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Dealing with Difficult Reading Passages on the SAT and ACT

SATreadingsectionThe SAT and the ACT are not designed to be fun tests. That’s probably really obvious to you already! These tests takes forever, have a billion questions, and will turn you into a zombie for the rest of your Saturday.

One of the most evil parts of these tests is consistently that one passage on the Reading section that was written two- or three-hundred years ago. Lots of test-takers find these passages more boring than usual (and yes, the people who write these tests intentionally choose boring passages), if not significantly harder to understand thanks to a confusing, older style of English writing. Many students also really hate passages about science topics.

Don’t panic! You may dread these passages every time you sit down to take a test, but there are plenty of ways to wrap your head around what’s important in the text and, more importantly, to answer questions confidently.

That’s right: even if you don’t really understand a passage, you can still answer questions about it with confidence. There are only ever one or two questions for a given passage that talk about the passage overall, such as main idea, author’s intent, or tone questions. The remainder simply ask about specific parts of the passage. You don’t have to understand any part of the passage until a question specifically asks you about it.

Rest assured, if you have a good strategy for tackling these questions, you’ll be able to pick up enough of them to boost your overall Reading score.

Okay, But What If The Passage Just Doesn’t Make Sense?

It’s always a good idea to read a passage through before you start answering questions, but you’ll want to approach reading a little differently if you feel like the passage is either boring or hard to understand.

Start, as you always should, by reading the blurb right before the passage. This will give you some rough ideas about who is writing it, what era it’s from, and, based on the title, the general idea of the passage. There might be another sentence in there that gives you some clues too. The blurb is a great place to refer back to when answering a main idea question, by the way.

Next, read through the passage and make a mental road map as you go. Even if you don’t quite get what the passage is talking about, you want to be able to walk away with a rough understanding along the lines of: “Ok, in the beginning it’s introducing a theory, it talks about turtles, later on there’s something about Bermuda, and at the end it says there’s something wrong with the theory.”

Now, when a question talks about turtles but doesn’t give you a set of lines to look back to, you know where to go and re-read.

Don’t Answer Questions in Order

Really, don’t. On the SAT and ACT alike, the test writers tend to put a bigger picture question such as author’s intent or main idea as the very first question.

Those types of questions are going to be much easier once you’ve completed all of the questions that ask about specific parts of the passage (such as line or paragraph reference-based questions) since you’ll end up re-reading a bunch of little chunks of the passage and come away with a much better understanding of what’s going on here on a bigger picture level.

Answer all line reference questions first. Go back to the important lines and re-read them. Maybe read a sentence before and sentence after too. Once again, you don’t have to understand any part of the passage until a question asks about it. But now is the time to understand a small chunk of it well enough to answer a question.

Only once those are all completed, complete the bigger picture questions.You might realize you have a better understanding of the passage now that you’ve done those other questions, and you can use that to your advantage.

Always use process of elimination. Whether you like the passage or not, identifying answers that are bad is always going to be easier than identifying the one that seems right. Worst case scenario, if you can eliminate some answer choices theDon you have a significantly better chance of randomly guessing correctly on a hard question within a hard passage. It always helps to have a little bit of an idea of what a right answer will look like before actually looking at the answer choices.

So, even when passages seem difficult to comprehend or boring, stick with it. Take notice of the blurb at the beginning and make an outline in your head of what the passage talks about and in what order things happen when you do the initial read through. Don't feel compelled to answer questions in order. First, complete the line reference questions, which will also give you a better grasp of the overall passage and then use process of elimination to increase your chances of choosing the right answer on the more difficult questions.

About the Author

Mike S. is one of our most experienced test prep tutors. For more information on our SAT and ACT prep packages, click here.