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Test Prep 101: How to Conquer SAT and ACT Reading Comprehension Passages

By Carl F., IvyWise Master Tutor

Every year, another group of students prepares for a fresh cycle of test prep, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. One of the most difficult (and time consuming) parts of the SAT and ACT is getting through the reading comprehension passages efficiently and effectively. I’m here to give you some tips on how to conquer the reading passages on the SAT and ACT.

When students begin their test prep, there are essentially three main phases of mastering the test: Math, Writing & Language (English for the ACT), and Reading Comprehension. The first two offer clear and fairly simple paths to success. The last one tends to remain much more a mystery. Why is that? Most students these days are never taught grammar rules, so when they learn the few that are tested, the scores spike upward. The math is generally material that students mastered earlier in their education. Reading though, is not so cut and dried: or so it seems.

Reading Comprehension is a very important but often misunderstood part of the SAT and ACT. It can tell us a lot about the student who has taken the test, yet students’ results are too often not an accurate reflection of their abilities to comprehend and synthesize information. The truth is, these tests that are designed to try to mimic a truncated academic setting, and because of their standardized nature are nothing like school. We must first do away with the notion that the approach you take in school will work for you here. It’s not school. You don’t get to discuss the text over the course of a semester, a few weeks, or a few classes. You don’t even have the full text, and if you did, it would be a detriment to you (more on that later.)

So how do you succeed on SAT/ACT Reading Comp? Before we dive in, I must include the disclaimer that there is a different approach for the literature passage than for the rest of them. There are four nonfiction passages and we’ll discuss those first. Since we’re skipping around, this is a good time to remind you that you have no obligation to do the passages in order. History passages have old timey language you can’t stand? Do them last. Love paired passages? Do them first. Just bubble it all appropriately and no one is the wiser.

How to Read Nonfiction Passages
Begin in the beginning. Do not read the questions first. It’s simply too hard to try to think about the questions as you’re reading for the first time. If you’re trying to remember the questions, you’re not focusing intently on the passage and you’ll likely miss something important. Since we want to minimize careless errors, let’s not invite them in. Now, here’s how to approach reading these passages.

  1. Read the blurb about the passage, so you can place it in context. The last thing you want is to be trying to figure out what the passage is about as you’re reading it. It takes five seconds, but I’m always surprised how many students don’t bother to do this simple thing.
  2. Read the first paragraph, (or 15 lines, whichever comes first) actively in search of the thesis. It’s often the final sentence of this paragraph. Once you’ve found the thesis, underline it and move to the next paragraph.
  3. Read the first sentence or two of each of the subsequent paragraphs: You want to read just enough to understand the subtopic. Because these passages are often informative or persuasive texts lifted from articles or speeches, they follow a logical pattern and it’s always clearer to lead with the most important info. If you’re at a quote, you’ve gone too far. Skip the quote. If it leads the paragraph, maybe just read the stuff right after it. Quotes are details and we are scanning for the big picture.
  4. Read the final sentence of the passage. The conclusion is usually here.

Along the way, underline thesis, conclusion, paragraph subtopics and anything else that stands out to you. You might want to write a four-word or less paragraph synopsis in the margin, or maybe not depending on your preference. Be careful not to recklessly underline and end up with more underlined than not. You definitely don’t want a dissertation in the margins either. Now you’re equipped with a road map, and you can answer that “purpose of the passage” question without being swayed by minor details.

Don’t read too carefully…yet. We haven’t seen any questions yet, so we just want the framework of the passage. It might take you a few tries to find your appropriate skimming balance. Some students go so lightly they don’t even get the framework. Underlining the topic sentences and referring back to those usually solves that issue. The opposite end of that spectrum is reading quickly but thoroughly and calling it skimming. This defeats our purpose in that by doing so, you’ve read all the superfluous information you wanted to avoid to save time, and you didn’t even save time because now you’ve essentially read the full passage twice.

A note on Paired Passages: the process is essentially the same, except you compartmentalize it. Complete the process for reading and answering all the questions related to Passage 1, repeat for Passage 2, and then you will be equipped to answer questions that relate to both passages.

How to Read Literature Passages
Simply: you have to read the whole thing. Unlike the others, which are structured in the classic “thesis, body, conclusion” way, the literature passages are excerpts lifted from novels without any context beyond the blurb at the top. The author did not intend for SAT students to be tested on them, so the important information isn’t clearly laid out in familiar places. Still, you’ll want to save the more careful reading for answering the questions. Speed-reading on these passages can be tougher because the language is often from an older time that young people can find hard to digest.

These are all the tools you’ll need to read in a way to be optimally prepared to answer the questions for the reading comprehension sections on the SAT and ACT. Learning how to read efficiently and effectively takes practice, so develop a test prep plan that allows you to hone these skills. At IvyWise, our expert tutors work with students to help them identify their strengths and weaknesses on the SAT or ACT and create a customized plan to help students reach their goal scores. If you’re preparing for the SAT or ACT, contact us today to find out more about how we can help you perform your best on test day.