The One [Not] Weird Trick to Reading on the SAT & ACT

Reading comprehension. It’s a double whammy for most students. (“I have to read…and understand it?!) The Critical Reading section of the SAT and Reading test on the ACT present a paradox: they exist to test an understanding of the language most students have been speaking since their toddler years, and yet are commonly the most troubling sections for students taking standardized college admissions exams. Why is this so, and how might students whose reading scores leave much to be desired improve their abilities? reading on the SAT & ACT


In academic fields, the answers to these questions often boil down to a simple but unrealistic prescription: students must read more. And it’s true; reading begets reading. There is no better way for students to become better readers than for them to expose themselves to various writing styles, a wide range of rich phrasing and vocabulary, and explicit and implicit points made by authors conveying a nuanced message. This recommendation, though, is to students as the advice to “exercise more” is to a group of overweight 50-somethings: most of the time, it won’t be taken to heart.


What, then, is a test prep organization to do? If we know we can’t turn our students into bookworms, then we must seek more practical solutions. So we use tricks, right? Wrong. Or at least not “tricks” in the way most people think of them. What we know is that the SAT and ACT choose passages that follow certain patterns and present certain rhetorical structures. What we do is teach students about  these structures, which, with practice and familiarity, can be exploited. 


A useful example arose just last weekend, when I was reading an article by Paul Campos, published in The New York Times. Here’s the first paragraph of the article (©The New York Times Company, 2015):

ONCE upon a time in America, baby boomers paid for college with the money they made from their summer jobs. Then, over the course of the next few decades, public funding for higher education was slashed. These radical cuts forced universities to raise tuition year after year, which in turn forced the millennial generation to take on crushing educational debt loads, and everyone lived unhappily ever after.

Now, let’s consider what an ACT question linked to this passage would sound like:

It can reasonably be inferred that the author would agree with which of the following statements?

A. Summer jobs provide essential funds for current students who seek to go to college.

B. College costs have risen primarily because public financial support has decreased.

C. All baby boomers were able to graduate without college debt.

D. Many college administrators provide an inaccurate assessment of rising college costs. 

Were we to answer this question now, we would be justified in picking choice B. But let’s hold our horses and take a look at the second paragraph (emphasis is my own).

This is the story college administrators like to tell when they’re asked to explain why, over the past 35 years, college tuition at public universities has nearly quadrupled, to $9,139 in 2014 dollars. It is a fairy tale in the worst sense, in that it is not merely false, but rather almost the inverse of the truth.

And there it is. Because the ACT often does not point students to specific lines in the text, most students will simply stop reading after they think they’ve found the lines most relevant to the question. This means they are most likely to read only the first paragraph above, completely missing the point that in the second paragraph, the author himself disagrees entirely with the ideas in the first. They miss the correct answer, choice D, because they stop looking.


How can we help? One of the many things we teach is that the SAT and ACT specifically choose passages that feature shifts in ideas and tone, using contrasts and other rhetorical devices to construct an argument. It is the student’s job to follow the thread of reasoning to its conclusion by noting these transitions and focusing on the messages within. We teach students to look for transition words (“but”, “however”, “nevertheless”, “not”, etc.) to signal shifts in opinion and message. This brings me to my point; rather than look for “tricks”, students should seek out common language and structures (such as the ones just discussed) that are sure to clarify the meaning of the passages they read. In this way, their reading scores can go in only one direction: up.

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