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Test Prep 101: How to Answer Reading Comprehension Questions on the SAT and ACT

By Carl F., IvyWise Master Tutor

In my last article, I discussed a process for how to effectively and efficiently read through the Reading Comprehension passages on the SAT and ACT. Now, we’re going to take a look at how students should approach answering the actual questions within these sections.

To reiterate, you should always read the passages BEFORE reading the questions. It may feel like your setup is taking too long at first but the better you understand the logic of the passage, the better equipped you will be to answer the questions. To briefly recap, for the four nonfiction passages, you’ll do a targeted skim just to get the framework and build a roadmap. Once you’ve got your road map, you can answer questions even if there isn’t a line reference. Just like with passages, you don’t have to answer the questions in the order they are presented to you either. Gain a rhythm by cranking out small scope questions like “vocabulary in context” before moving onto more complicated ones.

Always remember this: Reading Comprehension is ultimately an open-book test. Who doesn’t love an open book test?! All the information you need is right in the passage!

After you’ve read the passages, it’s important to approach the questions with some strategy. This takes practice, and when working with a tutor or your own test prep plan, you should strive to implement these test-taking tips in order to more efficiently work through this section and choose the correct answer choices. When answering questions about reading comprehension passages on the SAT and ACT, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Answer the question being asked.
Sounds simple, but this advice is often inadvertently ignored. Students sometimes have a hard time leaving their assumptions out of the questions and read too much into phrases. Students are afraid of being tricked, and this plays directly into the hands of the test-maker. Students need to be disciplined in actually understanding what’s being asked. Identify and underline the actual question so there’s no confusion as to what you’re searching for.

Read in Detail
When faced with a line reference or specific topic within a question, read not only that specific section within the passage but also what’s around it. A few lines before and after should suffice. The key is to read in detail and carefully. Remember how we skimmed lightly before? That’s so you know where to find the information you’re going to read thoroughly now, filling in the skimming blanks because you’ve got a job to do.

The answer choices say what they say.
They mean nothing else. Don’t spend time trying to decode some secret meaning within an answer choice, further confusing yourself.

Three of the four choices are fundamentally flawed.
Find that flaw and eliminate it by physically crossing it out. This is known as process of elimination and it is a very valuable test-taking strategy. That flaw could be as simple as one word within the answer choice – or the whole choice itself. When down to two answers, find the flaw in one. It’s easier to eliminate wrong answers than to choose the right ones.

Use common wrong answer types to lead your process of elimination.
Run a checklist: is this choice too narrow, too broad, the opposite, extreme, or half right? These are all fun ways for an answer choice to be all wrong. For extreme choices, words like never, only, or must are major red flags. Choices using these words that eliminate wiggle room are NEVER the right answer.

Move on when necessary.
If you don’t see the forest through the trees, find another vantage point. There’s no honor in suffering for five minutes on one question to get it right. The easiest and hardest questions are worth the same points.

Here are two other helpful tips to keep in mind for specific question types:

  • For Graphic-Related Questions: Remember that if the statement cannot be supported by information gleaned using the graphic, the answer choice cannot be the correct one.
  • When comparing two authors in paired passages: Define and differentiate the perspective of each when determining how to respond.

Conquering the Reading Comprehension sections of the SAT and ACT is an important part of improving one’s score on these complex and time-consuming exams. By practicing effective reading techniques and developing a test-taking strategy in order to better answer the questions related to the reading passages, you’ll be in the best position to reach your goal score. This might be a lot to take in at once, but practice makes perfect. Follow these steps, stay consistent, and you’ll see your score go up and up in no time!

At IvyWise we work with students on all aspects of test prep for the SAT and ACT, including how to improve their test-taking strategy. For more information on our team of expert tutors and our test prep services, contact us today!