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15 Hardest ACT Reading Questions to Improve Your Score

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What’s Covered:


The ACT is a standardized test used in the college admissions process that tests a student’s skills in five fundamental areas: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (which is optional). Each section equally affects your composite score, so doing well in each is paramount. Thankfully, in this post, we will cover some of the hardest questions a student will encounter in the ACT Reading section to help prepare!


Overview of the ACT Reading Test


The ACT Reading Test contains 40 multiple choice questions, and students are given 35 minutes to complete them. There are 4 passages in this section, each of which has 10 questions. The four passages are broken down into the following categories:


  • Prose fiction
  • Social studies
  • Humanities
  • Natural sciences


The score range is the same as the other sections of the ACT: 1-36. Overall, the ACT Reading Test measures reading comprehension, reasoning, critical thinking, and the ability to synthesize information. These skills are tested across the range of subject areas listed above.


15 Hardest ACT Reading Questions


Passage 1: Prose Fiction



Question 1



Answer: A


This question tests the reader’s overall understanding of the passage. It asks the reader to identify which answer choice best represents the theme and message of the passage. 


The majority of the passage is spent on the narrator thinking about the importance of his swim, as he is swimming. The passage also spends a little time, in the beginning, explaining what led him to that swim meet, and also takes a break to reminisce on a past inspirational moment. Therefore, A is the best answer choice, as it explains that the passage was about the narrator recalling the swim and the factors that motivated him during it. 


Answer choice B is incorrect because the passage opens with the narrator already “gunning to qualify,” thus the events that occur after he has already been inspired to participate in the time trial.


Answer choice C is incorrect because there is no contrast to earlier wins. Answer choice D is wrong because the passage does not chronicle his swimming career, and makes no reference to his childhood.


Question 2



Answer: G


This passage does not follow a chronological timeline and makes references to past events whilst the main story is told in the present moment. This question asks readers to identify which event discussed happened first chronologically, not what happened first narratively. So, all you have to do is pay attention to the dates mentioned in the memories.


Answer choices F and J happened in the present moment, so those can be eliminated. The narrator swam the 500-yard freestyle the day before, and the diving well incident happened in late September. The passage mentions that it was “late September the year before,” so answer choice G is the correct answer. 


Question 3



Answer: J


This question is referring to the moment in the fourth paragraph where the narrator describes how “sometimes a moment comes along when the world slows down.” Reading that sentence, it is obvious that answer choices F and G are incorrect.


The tricky part is deciding which of the slow-motion answers are correct. Here, you can read further to eliminate answer choice H. The narrator mentions that at the moment “everything else moves around us at the same frenetic speed.” If you weren’t sure what frenetic meant, the paragraph as a whole would still lead you to answer choice J. As time slows down, the narrator appreciates that he is able to “reflect in real-time rather than in retrospect.”


Question 4



Answer: C


To answer this question, go to the portion of the passage where the narrator is discussing what “what [he] understood,” specifically starting in line 68. The passage says “What I understood–not later, but right then, in the water–was how little the swim added up to in the world….If no one else cared, then the swim was mine alone. It mattered because it was the task before me now.” Closely looking at and understanding what the narrator is saying here will help. 


Contrast the answer choices to this portion of the passage, as there will often be contradictions. Answer choice A is incorrect because the narrator says that the task (aka goal) was before him now, and therefore couldn’t be one step farther on. 


Answer choice B is incorrect because it isn’t something that he could understand for the first time, as he already knew the amount of time he had spent training.


Answer choice D is incorrect because of another contradiction later on in the passage: “Swimming, I had long understood, is a constant choice between the now and the later.” The narrator says he had long understood this, meaning it couldn’t have been something that he understood for the first time like the question is asking.


Thus, we are left with answer choice C, which is correct because the narrator mentions that if no one else cared, then the swim was his alone. 


