The ACT: This, Too, Shall Pass(age) - Sailing Through the Reading Test
Facing Forty (Questions): The Reading Test
The Reading Test consists of four passages, each with 10 questions, for a total of 40 questions. Each passage is supposed to be similar in difficulty to materials you encounter during your freshman year of college. The test contains one passage on each of the following topics:
- Prose fiction: The first passage in the section is a fiction passage from a novel or a short story. Some of the fiction passages are very fun to read. But don't expect that you'll have read them before. In all the years we've been preparing students for the ACT, we've had only one student tell us she remembers having read the passage before in a novel. The ACT test makers obviously don't want to test you on what you're already familiar with (and maybe even have discussed in class); they want to test you on how well you evaluate a passage that's new to you.
- Social studies: The social studies passage comes after the prose fiction piece and covers sociology, anthropology, history, geography, psychology, political science, and economics. That's an incredibly wide range of topics when you think about it. The history passages are generally easier to understand; some of the psychology ones can be intense.
- Humanities: The third passage can be about music, dance, theater, art, architecture, language, ethics, literary criticism, and even philosophy. Most students tend to like the humanities passages because (believe it or not) they're actually interesting.
- Natural sciences: The last passage is what most people think about when they hear the word science. The natural sciences passage can cover chemistry, biology, physics, and other physical sciences.
Are you panicking right now, screaming, "I haven't taken physics! No fair!" Not to worry. The questions don't require you to know any particular subjects. Everything you need to answer the questions is right there in the passages, and you can go back to the passages as often as you like.
The Reading Test is 35 minutes long. Assuming you live to the average age of around 80, the Reading Test is only about 0.000000008 percent of your life. Now that doesn't seem so bad, does it? Because the test includes 40 questions, you need to spend just a little less than a minute per question. Remember that a little less than a minute includes reading the passage as well as working through the questions.
When you're finished with the prose fiction passage, glance at the clock. You should be no more than nine minutes into the section. If you've taken significantly more time than that to finish the first passage, you need to work more wisely (and quickly!) on the remaining passages.
You get three reading scores. One is the total score, based on all four passages and 40 questions. Colleges pay the most attention to this score. Then you get two subscores: one in natural sciences/social studies (based, obviously, on the natural sciences and social studies passages) and one in arts/literature (based on the prose fiction and humanities passages). Though you may be interested to see which passages you did better on, colleges rarely put much emphasis on your reading subscores.
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