There are two main methods I suggest to students in regard to how to approach the reading comprehension section. Whichever way works best for you is a matter of personality and approach.
The two methods
Method #1: Distinguish between local and general questions. Find the first local question, skim the text until you've found the appropriate location, and answer the question. Find the next local question and repeat the process until all local questions are answered. Then, answer all general questions.
Method #2: Skim the passage very briefly. Answer the questions in order.
Most students have a time management problem on the reading comprehension section. For those students, I usually advise method #1. It's the best way to focus on solving the questions in the passage while minimizing distractions and zeroing in on the parts of the passage that count.
But this method isn't for everyone. Some students have a time extension, and others feel uneasy if they don't have a feel for the general context of the text. Every student is a little different, so you should work with what works best for you.
In the past, we've written extensively about Method #1. Today we'll elaborate upon Method #2. Method #2 sounds simple, but there are a few important points that should be clarified. Let's now give them our attention.
Don't read, skim.
Remember that the reason you're reading the passage is to get only a cursory sense of what it's about, and to obtain context for the impending questions. Don't allow yourself to get bogged down in technical details or in one or two especially complicated sentences which you can't make sense of. For all you know, those sentences won't even be the subject of a question.
Continue reading even if there are parts you don't understand. Continue even if you don't understand the entire passage, as sometimes happens with literature or history passages. (If this happens to you, see our brief list of recommended texts to practice on.) If you find that you're struggling with self-control and have difficulty moving past lines you don't fully understand, it's advisable to use the following piece of advice.
Use a timer
Timers are one of the most useful tools in developing an effective approach to time management on the SAT / ACT.
When reading a passage on the SAT / ACT, you should always set yourself a time. I refer here only to the reading of the text, not the answering of questions.
The exact time varies with each student. I recommend 3 minutes for history / literature passages and 2 minutes for others. This applies as well to each of the paired passages in the paired passages portion.
These are general recommendations. If there are certain passages that you find generally more difficult, allot more time for them.
Time how long it takes to read each passage.
If you find that you're unable to manage within the recommended time frame, try the following approach: Time how long it now takes you to read a passage. If there are certain passage types that take longer - for example, say you struggle with science segments - time them separately.
Set the timer to 30 seconds below your current time.
For example, if it currently takes you 5 and a half minutes to read a passage, set the timer for 5 minutes. When you get used to that, decrease the time again by another 30 seconds. Keep decreasing the time incrementally; your eventual goal should be between 2-3 minutes. There's no reason to spend 4 minutes on a section, even in the event that you're a slow reader or have an attention deficit disorder like ADHD. The passage simply doesn't need to be read that deeply.
On the test itself, naturally you won't have a timer. But if you practice long enough, by the time you reach the test you won't need it. Your brain will have adjusted, and you'll know intuitively how much of the passage you're supposed to have read at any given point, and at what point you should have been done.
A physical timer is best
In order to eliminate distractions, I always recommend using a physical timer, rather than your phone.
An important element of using a timer is to keep it everpresent before your eyes. Prop it up in your line of sight as you read. This way, it will stay in your consciousness and keep you aware of the passing time.
When you have a local question, read the text mentioned in the question VERY CAREFULLY
When reading the passage for the first time, you’re not meant to read it carefully. The reason is that much of the text is unimportant.
Text which is the focus of certain questions, however, DOES deserve your attention. If you’ve solved reading comprehension questions in the past, you know to what I refer. There are certain questions that begin as such: ‘In lines 37 -54’, ‘In paragraph 3’, etc.
At this stage, you've skimmed the entire text and are in the middle of answering questions. When you return to the text now, in search of the answer for this particular question, you're no longer skimming, but rather reading intently. That means not only reading carefully, but reading with the question in mind, and with the deliberate intent of searching for the answer. This time, it’s okay if it take a little while.
Even now, be wary of getting caught up in details that have nothing to do with what the question is asking.
Answer all questions for a passage before moving on to the next reading passage.
In 2009, business professor Sophie Leroy first introduced the idea of attention residue. Attention residue refers to the neurological effect that occurs when you switch from one project to another in the middle, without having finished the first project. The 'residue' in 'attention residue' refers to the attention left over in the project you just left. You then start the new project with less attention, less mental energy, and eventually, a lesser performance.
Think of each passage in the reading comprehension section as a "project". Unlike questions in the math section, which are almost totally independent of each other, questions on a specific text in the reading comprehension section are linked. If you leave questions unanswered, planning to return to them later, you end up with a lot of "residue" - attention left at various passages in the text, leaving you less focus for ensuing questions.
What do I mean by "answering the question"? I don't mean answering it absolutely, without the ability to revisit. In fact, I usually recommend just the opposite. When you have an especially difficult question, give yourself a break and return to it later. This will increase your chance of getting a good score.
Before moving on to the next reading passage, make sure that you've read each of the questions in the current passage. Make sure that you've considered each question, at least a little. Before moving on to the next passage, make sure you've answered all previous questions with at least a guess. This doesn't mean that you've given the "final" answer; you can return to it later. It does mean that you've made an intelligent guess. If you've succeed in eliminating some of the answer choices, choose from the answer options you have left. Otherwise, fill in the random answer letter of your choice. (It should always be the same letter. Don't jump from letter to letter. If you've made a choice always to choose C whenever you have no idea, then stick with C.)
That is, always make sure that you've read and considered, to at least a minimal extent, all the questions related to a passage. Similarly, make sure that you've made an intelligent guess on each, before moving on to the next passage.
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For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.