Everything You Need to Know about ACT Reading to Work Towards a Perfect Score: Format, Content, Strategies, and Master Tips

What is ACT Reading? Why does your score matter? What are the key differences between ACT Reading and SAT Reading, and how do you choose between them? What are key strategies and master tips to help you work towards a perfect score in ACT Reading?

In this article, you will find the right answers to these questions as well as others. Let’s get started.


What is ACT Reading?

ACT Reading is a 35-minute, 40-question Reading exam averaging about 30 seconds per question. The test consists of three reading passages and one set of paired-passages.  Each passage (or set of passages) is followed by multiple-choice questions designed to assess your reading comprehension skills.

Given that you will only have 30 seconds per question, you will need to read each question carefully and quickly. The test does not require memorization of complex vocabulary but does ask you to apply words in context to understand the author’s overall purpose and style.

Passages are taken from four main subject areas: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. There will be more details about subject areas and skills in this article’s discussion of the test’s format.

ACT Reading Test
Format60 questions, Multiple-choice, 1 section (all calculator questions)
ContentUsage and Mechanics, Rhetoric, Development
ScoringReading score: 1 - 36
Time Per QuestionAverage of 25 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time60 minutes

Passage TopicSubtopicsQuestion Content
Prose FictionMemoirs, personal essays, short stories, novelsContent, main idea/theme, author's voice/intention, structure/style
Social SciencePolitical science, sociology, psychology, economics, business, geography, education, history, biographyContent, main idea/theme, inferences/deductions, paraphrasing, use of evidence
HumanitiesFilm, theater, television, radio, history, architecture, art, language, music, philosophyContent, main idea/theme, author's voice/intention, structure/style, sentence placement, inference/deduction, paraphrasing, use of evidence
Natural ScienceAstronomy, anatomy, biology, ecology, chemistry, zoology, medicine, physics, technologyContent, main idea/theme, author's voice/intention, structure, inferences/deductions, paraphrasing, use of evidence

Why the ACT Reading Score Matters

  1. The Truth: Your Test Prep Scores Matter for College Admissions: It’s one of the sure things in the college admissions process: your scores on the SAT and ACT do matter. All colleges in the country and abroad consider students’ ACT scores and GPA during the admissions process. Each college has a unique process and considers the two factors differently. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most colleges look for a minimum score on one of these two tests as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the college or university of your choice.
  2. You’re Investing in Your Future – Higher Test Prep Scores Equal More Merit Based Scholarships: More importantly, college is often the most expensive financial decision most families make. More points on either standardized test (SAT or ACT) will put you in the running for merit based scholarships and financial aid. While test prep resources may cost some time and money in the short term, merit aid saves you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition in the long term
  3. Your Test Prep Scores Impact Your Future Major: A high score in the Reading section can make up for less-than-perfect scores in other areas of the test. A high grade in the Reading section can help you to compete effectively for a place at the colleges or universities to which you are applying. If you expect to major in English or Humanities, your ACT Reading score may have a significant impact on your application.

ACT Reading Scores

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the ACT Reading test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for incorrect or omitted answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 1 – 36. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.


ACT Reading: Format and Structure of Passages

The ACT Reading section includes four reading passages taken from four different subject areas. The passages are not ordered by difficulty but by topic: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. None of the topics require previous knowledge; everything you need to know will be contained within the passages. The test assesses your ability to comprehend what you read in addition to your skills in analytical reading. We will shortly discuss key strategies in taking the reading test. First, let’s explore the topics, subtopics, and types of questions you will encounter.

Insert Table For Different Types of ACT Reading Passages

  • Prose Fiction


  • Social Science


  • Humanities


  • Natural Science


ACT Reading: Format and Structure of Questions

Every question tests a skill. To better understand the types of questions you will encounter, let’s review the analytical reading skills that the creators of the ACT have in mind as they write the test. You will be assessed concerning your ability to:

  • Understand the main idea of the passage.
  • Locate details and evidence.
  • Interpret the significance of details and evidence in the context of the passage.
  • Understand the way in which an author sequences thoughts and ideas.
  • Compare and contrast different ideas or characters in the passage.
  • Understand cause and effect relationships.
  • Draw inferences and make deductions.
  • Draw conclusions and make generalizations.
  • Determine the meaning of vocabulary in context.
  • Understand the author’s purpose in writing as well as the significance of voice and tone.

