The ACT, along with the SAT, is one of two standardized tests commonly used by college admissions committees to assess your college-readiness. Most students who take it are high school juniors or seniors who intend to apply for college, but in some states, all high school students must take the ACT as a graduation requirement. Unlike the SAT, which aims to assess aptitude, the ACT aims to assess learned knowledge.

The ACT is divided into four required sections and one optional section. The required sections are Math, Reading, English, and Science. The optional section is a written Essay section. In this post, we will introduce the Reading section of the ACT by breaking down its format, scoring details, and content. At the end of the post, we’ll share our favorite strategies for ACT Reading prep. Read on to learn how you can master the ACT Reading section.

What is the format of the test?

Reading is the third section of the ACT, administered right after a break. This is great timing since you’ll already be in the testing frame of mind, but can hopefully use the break to refresh yourself and come back even more focused and ready to show your knowledge. Hopefully you’ve had a snack and a drink of water, and returned to the test ready to hit the ground running.

The Reading test contains 40 questions and you’re allowed 35 minutes to complete it. This comes out to an average of about 50 seconds per question, but in reality you will have significantly less than that, since you’ll also need to spend a significant amount of your time reading the passages included in this section.

The Reading test contains three standalone passages and one set of paired passages. The passages will each be about 1,000 words long, or will total 1,000 words in the case of the paired passages. Each is written to be about the same difficulty as a college level text and is followed by ten questions on its content.

The passages cover four topic areas, each passage or pair of passages covering each of the topics. These include humanities, social studies, natural sciences, and literary fiction. No pre-existing knowledge is assumed in the passages, so everything you need to know to answer the questions can be found directly in the text. The questions are designed specifically to test your reading comprehension and critical reading skills.

Each passage includes a brief introduction, usually between one and three sentences long. Although you might be tempted to save some precious time by skipping these introductions and starting right in with your reading, you should never do so. The introductions sometimes contain critical information related to the passage, such as historical context or specific vocabulary terms. Make sure to at least skim them before you start each passage.

Finally, keep in mind that the passages are not presented in any specific order and you are not required to complete them in any specific order. Skipping ahead to read a specific passage first is just fine and can sometimes be a part of a solid time-management plan.

How is the ACT reading test scored?

While the reading section has 40 questions, your score will not reflect that. Instead, your raw score, which is the number of questions you answered correctly, is converted into a scaled score. This is the number that you receive on your score report and which is used to average into your composite ACT score.

You will receive a scaled score on the reading test between 1-36. It’s important to realize that scaling is different from grading on a curve. Your score has nothing to do with the scores received by other people who took the same test as you. Instead, scaling takes into account the difficulty of the test you took compared to other ACT tests. Although each ACT is very, very similar in terms of difficulty, the goal of scaling is to make scoring even more consistent from one test to the next, with the same level of mastery required on any ACT to receive a specific score.

In addition to your scaled score, you’ll receive a series of subscores for the reading test. These subscores will show you how you performed on more specific content. The subscores include Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. For each of these areas, you’ll see how many questions you got correct and how that performance compares to the ACT Readiness Range. This range indicates where a student who has met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark on this assessment would typically perform. The benchmarks are intended to predict a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding first-year college courses.

Don’t worry too much about your specific subscores; your scaled score on each section and your overall composite score are much more important. Colleges do not generally pay much attention to subscores. You should, however, use this information to help guide your studying for any future ACTs.

What Skills Does the Reading ACT Assess?

The reading ACT assesses reading comprehension and critical reading skills. While your content area knowledge is not assessed in this section, your ability to apply the skills you’ve been taught during English and literature classes most definitely is.

These skills most commonly include understanding main ideas, locating details, interpreting a sequence of events, or understanding cause and effect relationships. You might also need to determine the meaning of words or phrases in context, consider the author’s tone or purpose, or make generalizations about the passage.

The nonfiction passages will usually be followed by questions asking you to recognize the theme of the essay, comprehend specific facts or supporting details, and understand the sequence or structure of the passage. The literary passage is usually followed by questions that challenge you to interpret the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters, especially when doing so requires you to derive these from clues in the text rather than from direct quotes.

What are some good strategies for the Reading ACT?

1. Time management is critical.

The ACT is notorious for its fast pace and the reading test is no exception. You’re allowed significantly less time per question than you are on the SAT, so managing your time is critical. You should go into the test with a time management plan for each section.

