“What books on an ACT/SAT reading list will help me improve my Reading Test score?” As an ACT/SAT coach, I am occasionally asked this question by ambitious students (but more frequently by ambitious parents). Although the answer is not as simple as you might hope, the following three simple tips will help you to create your own personalized ACT/SAT reading list to prepare for your upcoming standardized test!
Tip 1: Read ANYTHING.
[Note: I’m talking about printed media here, NOT your Facebook or Reddit feeds.] Upper-level reading skills are valuable on all sections of the test (even math!). If you don’t consider yourself to be a particularly strong reader, choose any book or magazine that appeals to you and dive right in! Whether you’re learning about cutting-edge technological advancements or embarking on an epic fantastical quest, reading something you like will keep you engaged and help you to become a more fluid reader without even realizing it.
Tip 2: Practice active reading.
A word of caution: even for you stronger readers out there, the skill set you’ll need for the ACT and SAT reading tests differs significantly from the one you use in English class. Reading a book for school (or for fun) is generally a somewhat passive process. You’re reading at a comfortable pace, following along with the storyline, and allowing information to sink in over a period of hours or even days.
On the ACT and SAT, however, you’ll need to be an active reader, use skimming and scanning to quickly locate and decode important information within the passages. Your pencil should be moving as you read, underlining important ideas such as thesis statements as well as context clues from specific questions. It’s very unlikely that you would read this way in school (unless you’re one of those daredevils who reads the assigned chapters on the morning of the quiz).
Tip 3: Target your weaknesses.
Passages on both the ACT and SAT follow a very predictable pattern:
ACT: passages are approximately 800 words each, and topics include fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science.
SAT: passages range from 500-750 words each, with topics drawn from U.S./world literature, history/social studies, and science.
Knowing what types of passages to expect can help you decide what you need to focus on as you prepare for your reading test, as certain genres may present more of a challenge than others. For example, some students struggle with science passages containing unknown terminology. Others have more difficulty with dialogue-heavy narrative passages. And still others may struggle with historical passages written in an older style of English.
The following books have been carefully selected to provide a broad overview of the types of texts you may encounter on a collegiate standardized test and target common student weaknesses. You don’t have to read them all, and there are countless other books not mentioned here that you could read instead (such as pretty much anything on your school reading list). Choose a few titles that you find interesting and/or personally challenging, and then hit up your local library, used bookstore, or the internet!
A LITTLE BIT OF THIS, A LITTLE BIT OF THAT
The following four books were chosen to most directly target the skill set you’ll need for standardized tests. All these books are anthologies, containing works from a wide variety of authors with a wide variety of writing styles. As you read each speech, essay, or story, make sure to practice active reading techniques—skim each passage (or at least the first few paragraphs) and try to key in on main ideas and important details. When you come across an unknown word, try to use the context to make your own prediction. Notice stylistic choices such as metaphors, repetition, and other rhetorical devices. These books are highly recommended for your ACT/SAT reading list:
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History by William Safire
This book is one of the most useful on the list, especially for SAT students (one of the passages on the SAT will always be a document from the “Great Global Conversation,” a collection of important political and social texts from U.S. or world history). Many of the speeches in this book could appear on the SAT or the ACT as a humanities passage. Practice your skimming skills on the shorter speeches, or read them out loud to work on reading comprehension (and even public speaking)!
50 Essays: A Portable Anthology by Samuel Cohen
Much like the previous book of speeches, 50 Essays contains many important historical texts, such as The Declaration of Independence and Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave. One really helpful feature of this anthology is that it has an alternative table of contents, so you can choose essays based on rhetorical style as well as topic.
Crafting the Very Short Story: An Anthology of 100 Masterpieces by Mark Mills
On both the ACT and SAT, one passage in the reading section will always be a fictional passage from U.S. or world literature. Beyond that, the literary style or subject matter of the passage is anyone’s guess, so it’s wise to expose yourself to many different types of fictional writing. Crafting the Very Short Story consists exclusively of passages ranging in length from one to six pages, and contributing authors include James Joyce, Kate Chopin, and Tennessee Williams.
