10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get A High Score

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

ACT Reading can be a challenge for many test-takers. Many are intimidated by the dense, boring passages.

Timing is also a constant struggle for students on this section — it can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 questions in 35 minutes on top of those passages!

You’re also not at your freshest when taking ACT Reading, which arrives third in the section lineup. At this point of the test, many students are battling major test fatigue.

So what’s the secret to improving your ACT Reading score? Strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

We’ve compiled our very best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Some of these strategies also appear in our comprehensive ACT Guidebook, which you can grab for free below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we cover:

  1. ACT Reading in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT Reading Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Reading in a Nutshell

ACT Reading Strategies from the Experts_PrepMaven

ACT Reading tests your critical reading skills — your capacity to identify main ideas, understand how writers formulate arguments, and analyze key details in a text.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The ACT Reading section is the third section of the ACT
  • It’s scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 40 questions on ACT Reading, to be completed in 35 minutes, and 4 passages
  • There are four types of passages: Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science
  • One of these passages will be a dual passage, which contains two shorter passages
  • The questions will always boil down to key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas

Let’s look at the strategies you can use on ACT Reading to succeed.

For an even deeper dive into ACT Reading, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Reading.

You can find all of the strategies in this post and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, a great resource for first-time ACT test-takers. Grab it below!


2) 10 ACT Reading Strategies for Success

Strategy #1: Think like the test-makers, not a test-taker.

The test-makers design the ACT Reading section to be challenging. They want students to fall for trap answers and use their time inefficiently. They want students to answer questions in predictable ways.

That’s why it’s important to think strategically on ACT Reading. Be on the lookout for ways that the ACT is trying to trick you–the more you can anticipate these traps, the more likely you are to not fall for them! 

Here’s one example. The literary narrative passage is always the first passage on ACT Reading. At first glance, this passage sounds easy-peasy. Fiction? Characters? Dialogue? Cool!

But on second glance, the questions associated with this passage are detail-oriented and time-consuming, like this one:

Many students who start with this passage end up losing a lot of time.

You guessed it: the test-makers do this for a reason. They want you to waste your time on this first passage so you have limited time to get to the others! The predictable test-taker will do this passage first. The savvy test-taker will not.

Strategy #2: Prioritize easier passages and questions.

Every question is worth the same amount of points on ACT Reading, and there’s no wrong answer penalty. For that reason, be sure to play to your strengths on this section and start with the passages and questions that are easiest for you.

What does “easy” look like on ACT Reading?

Every student will answer this question differently! But, in general, here’s how “easy” tends to look on ACT Reading in terms of passage types and questions:

  • An “easy” ACT Reading passage is one that interests you (even if it’s a teeny bit of interest) — you are more likely to stay focused and answer questions accurately when you are interested in the subject matter!
  • An “easy” ACT Reading question contains a line-reference or concerns a single detail in the passage — these require less overall comprehension of the passage as a whole

Difficult ACT Reading passages are typically dense, technical, and/or detail-oriented. Many students find that the Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative passage on ACT Reading is extremely time-consuming, even if it is interesting.

Tough ACT Reading questions are big-picture questions that require more knowledge of the passage. Always save these for last (or for guessing opportunities!).

Strategy #3: Boost your fluency in ACT Reading question types.

It’s important to recognize the different types of questions you’ll encounter on ACT Reading. This fluency will help you pinpoint your strengths and cater to these.

It can also clue you in to the predictability of ACT Reading. It will have the same types of questions every time, after all!

ACT, the organization that produces the test, identifies three question types for this section:

  • Key Ideas and Details
  • Craft and Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

However, these categories are rather broad! Within them, students can expect to find questions on any of the following:

  • Inferences based on evidence in the text
  • The function or purpose of words, sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole
  • The main idea of the passage as a whole or individual paragraphs
  • Details and keywords from the questions
  • Narrative point of view or authorial perspective
  • Vocabulary words in context
  • Literary devices (metaphor, personification, allusion, etc.)
  • Character analysis

Strategy #4: Annotate the passage while you read it.

Time management is a big challenge on ACT Reading, especially on longer, denser passages. To work through passages more efficiently, read them strategically.

What does strategic reading look like?

Prioritize main ideas as you read, as a lot of the questions will concern these. Don’t get lost in details and elaborations. Take notes as you go, underlining central ideas, keywords from the questions, and author opinions.

These annotations will create a “passage map” — notes that can lead you more easily (and more quickly) to the answers when it comes time to get to those questions. Plus, they’ll help you develop a baseline understanding of the passage as a whole, which is vital for big-picture questions.