On the reading section, your time management plan might include skipping ahead to read the passage you generally find easiest first. Remember, your strategy should maximize the number of questions you get correct, and if you never reach a question, you definitely won’t get it correct. If you generally perform the best on the science passage, definitely skip ahead and do that one first. This way, you ensure that you’re answering all the questions you find easiest.

You will also need a time management plan for the actual reading of the passages. The best approach here varies from student to student, so you should choose your own strategy based on your performance on practice exams and how well you are able to apply each strategy.

Some students like to skim the passage first, and then read and answer the questions. Other students prefer to read the questions first and then tackle the passage. And some speed readers actually manage to read each passage in its entirety and still have enough time to answer all the questions. Give each method a chance on a few practice Reading ACTs to see which one works best for you.

Then, make sure that you practice again and again using that strategy. Just because you identify a strategy that works for you, that doesn’t mean you can rely on it consistently. Put it to practice to make sure you’ve worked out the kinks before test day.

2. Stay engaged in the subject matter.

It can be difficult to read a series of passages with wide-ranging subject matter in such quick succession. You will have to switch your thinking rapidly to adjust for each passage. One way to help do this is to stay as deeply engaged as possible in the subject matter of each passage.

As you begin to read each passage, convince yourself of how interesting it is. This might take some mental tricks, but the payoff will be worth it. Ask yourself questions about the subject matter and try to relate it to your existing knowledge. Some students even benefit from pretending to be a subject-area expert whose career hangs on the line with this one article.

Other students find that physical cues keep them engaged, such as shifting position between each article, using their hands as blinders to stay focused while reading, or even synching some deep breaths to the beginning and end of each passage.

While some of these practices might sound a bit odd, staying engaged in the material is one way to make sure that you absorb as much as possible from it the first time you read it. You don’t have time to reach the end of a passage and realize you were zoned out through a significant part of it. Practice staying 100% engaged and focused on each of the readings to maximize your efficiency and performance.

3. Use the process of elimination.

Up until this point in your academic career, you’ve probably been taught that part of interpreting what you read is subjective. When you write an essay in English class, you are rarely told that your opinion is wrong, though you might definitely be told that you could do a better job of supporting it. Writing is considered an art, so it makes sense that interpretations of a writer’s piece of work might vary widely.

On the ACT, however, this cannot be the case. It would be impossible to ask subjective questions on a standardized test. Even questions that seem subjective will only have one correct answer. Often questions will appear more subjective than they are by using vague qualifiers such as asking what the author’s most likely intention was or which piece of evidence best supports the main idea. The implication of this wording is that there is an answer included that might propose a valid intention of the author, but not the most likely one, or that an answer will list a piece of supporting evidence from the text but it may not be the most effective one.

This is not the case. There will only be one correct answer for each question, and it will not be subjective. In order to find it, use the process of elimination. If an answer choice is not taken directly from the text, it is not correct. If an answer choice does not relate directly to the question, it is not correct.

When you are having trouble coming up with the right answer, remember that all of the other answers are wrong. Start crossing off wrong answers to find the right one. Correct answers will always be directly and clearly supported by the passage. Find the evidence in the text to find the correct answer.

4. Use ACT practice tests.

The ACT reading test requires you to demonstrate your ability to comprehend what you read and to read critically at a quick pace. While you may be used to reading high-level texts efficiently, and you might even be used to interpreting and explaining what you’ve read, the best practice for the Reading section of the ACT is practice Reading ACTs. There is simply no way to replicate the ACT reading section without actually experiencing it, so your best prep tool is repeated practice of actual ACT practice tests and questions.

Where can I find free study materials?

You may find a collection of official ACT Reading practice questions on the ACT website. They also provide a free ACT study guide that includes a test overview and some test strategy tips.

If you create an account with ACT Profile, you will also have access to the ACT Question of the Day that comes with an answer explanation. You will need this account to register for tests online and to access your online score report, so it’s a good idea to open one, regardless of whether you plan to use the Question of the Day feature.

You may also find an official, full-length printable ACT practice test here.

Finally, you can find an extensive collection of free ACT Quizlets to reinforce specific vocabulary, skills, and strategy relevant to the ACT Reading test.

If you still have questions about ACT Test strategies or you are interested in our full-service, customized ACT Test tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s ACT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist