If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re looking to improve your reading score on either the ACT or the MCAT and ideally, you’re in one of two boats:
1) You are consistently a few points shy of that 36 on the ACT Reading or 132 on MCAT CARS and are looking to bridge that last gap
2) Are struggling with the reading section in general, and are looking for a strategy that will give you a clear, structured approach
Both the ACT and MCAT reading sections can be fickle contributors to your composite score—just missing one additional question can bring your score down a whole point. Here’s the portion of the raw score to scale score chart for the ACT on Princeton Review’s website.
Though there aren’t any similar charts for the MCAT CARS section, the effect is similar. The point is, there is little room for error in the reading sections, so mistakes need to minimized at every turn.
Recognizing this during my ACT studying years ago, I’ve used my set of strategies religiously ever since then in every testing setting for reading comprehension. It allowed me to achieve perfect scores for the reading sections in the ACT and the MCAT, and to do so consistently on the practice tests I took ahead of the real thing.
The basis of my strategy is one that is identified in many standardized testing resources and blogs—read the questions first before reading the passage. However, there are a few steps and details in that process that are essential for transforming what can otherwise be a wasteful exercise into a highly effective strategy.
1. Set a time limit to read the questionsThis should take 60 seconds maximum. Any time spent longer than that risks leaving you with too little time to actually read the passage and answer the questions.
2. Skim the questions for important termsRather than reading every question from start to finish, skim them and extract the important words. A good way to train yourself to do this is to highlight important aspects of the question—what is it asking, and where is the answer? Highlight 2-3 words in the “meat” of the question to clearly identify what it’s asking. The “where” is usually either:
- somewhere specific in the passage that the question identifies
- requires reading of the whole package (e.g. main idea),
- asks you to make an inference outside the scope of the passage
3. Classify the question and mark up the passage appropriately
What you do next will depend on the “where” assessment that you make for each question:
If a question refers you to a specific section of the passage (e.g. lines 21-24), IMMEDIATELY go to that section of the passage. Do NOT read it but simply underline or highlight the contents of that section. Then move on to the next question.
If a question refers to the main idea: write the number of the question in the empty space below the end of the passage.
If a question asks you to make an outside inference: answer this question last. You do not need to mark anything up. The danger here is that you forget about the question, so find a method that works for you to make sure you don’t skip it on accident. On the ACT, i put a giant star next to it, while on the MCAT I just flag the question (since the test is on the computer) and then un-flag it after I’ve answered.
Do this for every question for a given passage in under 60 seconds. It seems like a lot, but once you get comfortable with this process, this can be done pretty easily in about 30 seconds.
4. Read the passage/Answer the questions:Every time you encounter a highlight in the passage because it references a specific word or section that a question asks about, stop reading and IMMEDIATELY go to the question and answer it. This maximizes the chance you get it correct since the content is fresh in your mind and uninfluenced by irrelevant details in the rest of the passage. You also save time because you do not have to return and re-read the same section later.
Once you reach the end of the passage, you should have answered 2-4 questions already, depending obviously on how many questions existed asked about a specific part of the
As soon as you finish the passage, think about the main idea that you are left with upon concluding. Briefly review the passage to verify whether that main idea is supported by the structure of the paragraphs, and note any counter-arguments or contradictions. Alter the main idea in your head accordingly.
As soon as you finish that process, immediately answer all of the questions that refer to the passage as a whole. These questions can be about main idea, author’s attitudes and tone, organization, etc.
Answer remaining questions that did not fit any of the above molds.
Verify that every question has been answered, and move on to the next passage.
The reason this strategy works is for two main reasons:
It is time-efficient because you are answering the questions while reading the passage, and you are reading the passage with knowledge of the types of questions you are going to be asked. This primes your memory—you can focus on aspects of the passage you know are important, while using less of your attention on details that have nothing to do with the questions. Also, once you finish reading the passage, you might even be done with answering half the questions.
It decreases the amount of time between finishing the passage and answer the last question. Many mistakes are a product of forgetting some aspect of the passage by the time you’re answering the question. Since you’re answering the questions on a specific section immediately after reading that section, and answering the rest of the questions after finishing the passage, this minimizes that risk.
This strategy is slightly more difficult to use on the MCAT since it is computer based and you can’t write on the actual test, but I made sure to practice beforehand by writing on a piece of scratch paper to classify the questions. Though it may seem challenging, this strategy only takes a little practice until it becomes second nature, and the benefits—faster completion, fewer mistakes—are worth it.
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