How To: Avoid Running Out of Time on the ACT Reading Section

One of the most common issues that students face on the ACT is pacing. Given the number of questions that students are required to answer and the amount of time that the ACT provides, it’s inevitable that many students will have difficulty finishing all of the questions. This problem is particularly evident in the Reading and Science sections, where students have to do a significant amount of reading before even starting to answer questions. In the Reading section, it’s not uncommon for students to struggle to reach the fourth passage. While increasing one’s pacing on the ACT Reading section can seem daunting, there are several proven ways for getting through the passages and questions more quickly.

The most effective way to increase your pacing in a passage is to find parts of the passage that you do not have to read.

The first and most obvious way to increase your pacing on the Reading section is to finish reading the passages more quickly. However, “read more quickly” is not exactly helpful advice. Instead, the most effective way to increase your pacing in a passage is to find parts of the passage that you do not have to read. One particularly effective method is to stop reading a paragraph as soon as you’ve established what the main point of it is. Consider the following paragraph:


While the 16th century had seen an almost revolving door of English monarchs, the 17th century was generally marked by much longer reigns. Despite this apparent stability, each monarch faced significant and unique challenges that reflected the changing social and political landscape. James I, who ruled for 22 years, oversaw the beginnings of the colonization of the Americas. His successor Charles I kept the crown for a quarter century but struggled with Parliament’s growing democratic demands. This conflict eventually evolved into the English Civil War, which begat two Cromwell heads-of-state who, as non-royals, proved unable to govern the still-traditionalist isles. The monarchy was restored, and the next two kings –Charles II and James II –navigated an intricate array of religious sects who desire liberty. Ultimately, James II was deposed and the English people invited William and Mary, of present-day Holland, to be their King and Queen.


In this paragraph, it’s really not necessary to read more than the first two sentences, which set up the gist of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph is a long list of details that support the main idea of the paragraph, which is that “each monarch faced significant and unique challenges”. It’s sufficient for a student to recognize this and move on to the next paragraph. If there is a question that asks about one of these details, you’ll know where to look, but it’s generally not efficient to read, long, detailed evidence in a paragraph when you aren’t even certain that there will be any relevant questions.

The second way of improving pacing on the Reading section is to work through the questions more quickly. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to recognize the common faults in incorrect ACT answer choices. Incorrect answer choices tend to fall into 4–5 broad categories that define why those choices are wrong. Of these, “extreme” answer choices are some of the easiest to spot. The ACT likes to take information that was contained in the passage and seemingly re-package it in an answer choice. But adding just one word can take an otherwise acceptable answer choice and make it too extreme. Examples of extreme words are “never”, “always”, “everyone”, and “must”. Consider the following two answer choices: “no scientist was able to determine the cause of the spots in Jupiter’s atmosphere” versus “most scientists struggled to determine the cause of the spots in Jupiter’s atmosphere.” The first answer choice is a more extreme version of the second answer choice and would rarely, if ever, be correct. By finding these extreme words, students can quickly eliminate incorrect answer choices.

One of the most effective ways of [working through questions more quickly] is to recognize the common faults in incorrect ACT answer choices.

Another way to move more quickly through the answer choices? Do not re-read the passage after you read a particular question. While re-reading the passage can ensure 100% accuracy, if you think you can remember the answer without looking back to the passage, you should try to do so and probably choose the answer choice that looks best, even if you aren’t 100% sure. Part of eliminating pacing issues on the ACT Reading section is being comfortable with a little bit of uncertainty. In the long run, it’s better to answer 100% of questions at 90% accuracy than it is to answer 75% of questions at 95% accuracy.

Implementing these techniques takes practice and repetition. But if students commit to trying to enact these three strategies, they will certainly see an improvement in the number of ACT Reading questions they are able to complete.

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About Owen

Owen earned a B.A.from the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Owen has experience tutoring in a variety of academic areas, but he specializes in the SAT, ACT, and GRE, as well as Math and Physics SAT Subject Tests. His background and test prep experience bring a valuable component to ArborBridge’s curriculum and program development team.

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