You have probably developed many of these skills in school. A great way to continue to nurture such skills is to read widely, deeply, and constantly using books, articles, editorials, and reviews. Publications such as the New York Times or the New Yorker magazine will provide you with the opportunity to read high quality material while practicing the reading skills that we have identified. And, of course, practicing with former ACT Reading tests is another way to hone your skills in analytical reading.


Types of Questions:

  • Detail: This type of question asks you about a specific detail within the passage. These types of questions typically appear in the following forms “The author states that” or “According to the passage“. When addressing detail questions, watch for paraphrased answers that are relevant to the passage.


  • Purpose/ Main Idea: Main idea questions ask you to determine and evaluate the passage’s overall focus and purpose. Do your best to eliminate answer choices that are too broad or out of scope. When determining the purpose of a passage, consider the author’s tone and style and why the passage is constructed the way it is. Furthermore, do not assume that the first paragraph always contains the main idea of the passage. 


  • Inference and Deduction: Inference questions ask you to draw conclusions or implied meanings that are not stated in the passage. Often, these questions are based on textual evidence and require a deeper level of understanding.


  • Vocabulary in Context: These types of questions ask you to evaluate a word or phrase in the context of a sentence or passage. When addressing vocabulary in context questions, it is best to read the sentence prior and following the specified portion to better understand the overall context and flow. These questions may also ask you to make observations about the effect of a certain word choice or sentence placement.


  • Command of Evidence: Command of evidence questions refer back to previous questions and ask you to provide support for your answer. These questions are typically paired with detail or inference questions.


Notice: each type of question tests a different reading comprehension skill such as the ability to find the main point and analyzing the author/narrator’s voice. Preparation tests will help you understand each type of question more specifically and teach you to strategically find the correct answers.

Key Differences between SAT, ACT, and PSAT Reading

During the college admission process, colleges do not usually prefer one test over the other (if they do, they will tell you). As a rule, the ACT and SAT tests are treated equally in the admission process. Both tests have points of similarity and points of difference. In our experience if the decision is difficult for you to make, practice both tests under real test conditions, score yourself, and pay attention to your strengths in each test as well as your rate of improvement as you continue to practice. In addition, consider carefully the difficulty of all the sections before making a final decision.

Given that both tests have slightly different questions with different nuances and timing, we strongly recommend for you to take practice tests under real test conditions to evaluate which test may be in your best interest.


SAT Reading TestACT Reading TestPSAT Reading Test
Format52 questions, 5 Passages, Multiple Choice 60 questions, Multiple-choice, 1 section (all calculator questions) 47 questions, 5 Passages, Multiple Choice
ContentInformation and Ideas, Rhetoric, Synthesis Usage and Mechanics, Rhetoric, Development Information and Ideas, Rhetoric, Synthesis
ScoringEvidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 200 – 800, Reading Test Score: 10 – 40 Reading score: 1 - 36Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 160 – 760, Reading Test Score: 8 – 38
Time Per QuestionAverage of 75 secondsAverage of 25 secondsAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time65 minutes60 minutes60 minutes

Key Strategies For Preparing and Taking The ACT Reading

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Now that you have learned about the ACT Reading Test format, structure, and scoring, it is time to learn key strategies for getting a top score in ACT Reading.

STRATEGY #1: Understand The Overall Format of the ACT Reading Test in Terms of Your Time

A few immediate need to knows – 1) the entire ACT Reading Test is 40 multiple choice questions and 4 passages in 35 minutes 2) scoring ranges from 1 – 36 and 3) the passages are not in order of difficulty. The point being is that by understanding the format and types of questions, you’ll become more accustomed with an approach, pace, and style.


STRATEGY #2: Read Smart!

There’s no one right way to approach the Reading section. Some students work best by skimming the passage first; then looking at the questions; then working through the questions, doing what many consider are the easiest questions first.  Other students combine these basic steps in different patterns.

The point is that as you practice you should figure out the strategy that works best for you – and once you find it, stick to it. Whatever your approach, remember that your time is limited so you need to develop habits that keep you moving along.