Speed Reading in 60 Seconds: 100 One-Minute Speed Reading Sprints by David Butler
If reading quickly is an issue for you, you may want to brush up on your skimming skills or even look into speed reading! This workbook contains 100 passages, each consisting of 600 words. Even if you don’t use the speed reading technique suggested by the author, the drills in this book present a great opportunity to practice moving quickly through short reading passages.
UNDER 100 PAGES
If you’re looking for something a little more substantial than a short story or an essay for your ACT/SAT reading list, these novellas will allow you to spend more time getting acquainted with various writing styles without creating too big of a time commitment.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
This book is bleak, fam. It’s a quick read that will leave you feeling glad you’re not Ethan Frome. “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.”
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Ever dreamed of waking up one morning as a six-foot tall cockroach? Get ready to spend an hour in the creepy, absurd new life of Gregor Samsa.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott
Fiction + geometry = a multidimensional mini adventure like nothing you’ve ever read before.
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Because who’s got time to read Moby Dick? Just kidding—Moby Dick is a classic, and you should definitely read it at some point. But read Bartleby now.
A LITTLE BIT LONGER NOW
Our next step up brings us to a collection of titles that are 200 pages or less—still relatively quick reads that could be completed in a single day.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
This book famously caused a panic during the 1930s when it was read live on a radio broadcast. Almost 100 years later, an alien invasion still makes for an exciting read.
Candide by Voltaire
A fast-paced, adventurous satire that pokes holes in the optimistic philosophy that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This one is heavy and philosophical. You may be feeling a little existential dread yourself at this point in the test prep process.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
A heart-wrenching tale of two unlikely friends.
19TH CENTURY NOVELS
People generally don’t speak the way they used to back in the 1800s. Many students have difficulty understanding passages from this time period simply based on the writing style and antiquated word choice. However, these four 19th century novels might just pull you in with their compelling storylines, as they are a great addition to your ACT/SAT reading list.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Would you sell your soul for eternal youth?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The world’s first sci-fi novel.
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe by George Eliot
Not as “exciting” as others on this list, Silas Marner is a gentle, human story of a lonely outcast who finds redemption through adopting an orphan girl.
Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Although published at the turn of the 20th century, the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes novels is set in the late 1800s.
“WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!”
Moving on from the 1800s, another common reading obstacle arises when passages contain unfamiliar slang or dialectal variations. This next set of books will give you more exposure to characters who may “talk different”.
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
A humorous yet poignant American novel set in small-town Georgia at the turn of the 20th century.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The struggle of an independent black woman in 1930s America. Dialogue in the novel contains strong use of dialect and colloquialisms.
Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
You’re probably familiar with Mark Twain through Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but have you heard of Pudd’nhead Wilson?
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If you don’t understand some of the vocabulary in this book, know that nobody else does either—Burgess invented his own slang called “Nadsat,” which makes great practice for picking up context clues!
The ACT and SAT will each have a non-fiction passage from the broad field of “social science”. The best-sellers listed below are interesting reads that will expose you to several topics you could encounter on the tests.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
Another shared passage type between the ACT and SAT is that of natural science. Reading any of the books listed below will help you to become more comfortable reading about scientific topics with which you may be unfamiliar. Note: while all four books are written for general audiences, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was written in 1859 and is thus comparatively much less of a “light read” than the others.
Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
In addition to books, magazine articles provide great practice material (especially within the topics of social studies, science, and humanities). Pick any magazine like the three listed below and practice your skimming techniques on the articles of your choice. Happy prepping and enjoy your ACT/SAT reading list selections!
The New Yorker
Happy Reading!! If you would like to learn more about SAT/ACT test prep, please contact a Student Success Advisor for a free consultation. To start your test prep journey, sign up for a free, online practice SAT or ACT exam today!