ACT: What to Expect on the Reading Test

Getting acquainted with the separate sections on the ACT can help you perform better on the college admissions exam. The ACT Reading Test is 35 minutes long and contains 4 reading passages, each followed by 10 multiple-choice questions for a total of 40 questions.

The basic skills necessary to do well on this section include reading skills at the level of a high school senior or college freshman, the ability to

  • Understand what is explicitly stated in a passage
  • Understand what is implied and what can be inferred
  • Draw conclusions, comparisons, and generalizations

Students who have read widely and know how to read and mark a passage actively and efficiently tend to perform well on the Reading Test.

The Reading Test assesses your ability to understand, interpret, and analyze prose drawn from reading passages:

  • Prose Fiction: excerpts from short stories or novels
  • Humanities: architecture, art, dance, music, philosophy, theater
  • Social Studies: anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology
  • Natural Sciences: biology, chemistry, physical science, physics

The questions test your reading and reasoning abilities, not your prior knowledge of a subject or knowledge of vocabulary or rules of logic.

Common types of questions ask you

  • About the main idea, main point, purpose, or possible title of the passage
  • About important details or information that is directly stated in the passage
  • About the meaning of a word or phrase in a passage
  • About information that is assumed, implied, or suggested or that can be reasonably inferred
  • To recognize an author's point of view
  • To make comparisons between ideas or characters
  • To identify cause-effect relationships
  • To make generalizations

Each of the four passages in this test is followed by questions. Read the passage and choose the best answer to each question. Return to the passage as often as necessary to answer the questions. Answer all the questions for one passage before moving on to the next passage. Use only the information given or implied in the passage. Do not consider outside information, even if it seems more accurate than the given information.

Here are some general approaches to keep in mind at ACT test time:

  • Spend just under 9 minutes for each passage and set of 10 questions. Work quickly. Don't get stuck on any one question.
  • There is no penalty for guessing, so if you don't know the answer, take an educated guess if possible, but always fill in an answer.
  • You may wish to quickly skim some of the questions (but not the choices) before reading the passage. This prereading can give you a clue about the passage and what to look for.
  • Read the passage actively, marking the main points and other items you feel are important.
  • You can mark a passage by underlining or circling important information. But be sure you don't overmark, or you'll defeat the purpose of the technique.