A few quick tips

  • Skim the lines quickly as many of the questions will guide you
  • As you read, look for context clues (transitions, descriptions, keywords) that help to identify an author’s theme, purpose in writing, and the logical development of an argument
  • Use a pencil or your finger to keep your eyes focused
  • Questions will often guide you to lines on which you need to focus
  • If you need to focus on multiple lines, skim the material for keywords that may be in the question

Be aware that the most common rhetorical skills when reading smart include:

  • Organization and Sentence Structure: transition statements, appositives, and addition and deletion sentences
  • Style: idioms and redundancies
  • Strategy: addition or placement, conciseness, deletion, omitting unnecessary info, summarizing, and author intent and tone


STRATEGY #3: Understand the Different Types of Reading Passages and Different Types of Questions Asked

As mentioned above, there are different types of passages and questions. When preparing for the ACT Reading Test, be aware of the different passages and types of questions to anticipate the main idea and the author’s purpose.

When diving deeper into each passage, remember to ask, “Why did the author write this piece?”  “What is his or her main interest?”. If asked to draw an inference about how (for example) one author would respond to the other author, again, stay with the textual evidence and not what you think or how you would respond.

In summary, The ACT Reading Test focuses primarily on 1) an author’s intention in writing 2) the use of evidence 3) inferences and deductions 4) vocabulary and 5) the comparison of passages.


STRATEGY #4: Questions About Evidence Will Often Ask Where a Sentence or Detail Should be Added to Achieve a Specific Effect

As you learn to read smart, attempt to follow the way that an argument unfoldsIf you find yourself thinking, “Why did the author put this sentence here?” and if the sentence is underlined, be aware you’ll probably need to consider relocating it. Because this category of question will point to placement before or after other sentences, ask yourself where the sentence would make the argument flow most smoothly. If the sentence presents evidence, ask yourself where that evidence is needed in order to drive home a point.


STRATEGY #5: Determine What Kind of Evidence an Author Uses.

Evidence comes in different forms. It can come as quotations, definitions, or data (whether in a sentence or in a chart).

A. As you move through the passage, ask yourself how the author is constructing the argument.  Where is evidence introduced?  Why there?

B. If a reference is made to a graph or chart, follow the instructions in the question to hone in on the precise area that you need. Long-term implications of a graph, for example, are seldom at issue.  Mostly you’ll need to look at a specific segment of the passage to get the answer.


STRATEGY TIP #6: Be Careful About Inferences and Deductions

When asked to draw an inference or make a deduction, ask yourself what you think the author would say. Stay focused on the context of the sentence or word that is underlined.

A. On occasion, questions on the SAT will set you up to choose a point of view that you may believe in, but which the passage does not support. Remember that your responsibility is to the text in front of you.

B. This is not an English class where you are encouraged to “argue” with the author’s point of view. Stay with the text.

C. If you are asked to infer the meaning of a word, look for the context. While the SAT can still assume that you should know the meaning of a word, the ACT will give you context clues to help narrow your choices.

D. You can also supply a word that you already know that makes sense of a sentence. Then try to align that word with one of the choices in the question.


STRATEGY #7:  Be Honest About What You Need to Improve Your Score.

With a bit of honesty about what you don’t understand, you can take charge of your learning in ways that help you to master the SAT and to enhance your skills as a life-long learner.


STRATEGY #8: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Practice deeply! This is not just taking random math practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified. Start by taking several authentic Math SAT diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, we would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question 2) what you believed the question was asking and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.




Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best personal and online tutoring services to help you achieve to the best of your ability.


Test Day and Beyond

Readying Yourself The Day Before The Test

  • Plan how you will get to the test site. If it’s in a large school or office building, be sure to find out which door you should enter to register for the test. If you haven’t been in the building before, find out how to get to the room.
  • Set two alarms. Even though alarms rarely fail, it can happen. You always want to have a backup.
  • Pack your items the night before.
  • Review the test directions so you’re aware of what is expected on test day.

What To Pack

  • Photo admission ticket and valid photo ID: A valid driver’s license, school, or state-issued ID are acceptable. Remember that the photo must resemble you on the day of the exam and comply with the rules posted on www.act.org.
  • Several number 2 pencils with soft erasers.
  • Approved calculator with fresh batteries.
  • Watch
  • Snacks
  • Water in a clear bottle, label removed.