Read or Skim the SAT/ACT Reading?

The Reading sections on the ACT and SAT can be daunting. You have to read and comprehend several passages, understand the questions, watch out for trick answers, make sure your answer is supported by the passage, and also keep an eye on the time! The last part, time, often gives many students trouble. One reason for this is that they don’t know the difference between “reading” and “skimming.” It’s important to figure out which method works best for you so that you can finish in time and get the right answer. 

Reading vs Skimming

First, it’s important to know the key differences between the two methods. Reading involves closely going through the passage and paying attention to every detail. Skimming means you lightly read through the passage to get the jist before moving on to the questions. 

How to Read

The reading method is the one you probably have used most during school: Read closely and understand every line. With this method, you typically come out feeling confident about what the passage is about, and you pick up lots of details. Careful reading tends to take more time and leaves less time for answering questions. For the ACT, you should spend about 8-9 minutes per passage and 13 minutes for the SAT. If you find yourself taking longer, you might want to try out skimming.

How to Skim

Skimming involves going through the passage just enough to understand what’s happening. On fiction passages, this involves quickly going through and getting just enough information to know characters, setting, and general plot. For historical passages, find the main argument, which is usually in the first paragraph. Then, read the first sentence of each paragraph and briefly glance through the rest of the paragraph. Finish off by finding a restatement of the argument in the last paragraph. On scientific passages, skimming involves finding the hypothesis (usually in the first paragraph). Then read the first sentence of each paragraph and be aware of any methods; however, don’t get bogged down in the details! Finish up by knowing what the results and conclusion are. Skimming typically takes less time to get through the passage and leaves more time for answering questions. 

General and Test-Specific Considerations

Both the ACT and SAT are evidence based, so the answer must be supported by the passage. Thus for both tests, you don’t need to, and shouldn’t, spend much time analyzing like you would in school. In general, skimming gives you enough information to be able to go into the questions; it also tends to be more time efficient, even more so if you choose to read the questions before answering. However, the question styles are also something to think about. On the SAT, many questions refer to specific line numbers, which means you can go to exact locations within the passage. On the ACT, most questions don’t provide line numbers, so you often have to go through the passage several times while answering questions. 

Which one should you use? 

Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all answer for this. However, I hope that this blog gives you some idea of what things you should consider as you prepare for these tests. Think about your reading speed and comprehension. Are you a fast reader that can understand what’s happening? Or do you need more time for comprehending what you read? In general, high quality skimming usually gives you enough information to answer questions, and it saves time. However, there is also merit to close reading if you have a hard time with comprehension when reading quickly. Additionally, if you’d rather closely read the passage and answer questions based off of memory, then the ACT Reading might be a better fit based on the question styles. One con to this is that people tend to insert outside knowledge, which is a big no no because the answers must be supported by the passage. Skimming tends to be the best way to approach the SAT Reading because it takes a lot of time to both closely read the passage and go back to the referenced line numbers. However, it does make main idea questions slightly more difficult if you don’t get it while you’re skimming. 

Don’t be afraid to try out different strategies. You might even use a different method for each passage type. The best way to figure out which method works is first picking the best test for you as a whole and then practice, practice, practice! 

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