The ACT: This, Too, Shall Pass(age) - Sailing Through the Reading Test (page 2)
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.
You've probably been reading since you were about 5 years old. It's a little late for us to teach you the basics. But we can tell you how to make the best use of your time in this test. To do your best on this 35-minute test, follow these guidelines as you read through the pas sages and the questions that accompany them:
- Preview the passages.
- Decide on a strategy.
- Pay special attention to the first and last paragraphs and to the first and last lines of each paragraph.
- Don't memorize!
- Look for relationships and connections.
You're naturally going to like one type of passage more than the others. Look for it and read it first, being extremely careful to shade in the correct bubbles on your answer grid as you answer the questions.
What happens if your brain takes a little vacation and you suddenly find you've filled in the bubbles all wrong? Maybe you started off by reading Passage 2, with Questions 11-20, but you filled in the bubbles for Questions 1-10? Hey, you laugh now, but mixing up the bubbles is easy to do, especially when you skip around. The first reaction usu ally is panic; first you erase all your answers, and then you try to remember what they were. Bad move. Here's how to handle this problem: As you answer a question, first circle the correct response in your booklet and then fill in the bubble for that response on the answer grid. That way, if you mess up and have to erase your answer grid, you can just glance at your answer booklet and find the right answers again.
Some students do well under time pressures and can finish all four passages and the questions in the allotted 35 minutes. Those students often don't have to read slowly and carefully, getting every little morsel the passages have to offer; instead, they can read quickly to get the overall idea. Other students get so totally nervous if they have to rush, they mess up completely. If you're one of these students, a better strategy for you may be to concentrate on reading three of the passages carefully and answering all the questions correctly on them.
If you decide to focus on only three passages, be sure to fill in answers for the last passage. Remember, the ACT has no penalty for wrong answers, meaning that you should guess your brains out. Never ever leave an answer blank.
Most writers (except writers of literature) pay attention to the maxim, "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; tell 'em; and tell 'em what you told 'em." In other words, the first sentence of a paragraph or the first paragraph of a passage usually gives the main idea and sets up the paragraph or the passage. The last sentence or paragraph summarizes what the previous sentences or paragraphs said. If you're absolutely short on time, you can often get away with focusing on these parts of the passage. Even if you're reading carefully and have plenty of time, think about these parts carefully.
This tip works best if the passage is a complete essay or short story. It doesn't work as well if the passage is an excerpt from a longer work. Occasionally, an excerpt seems to begin in the middle and end just as abruptly. However, most passages have some coherent format that you can use to your advantage.
We see some students stop reading, gaze out into the distance, and mutter to them selves, counting off on their fingers. These students are obviously trying to memorize facts from the passage: "Let's see, the three basic elements that make up Kleinschwab's Elixir are " Stop! You don't have to memorize anything; in fact, doing so can be counterproductive. Although you naturally want to remember some of what you read, you can always go back to the passage as often as you'd like. When you go to the passage for information, you'll find it more quickly if you summarize (not memorize!) as you read.
As you're reading, think about what you're reading and summarize it in your own words. Don't make things complicated. A simple "This passage is about the difference between the way the Greeks looked at nature and the way the Romans looked at nature" helps to focus your thoughts and answer those inevitable main-idea questions.
Question: Should you underline or outline as you go?
Answer: If doing so is your normal method of reading, yes. If you rarely outline or underline, doing so now may confuse you. Sometimes students who've been told to underline or outline spend more time worrying about what to underline than thinking about what's in the passage. Highlight key words (especially things like dates, proper names, unusual vocabulary, lists of examples, key transition words, and anything that really confuses you). Occasionally jotting a note in the margin to summarize a para graph is particularly helpful. For example, next to Paragraph 1, you may write, "Need for elixir." Next to Paragraph 2, you may write, "Failed experiments." By Paragraph 3, you may write, "Success; uses of elixir." You get the idea. You're allowed to refer to the passages as often as you want; having an idea of what is where in the passage can save you precious seconds.
If the author contrasts two or more concepts, ask yourself what makes one idea different from the others. When a passage compares and contrasts theories, ideas, or techniques, keep track of which explanations apply to each and pay attention to which of the theories, ideas, or techniques the author seems to favor. Perhaps you're given thoughts in sequence. Try to keep track of what comes first, next, and last. For passages that talk about cause and effect, determine how one thing impacts another.
Question: Should you read the questions before you read the passages?
Answer: Skimming through the questions before you read the passage can help you. But you must practice this strategy a lot before you apply it during the test. The key word here is skim. Don't spend too much time on this step. Pick two or three questions to look at. Choose ones that are fairly short, don't have line references in them, and don't involve the main idea. (Questions with line references kindly point you to the passage, and the later section "Main-idea questions" tells you how to look for the main idea.) Your goal is to quickly pick up two or three things to mark as you read the passage. For instance, from a question that asks you to "describe the reason the author mentions the boycott of the corporation's products," you would hone in on the word boycott. Write boycott in the margins. When you read the paragraph about the boycott, star, circle, or draw a line from where you've written boycott to that area of the passage. Keep reading. That way, you'll know exactly where to go to answer the boycott question later.
Of course, you may be better off with the traditional method of jumping right into the passage without looking at the questions first.
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