Test Prep

Creating Your Personal Order of Difficulty on ACT Reading

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Reading on the ACT is a challenge all its own. There aren’t any rules or formulas to recap and you can’t prep for the content beforehand, which means you might feel a little uneasy going into this section. That’s totally normal! But I’ve got some advice to help ease that worry.

The Reading test always has the same structure, and because of that you can break it down into the parts that work best for you. By knowing what lies ahead and how it’ll be presented to you, you’ll be well on your way to reading like a rockstar.


Know the Passage Types

The four passages on ACT Reading will always be presented in the same order and will consist of these content types:

Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative – These passages will be the bread and butter for fans of short stories or novels. They’ll lay less importance on facts than on things such as setting and character relationships. These stories are typically contemporary (although sometimes historical fiction), tend to emphasize diversity and often center on family relationships. 

Social Science – These passages will likely remind you of the essay assignments you’ve been given in your social studies classes. They can include anything from anthropology to archaeology to sociology, and the organization will use a linear construction, including topic sentences and well-chosen transitions that all develop a main idea. 

Humanities – While these are nonfiction passages, they include memoirs or personal essays that often read like fiction. Ranging from topics like dance or film to philosophy or literary criticism, you’ll find these to have more of an organic development than a linear one, and the tone will also be more emotional than objective.

Natural Science – Fans of biology, chemistry or even zoology will love these passages (well, as much as you can love a passage on the ACT). These can get very technical and will feature a lot of details. Like Social Science passages, Natural Science will also use a linear organization with clear topic sentences and transitions all revolving around one main idea.

Since the passages will always be presented in this order, it’s crucial that you recognize which are easiest for you before the section begins. That way, you can spend as little time as possible creating your own Personal Order of Difficulty for the passages and then get to reading! However, passage content isn’t the only thing that’ll be important when crafting that order.

Examine the Elements

I always recommend that, when determining which passages to start with, students should look at them first. This is the Reading section, sure, but there are things you can tell about a passage without reading a single word! Here are some elements to help you quickly assess the difficulty of a passage:

- Paragraphs – The number of paragraphs and the length of each one will impact how easily you can retrieve answers. My advice is to go for passages with eight to 10 paragraphs, with each one made up of five to 15 lines. Passages with too few or too many paragraphs will make it much more challenging to find the relevant content for the questions.

- Questions – Some questions will have line or paragraph references, telling you exactly where to look for answers; others will leave you searching for relevant text. Which do you think would be wise to tackle first? The line references! Don’t waste your time searching when there are questions available that tell you right where to find the answers. Later, after answering all the easy-to-find questions, the other questions will seem much more approachable.

- Answers – The density of each answer choice can be an indicator on which questions to tackle first. The longer an answer choice is, the easier it is to lose your focus. A hint I give students is that long answers usually answer harder questions, and short answers usually answer easier questions. That means you should consider starting with the questions with shorter answer choices.

A few seconds used to glance through the passages can save you time and energy before you even start reading. The best way to formulate your approach (and expedite it!) is to take ACT practice tests in anticipation of the real thing. Learning how to spot where you excel and where you need practice can work wonders to increase your score.

Each ACT section has its own approaches that can help put your mind at ease on test day, so check out our book Cracking the ACT to become familiar with the test so nothing catches you off guard.

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