Here’s what that might look like on part of an ACT Reading passage. We’ve annotated this paragraph for its key ideas, which all have to do with the pika’s very specific climate needs:

Strategy #5: Find your answer in the passage.

We like to call ACT Reading an open-book test. Why? All of the answers are right there in front of you, in the passages!

This means that you shouldn’t have to rely on outside content knowledge or big-leap inferences to answer a Reading question. In fact, if you find yourself doing so, that’s a surefire sign that you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Get in the habit of pinpointing exact moments in the text that answer specific questions. Put your finger on it–literally! You can even do this for more big-picture questions.

Here’s an example of what that looks like.

This question asks about a specific detail from the passage, namely what a study indicates stresses a pika population the most during the summer:

We can hunt in the passage for key details from this question, including the study published in Ecological Applications, pika populations, and stress during the summer. Here’s the bit that includes all of those details:

Reading carefully reveals that “chronic heat stress” or “overall hotter summers” impacts pikas most, so the answer to this question is H. See how we could actually put our finger on that answer in the text? Awesome!

You can find all of the strategies in this post and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, a great resource for first-time ACT test-takers. Grab it below!

Strategy #6: Get familiar with classic wrong answer choices.

The ACT is a standardized test, which means it is highly predictable. We see this predictability at every level of the test — including the content tested on ACT English and Math and the number of passages on Reading and Science.

We also see it in terms of typical wrong answer choices.

Becoming fluent in types of wrong answer choices on ACT Reading can help you streamline your elimination game and avoid trap answers.

Some classic wrong ACT Reading answer choices include the following:

  • Extreme answers — those that include words like never or always
  • Vague answer choices — those that are too general or broad
  • Answers that go too far — those that sound nice but make too big an inference or logical leap
  • Answers that scramble details from the passage — the details may appear right, but they’re slightly off

Notice a common thread in these? You guessed it — wrong answer choices are wrong because they can’t be supported with direct evidence from the passage.

Students should thus get in the habit of identifying evidence in the passage for every answer choice they select.

Strategy #7: Don’t get lost in the answer choices.

This is one of the most important ACT Reading strategies we pass along to our students.

Many test-takers get in the habit of reading through all of the answer choices before coming up with an answer to a question. Don’t do this! This increases your odds of getting sidetracked by a “shiny” trap answer.

We recommend reading the question first, researching your answer in the passage, making a prediction, and then eliminating answers that don’t match your prediction. 

Hint: This strategy is very effective when paired with strategy #6 (getting familiar with classic wrong answer choices).

Strategy #8: Divide and conquer on the dual passage.

Don’t forget that one of the 4 ACT Reading passages includes a dual passage. This means students will have to read two smaller passages in one, and answer questions about both.

Instead of reading through these two passages before getting to the questions, divide and conquer! Make your life easier by tackling only one passage at a time.

  • Take a look at the questions
  • Tackle the passage that has the most questions first
  • Answer questions for that passage
  • Tackle the other passage and its respective questions
  • Complete questions about both passages

This strategy means that you only have to think about both passages at once for the questions that concern both (arguably the harder questions on the dual passage).

Strategy #9: Be literal.

Every correct answer to every ACT Reading question can be found in the passage itself. This means that students should be very cautious if they find themselves making assumptions, huge inferences, or other logical leaps.

Approach questions literally! Work only with what you see in the passage and in the question stem. Be very skeptical of answer choices that lead you away from these two things.

Strategy #10: Practice, practice, practice.

Remember: timing is often the biggest issue for students on ACT Reading. All of the strategies we’ve discussed in this post can help with time management and accuracy.

But the real key to tackling timing on ACT Reading lies in consistent practice.

Students should get in the habit of completing regular timed drills, for example–this can be as simple as completing one Reading passage in about 8.5 minutes (if you’re attempting all four passages).

It’s also important to supplement your ACT prep with consistent practice tests. Find 6 official ACT practice tests for free right here and tips for navigating the ACT as a whole in our FREE guidebook.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!


3) Want More ACT Reading Strategies? Work With an Expert!

These are only a sampling of the awesome ACT Reading strategies out there. What’s more, every ACT test-taker is different — it’s important to customize your strategies based off of your strengths.

Working with a PrepMaven ACT expert can help you do just this! With one-on-one ACT tutoring, you’ll be well on your way to strategically approaching ACT Reading and improving your score.

Learn more about PrepMaven ACT tutoring options now.

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.