Passage 2: Social Studies



Question 5



Answer: G


Here, what you need to focus on is not the fact that the wild apples looked like apples found in a local grocery store, instead focus on what point the passage is trying to make. There are many assumptions one could make from the statement that wild apples look like apples in a grocery store, but the author chose to include that fact as supporting evidence to their overarching claim.


So, identify the claim the passage is making and the answer will become clear. The author is explaining how Vavilov had discovered the wild ancestors of the domesticated apple and later verifies that fact: “As Vavilov predicted, it’s now believed that all of the apples known today are direct descendants of the wild apples that evolved in Kazakhstan.” The only answer choice that compliments this claim is G. 


Question 6



Answer: A


The “whittling” is a reference to the ending of the previous paragraph, which states that “society whittles the resilience in our fields and orchards down to its breaking point.” The starting phrase “and whittle away we have done” indicates that the following paragraph is expanding on that previous claim. Therefore, the answer choice should be a piece of supporting evidence that proves society has reduced apple varieties.


Answer choice B is describing a modification, not a reduction. Answer choice C places the blame on the scientists, but the passage does not state that the scientists actively harmed the apple varieties, instead it explains how they attempted to save them. Answer choice D mentions nursery catalogs wanting to feature certain varieties, which is different from a biological, unintentional loss. 


Therefore, answer choice A is correct because it successfully supports the claim that apple varieties have been whittled away, or gradually lost.


Question 7



Answer: G


Here, you want to look for words that can replace “named and nurtured” but still hold an agricultural connotation, as the context of the sentence is “some 16,000 apple varieties have been named and nurtured over the last four centuries.”


You can’t nominate an apple, and you also cannot cite it, so answer choices F and J can be eliminated. Additionally, “pointed to” is not a sufficient replacement as it doesn’t assign the apple variety any sort of identity, as a name would. Therefore, answer choice G is the best answer choice as it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence and has agricultural connotations.


Question 8



Answer: H


This question is asking about tone, so you want to focus on the intention of each passage. What exactly did each author intend to communicate, and how did they aim to make the reader feel about the topic?


Passage A details Vavilov’s experience discovering the wild apples and how he was not only correct, but the legacy of the wild apples has lasted. Passage B instead focuses on the dwindling apple varieties in comparison to the original discovery.


Passage A is not defensive or accusatory- it states facts instead of making argumentative claims–so answer choices F and J can be eliminated. Passage B does not have an optimistic outlook on the decreasing apple varieties, so answer choice G can be eliminated.


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Passage 3: Humanities



Question 9



Answer: C


After reading the passage, you leave with the impression that Berry was a quiet, modest, and friendly musician. As much of the passage centers around that, I won’t go into the details of how the author explains that component of Berry’s personality. Knowing that Berry was not as popular as many other musicians, but often worked with them on ensembles, means answers A and D can be eliminated.


Answers B and C both describe Berry’s genial personality, but there is a distinction that makes Answer choice B incorrect. Answer choice B claims that Berry’s career suffered because he spent more time socializing than practicing. Looking back at the text, there is no mention of Berry’s social life or the detriment it caused to his career. So, answer choice C is correct. 


Question 10



Answer: D


To answer this question, first look at the context of it in the passage: “Why you’ve never heard of him is pretty simple: a lot of hard-core jazz buffs don’t know much about him.” This is not meant to critique the jazz buffs that don’t know him, but explain that Berry simply isn’t talked about much. The sentence begins with “why you’ve never heard of him.” Thus, you can deduce that the answer is D.


Answer choice A references an unbalanced history of jazz, which is not discussed in the passage. Answer choice B is proven incorrect by the preceding phrase—the author is mentioning this for the reader’s benefit, not his own. Finally, answer choice C is incorrect because there is no mention of Berry’s secrecy or his family’s privacy in the passage. 


Question 11



Answer: F


This question requires you to understand the correct definition of court in the context given. So, if you go back to line 35, you can see that court is used in this context: “Berry’s geniality might help explain his failure to court history’s favor.” Here, “court” is used to explain how Berry’s geniality made it so that he didn’t gain or seek out fame. 


