Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Boring Reading Passages
Everyone could use a little help with the reading section on either the ACT or SAT. Unlike math, which may require brushing up on long division, linear systems of inequalities, absolute values, and other impractical esoterica, reading skills readily translate at the very least to your undergraduate years, when you’ll be reading thousands of pages in fields you may find either irrelevant or impenetrable (thanks general education requirements!).
The problem is that everyone reads a little differently. Maybe you’re a fast-paced, low-uptake skimmer who hates fiction but loves history. Or perhaps you’re a deliberate completist who can’t stand science passages but excel in social science and the humanities. Here, more than in any other part of the test, there is no one sized fits all solution. But, having worked with many students over the years, I find there is a general set of guidelines that may help you to understand the proper approach to these passages, no matter your pace and reading style.
- You get three minutes for the ACT and 4-5 minutes for the SAT
Whatever it is you like to do — carefully scrutinizing every clause, annotation, skimming, reading only the first and last paragraphs of the passage — make sure you’re done by the 3 minute mark.
- Don’t sweat the details
Both tests pull passages from sources you are likely to encounter as a college freshman and sophomore. That means that even if you are an advanced reader of fiction and/or science, you will at some point encounter a passage, a paragraph, a reference, an idea, a statistic, or a literary device that flies right over your head. Expect to be confused. Do not let this derail your focus or pace. There is absolutely no need to master the passage your first time through. You may never be asked a single question about that part of the passage, and even if you are, there is time to revisit and rethink later.
- Read for structure and function
Sure, the ideal is total comprehension on your first read through. It would be nice if you can read something once and immediately regurgitate it with 100 percent accuracy. But what if you can’t? What should you be paying attention to? For each genre, the answer to this question is a little different, but abstractly, it is structure and function. That is, how is this thing put together and what does each part do? Maybe it starts with a general problem and works through a few proposed solutions before rejecting them all for the one favored by the author. Perhaps it takes a single real world case and shows how it applies to a conceptual field. Whatever it is, try to label what you’re reading rather than summarizing. You don’t need to have some abridged version of the whole thing stored away in your head before you start answering questions; all you need is a general sense of where everything is and what each paragraph does so you can quickly and accurately get to it when you’re asked a question about it.
- Stay focused and think hard
This may seem obvious, but is worth repeating again and again. In fact, it should be your mantra at the start of each passage. This is especially true on the SAT, where there are five reading passages. Reading is focus and thought. Without focus and thought, you’re just repeating words to yourself and wasting your precious time.
- Most real thinking happens in the questions.
At the end of most reading passages, you will have a rather vague idea of what you just read. At the end of each set of questions, you should have a very clearly defined and articulated idea. Most of the thinking and understanding happens through your interaction with the set of questions, questions that force you to decide between close but ultimately differentiated choices. So be prepared. There’s no need for perfect understanding and total mastery before you start answering the questions, but do understand that a lot of the work is still ahead of you. This last bit of advice, by the way, works equally well for your encounters with difficult reading in college. No one expects you to walk into a seminar or a discussion having perfect knowledge of the reading assigned because part of the process of learning is the work of struggling through it together, asking questions and attempting to answer those questions. Without that process, there is really no need for the class itself.
That’s it! Now stop worrying about what you don’t know and get out there and read something. Anything! You don’t need to be assigned passages or test materials to practice these skills. Ask your favorite teachers for recommended reading. Browse The New York Times lists and pick out something that looks interesting. Google the intro class syllabus to your intended major and pick up whatever looks most accessible. Good luck and have fun!