The ACT Reading section is easy: easy to underestimate, and easy to overthink. The good news is that it's possible for students to address these pitfalls, but only if they are committed to changing their approach to passage-based reading questions.

Let's get down to brass tacks: most students could stand to improve their ability to distinguish a main idea. Why is the ability to discern the main idea of a sentence, paragraph, or passage so important? Beside the obvious (i.e., to achieve reasonable comprehension), the vast majority of ACT Reading questions tie back to a main idea. To understand what I mean, read the following paragraph and consider the question and answer options.

Behold the Amazon rainforest––a vast, breathtaking jungle teeming with life. Its canopies soar; its interior hums with the calls of exotic birds, the rustle of insects, and the steady drip of water that all but saturates its soil. Listen closely, though, and you will hear the elegiac call of felled trees and displaced mammals, a result of aggressive deforestation. Sense the loss as you zoom above the canopy and glimpse tens of thousands of acres clear-cut for cattle grazing. Know that what has been destroyed cannot be recreated, and that this ancient habitat is as fragile as it is beautiful.

The main purpose of the paragraph is to:

A. Distinguish the Amazon jungle as one of the most beautiful and unique habitats on Earth.
B. Encourage readers to take strong action to preserve the Amazon and its biodiversity.
C. Propose measures for preventing habitat destruction in the Amazon and similar ecosystems.
D. Call attention to the vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest and its natural systems.

By structuring its answer choices like so, the ACT can guarantee that many students will pick the wrong answer. This is because many students have trouble distinguishing choices that sound good and seem relevant from options that are truly accurate. Choice A is appealing because it's clear from the first few lines of the paragraph that the author admires the beauty and diversity of the Amazon. Choice B seems relevant because one is likely to have read similar passages that feature strong calls to action to save ecological diversity. Likewise, choice C is enticing, because one can easily make the jump between statement of problems and proposition of solutions. The fact of the matter, though, is that none of these are accurate. Choice B is wrong: where is the encouragement? You can feel as if you're being encouraged to do something, but the author never explicitly urges the reader to act. Choice C is incorrect: this sounds like something the author might do at some point elsewhere in the passage, but there is no approach detailed in this paragraph. Choice A still seems like a decent option, so why not pick that one? Put simply, it isn't the main idea.

If we cut off our analysis there, this post would make for lots of frustrated students. How do we know for sure the author isn't trying to use the paragraph to evoke the spectacular beauty of the Amazon rainforest? It seems perfectly reasonable based on the language.

We know because we can do a little thinking before we look at the choices. Here's something to remember: the choices are not there to inform one's understanding of the paragraph; rather, one's understanding of the main idea should narrow the choices. Challenge yourself to come up with the "gist" of the passage in your own words. You might say something like this.

The paragraph describes the beauty and diversity of the Amazon rainforest, and suggests that it can easily be destroyed or lost.

And there you have it. When lined up next to choices A and D, this simple idea distinguishes choice D as the clear winner. Choice A is too narrow––by focusing on a small aspect of the paragraph (the beauty of the rainforest), it ignores the broader message that the rainforest is easily destroyed, and in doing so, mistakes the forest for the trees (no pun intended).

So to all students, there's your winning technique for main idea-oriented questions: try to do some thinking after reading the question but before combing through the choices. By taking this approach, you can put up a wall against choices that masquerade as correct merely because they seem related to the ideas, or against choices that are too narrow and miss the point.