How to Master the Reading Section on Standardized Tests

Don’t know how to approach the reading section on your upcoming standardized test? Read on to discover tips on how to approach this section.


Whether it's the ACTs, SATs, AP English tests, or even the GRE, chances are you’ve encountered a standardized test reading section. These sections typically feature multiple passages taken from literary, historical, or scientific sources, which you have to read and answer questions on, all in a relatively short amount of time. As an admissions counselor, I receive many questions from anxious students about this section, from “Should I read the questions or the passage first?” to “How can I read quickly enough to finish in time?”


While this section can be intimidating, with the right strategy and practice, you can succeed. To learn the answers to these questions and see tips for tackling the reading section, read on.


Tip #1: Read the passage first and then the questions.


A common misconception among students is that reading the questions before reading the passage itself is a beneficial strategy for the reading section. However, reading the questions beforehand usually means having to read them twice, once before reading the passage and once again after you’ve finished reading and are ready to answer. Save time by just reading the questions once, as you answer them.


Similarly, while some argue that reading the questions first allows you to more easily spot important information while reading the passage, trying to keep the questions in your mind while also trying to understand the passage is ultimately confusing and results in lower reading comprehension. Save yourself time and stress and read the passage first, then read the questions as you get to them.


Tip #2: Read as much as possible, whenever possible.


Contrary to popular belief, it IS possible to increase your reading speed. The secret? Reading in your free time. It doesn’t matter what you read, just that you practice consistently until test day. So read your favorite book a second time, or pick up something new that interests you; after all, the more you’re interested in the book, the easier it will be to motivate yourself to read.


Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix or miracle solution to increase your reading speed, and programs online that claim to be able to make you a speed reader in no time are not actually based in science. The only scientifically proven way to be a faster reader is to invest the time and read more.


Tip #3: Always read the information given above the passages.


Above each passage is typically a blurb of a few sentences, provided by the test maker, that gives information about the author, the date of publication, and, occasionally, background information to the passage itself. Rushed for time, many students ignore this blurb and opt to go directly into reading the passage. However, this section often gives critical information that could help you better understand the passage.


This is especially important for historical passages, which will show up on most standardized test reading sections, where the test givers often insert important contextual information on the author and their purpose. And since these sections are at most a few sentences long, you won’t be taking any significant time away from reading and answering questions.


Tip #4: Prepare in advance for the historical passage.


As mentioned above, most standardized tests, like the ACT, SAT, and AP Language tests, will have at least one passage that is considered to be historical in nature (typically written from the 18th-20th century). These passages are primarily taken from literature or political writings and are consistently the most difficult passage for test takers due to the differences between modern vocabulary and syntax. Since the historical passage is unavoidable, it is important to prepare for it accordingly. Once again, the key is practice.


Look online for practice passages (SAT and ACT practice tests are a good place to start) and try to read at least one historical article a week. Similarly, reading excerpts from figures such as Ida B Wells, W.E.B Du Bois, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Thomas Paine is recommended, since this type of politically-impactful author tends to be highly featured on standardized tests. When you’re reading, try to focus on subject-verb pairs to help you break down those confusing, long sentences and get to the author’s point. And don’t forget to use the process of elimination when answering the questions.


Tip #5: Studying vocabulary is not the best use of time.


Students often ask me if they should be doing vocabulary flashcards in order to prepare for this section. However, flashcards or lists of common standardized test words are the best guesses to what will appear on the test. Ultimately, there are many words in the English language, and the chance that the specific words you study will show up in the reading section is low. This isn’t to say that studying vocabulary is a total waste of time; it never hurts to review vocabulary. However, rather than memorizing flashcards or lists, you would be better served by practicing reading and taking notes when there is a word you are unfamiliar with.


Reading practice will not only naturally improve your vocabulary, but it will help you to learn how to understand a sentence’s meaning, even if you don’t know a component word. If this happens on test day, try to remove the word you don’t know and see what word could be added in its place to keep the meaning of the sentence. The word you choose will probably be close in meaning to the original word.


Overall, the best way to prepare for the reading section on a standardized test is to practice, practice, practice. Read daily, for at least fifteen minutes, and practice reading historical articles every week. It requires dedication and time, but if you commit to practicing and implementing the strategies above, you will see improvement.


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