Whether you choose the ACT or SAT as your college admissions test, developing solid reading skills will help set you on the path to earning your target score.
There are two main reasons why reading is such an important skill on these standardized assessments. First, both the ACT and the SAT contain sections dedicated entirely to reading comprehension. Second, both test other language-based skills that are closely related to reading, such as grammar and writing.
Given the central role of reading comprehension on college admissions exams, many high school students wonder how they can hone their skills in this area. Not surprisingly, the best way to improve one’s reading comprehension is by doing just that — reading.
But simply reading more will not be enough to bring up your ACT or SAT score. You must become an active, analytical reader for your extra reading time to translate to a higher test score. An active reader is one who uses his or her pencil to underline and summarize parts of the passage. An analytical reader thinks deeply and critically about the author’s choices, draws connections, and makes predictions.
With the end of the school year approaching, now is the ideal time to start working on your reading comprehension skills. Note that since the ACT and SAT require you to read, not listen, e-books are not likely to fully prepare you for either exam. Below are examples of books in three genres that can sharpen your reading skills this summer.
— Fiction books
— Nonfiction books
— Poetry books
One passage in the ACT reading section is a literary narrative, and the SAT likewise includes one passage taken from U.S. or world literature. For this reason, students should acclimate themselves to reading texts that have ornate or less-familiar language.
“Jane Eyre,” a classic novel by Charlotte Bronte, is a great starting point. A story about love and overcoming life’s struggles, “Jane Eyre” employs a rich lexicon while reporting on the plot’s many characters. Thus, this work allows students to prepare for two key types of ACT and SAT reading questions: understanding vocabulary in context and recalling details.
Virginia Woolf, author of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse” and “A Room of One’s Own,” was a 20th-century English writer famous for her progressive and eloquent writing style. As a pioneer of stream of consciousness, Woolf tests the reader’s ability to follow a nonlinear plot and decipher sophisticated and sometimes long-winded descriptions.
A short but dense read, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell is a political allegory about power and corruption. Despite its relatively straightforward language, this novella is anything but light. Every character and event in “Animal Farm” represents a deeper idea, which forces the reader to think critically and to look for the underlying messages. This mental exercise can prepare students for ACT and SAT reading questions that involve analysis or reasoning.
The ACT reading portion always contains one natural science passage, and the SAT may contain up to two, so it is critical that students become comfortable reading scientific data, which may include numbers and technical terms.
“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking tells the fascinating history of the universe. Since Hawking’s work was written to educate the public, anyone can stand to learn from it. “A Brief History of Time” teaches readers about basic concepts in astronomy and physics, which can increase your comfort level with and aid your understanding of science-based ACT and SAT passages.
Most people learn about Christopher Columbus in history class, but how much do you really know about his expeditions? His diary, “The Journal of Christopher Columbus,” provides a firsthand account of his crew’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Rife with dates, names and measures of distance, this book is an exercise in casting aside details to find the main idea — a skill consistently tested on the ACT and SAT.
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is one of the most influential philosophy texts of all time. This profound work relates the intimate thoughts and experiences of a world-renowned stoic philosopher. “Meditations” is sure to instill great wisdom in students while preparing them for abstract social science passages on the ACT and SAT, where topics in philosophy are known to appear.
Profound and deeply varied, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry has something to offer readers of different tastes. Whether you lean toward the romance of “To Helen” or the adventure of “Al Aaraaf,” “The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe” is sure to pass along some new vocabulary you may encounter in either test’s reading section or that you might wish to use in the optional writing section.
Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Prize winner, is perhaps the most renowned Latin American poet of all time. As both a diplomat and a poet, Neruda enjoyed writing about the starkly opposed worlds of love and politics.
Rich in metaphors and symbols, Neruda’s works in “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” give students the chance to reflect on author intent. Practice analyzing Neruda’s writing choices can give students a leg up on questions about analogy, tone and inference.
[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]
The works of Maya Angelou, one of America’s most adored 20th-century writers, speak to both the hardships and triumphs of the human spirit. As a civil rights activist and one of Hollywood’s first Black female directors, Angelou’s poems and memoirs touch on topics such as race, inequality,and feminism, which remain relevant today.
Metaphors, hyperboles and other literary devices that tend to appear on the ACT and SAT are all present in Angelou’s writings, which can train you to interpret figurative language. One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with her poetry is to read “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou.”
Your Reading Schedule
While the date of the last day of the school year varies tremendously across states and school districts, most students will have completed the academic year by the end of June.
Assuming students will resume academic activities by late August or early September, a reasonable reading goal is to finish three ACT- or SAT-appropriate books by summer’s end.
Students who prefer a more structured calendar can devote each summer month — June, July and August — to a separate title. Avid readers and highly motivated students can intensify the load, aiming for two books per month to yield a total of six books.
Put your free time to good use this summer by exploring titles like the ones above to enhance your performance on the ACT or SAT. Just remember that the goal is not to simply “get through” such books, but to interact with their content and become a more critical reader along the way.
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Update 05/24/21: This article has been updated with new information.