A good strategy with these types of questions is to take each of the answer choices and substitute them into the place of “court” in the original sentence. It wouldn’t make sense for Berry to romantically pursue history’s favor, or to dangerously provoke it, and it also would be difficult for him to pass judgment upon history’s favor. Only when “court” is replaced with “seek to attract” does the sentence retain its original meaning: “Berry’s geniality might help explain his failure to seek to attract history’s favor.”


Question 12



Answer: F


Once again, looking at the overall context of this line is important to answer this question correctly. Here is an excerpt that provides more information: “This may be Berry’s one and only instance of a solo in its flourishes, angles, ornamentations, reflexivity. If sunlight could pass through music, ‘A Ghost of a Chance’ would funnel it out in the broadest spectrum of colors.” 


Here, the author is heralding Berry’s solo work with wondrous imagery. The sunlight and spectrum of colors metaphor make it clear the author considers Berry’s work inspiring. Therefore, Answer choice F is correct.


The piece is not described somberly, so G is incorrect. Also, the author is focusing on Berry’s great skill, so answer choices like H and J that demean his talent are incorrect. 


Passage 4: Natural Sciences



Question 13



Answer: H


Let’s go-to line 33 to answer this question: “An innovative analysis of the problem by Jeremy Bailin.” Obviously, this isn’t enough information to infer what the problem is, so we must read it in the context of the whole paragraph to see what topics are being discussed. The answer lies in the previous sentence: “Theoretical and computational models have shown that a number of physical processes can warp a galaxy, so it’s a matter of figuring out which scenario applies.”


The “problem” in line 33 is referencing this previous sentence, so the answer is H: “the question of which physical processes caused the warp in the Milky Way.” 


The key to answering questions like these is to only consider what information the passage has given you, never inferring. Inferring can lead you to some of these other answer choices, but close, direct reading will always reveal the answer.


Question 14



Answer: J


In the fifth paragraph of the passage, the author explains that gravitation collisions between small satellite galaxies and big spiral galaxies have been considered possible culprits in the warping of our galaxy’s disk. Further, that the Sagittarius Dwarf seems the most likely candidate. The reason this theory is inconclusive is that scientists haven’t been able to show a direct connection between the two. 


The next paragraph begins by stating “Bailin’s study is the first to find such a link.” Therefore, Answer choice J is correct. Bailin had provided evidence with his study for an idea that had already existed. 


Question 15



Answer: A


I’ll explain why A is the correct answer choice here by breaking down why Answers B-D are incorrect, as eliminating answer choices is a great strategy for answering reading questions.


Answer choice B is incorrect because it cites a specific angle when there is no mention of a forty-five-degree angle in the passage.


Answer choice C claims that the Sagittarius Dwarf follows the movement of the stars in the Milky Way, but at a slightly faster rate. We know this is incorrect because the passage specifies that the study found the Sagittarius Dwarf and Milky Way moved identically.


Answer choice D says that the Sagittarius Dwarf seems to now be moving erratically along its own path, and once again there is no textual evidence that supports this statement. 


How Does the ACT Impact Your College Chances?


Many colleges (with the exception of UCs and some other schools, which have adopted a test-blind policy during and after COVID), use standardized tests like the ACT to assess a student’s academic strength and thus the desirability of that candidate for their school. Unfortunately, some colleges automatically reject students whose test scores and GPA don’t reach a certain threshold. 


If you want to see how you stack up and view your chances at getting into these colleges, check out CollegeVine’s free Chancing Engine. This tool will calculate your chances, taking into account GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and even background to evaluate your chances. Our free resource will even highlight weak spots in your profile and give tips on how to improve!


Short Bio
Araxi is currently a student studying Civil Engineering at the University of Southern California. In her free time, she loves to read, craft, and explore LA with her friends.