Test Prep

5 Tips to Get You Through Tough Texts on the SAT/ACT

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Reading passages on the SAT and ACT may seem difficult and intimidating: You don't know what sort of excerpts you're going to encounter, and when you first see the content, the paragraphs can come across as long and complex. We always suggest you follow your own Personal Order of Difficulty and begin with the passages you find the easiest, but when the time comes to take on a tough passage, use these five tips to make order out of the chaos.


1. Don't Get Bogged Down in Details

Though the passages keep changing, one thing they have in common is that they are all filled with details that the test makers hope will throw you off. You'll see things like complicated science texts, dull passages that go on and on, and old excerpts that are just plain confusing. If you're having a tough time getting through one of these, take a breath, step back and refocus. Don't get caught up trying to understand every detail. Remember, each chunk has a main point and supporting details. Identify which is which, then focus on understanding the main idea. You can always come back to the details later if you need them.

Pro tip: The first or last sentence of a paragraph often includes the main idea.

2. Translate in Bite-Sized Pieces

Do you remember learning how to read and write as a kid? Your teacher taught you how to read individual letters, then to string those letters together into words, how to parse those words as part of a sentence, and all the way through paragraphs and pages and entire books. It sounds basic, but if you're feeling overwhelmed by a difficult section, break it down into building blocks like you did when you first started to read. Even the most challenging excerpt will have some words and phrases that are easier to comprehend than others. Use what you understand to help translate the tougher content around it.

Pro tip: Add punctuation marks to break a long sentence up into more manageable pieces.

3. Match Vague Language to Specifics

When reading through an excerpt, circle or make a note of vague or nondescript words. Take the time to go back and match them to something specific that was already mentioned. This technique will help you better understand the passage and allow you to answer questions about ambiguous words or phrases should they arise in the test.

Pro tip: Vague language includes things like it, this, that, these, those, the former, and the latter.

4. Follow the Word Map

Just like you use a map to find a path to your destination, certain transition words can act as a map of the passage, telling you how to follow the text. Some of these, like furthermore, show that the next idea continues in the same direction, while others, like however, indicate a change of course. Some even announce the point of a section: thus marks a conclusion, because indicates a reason, and admittedly concedes a point. For more examples of various transition words, check out our books Princeton Review ACT Prep and Princeton Review SAT Prep.

Pro tip: If you're not sure about what a word means, check for indicators that tell you if the overall sentence agrees or disagrees with the previous one.

5. Look for an Attitude

An author's words provide important clues about the article's point of view. Attitude words can tell you whether the author is for or against something and what that the author thinks is important or surprising. This tactic can help you eliminate incorrect answers in your question sets. Take a look at the following example of attitude words – you can probably think of more!

  • Positive: fortunately, fortuitously
  • Negative: regrettably, problematically
  • Surprising: ironically, actually
  • Important: substantially, critically

Pro tip: Anything that's written down aims to convey a message. Get on the same page as what the author's feeling and you'll be able to deduce the role unfamiliar words must be playing.

When you're faced with a tough passage, keep calm and read on! Practice these five tips and you'll be ready to take on the Reading sections of the SAT and ACT. For more test prep tips and tricks, subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

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