair of activities that sound so similar that it confuses even native English speakers. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!

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