How to Prepare for the ACT Reading Test + 15 Tips

Picture of a young high school student sitting at their desk prepping for the ACT Reading test
Updated:
February 5, 2024
7 min read
Contents

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/5/24

The ACT reading test measures your ability to understand written content. Read on for some ACT reading tips to learn how to prepare for the test! 

ACT reading is one of the shortest sections in the test (besides the ACT science test), but it doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. To ensure you're prepared for the ACT reading section, read on to learn more about the section format and get some ACT reading tips to help you ace the section with ease! 

15 ACT Reading Tips to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

While practice tests and sifting through guides are practical first steps in your ACT prep, there are some ACT reading tips you can use for more speed and accuracy on test day. 

Familiarize Yourself With the Test Structure

The ACT Reading Test is 35 minutes long, which you should keep in mind. It comes right after a 15-minute break. It’s important that you understand the format of the section so that you don’t waste time figuring out what to do. 

In this section, you'll read four passages. Each passage has 10 questions. That makes a total of 40 multiple-choice questions. You'll have four choices for each question.

The passages always come in the same order: Prose Fiction, Social Studies, Humanities, and Natural Sciences. But you can choose which passage to read first. Begin with the type of passage you're best at, then go from there.

Read All of the Questions First

Review the questions before reading the passage. This will give you insight into the key details to focus on during your reading. You'll also avoid losing time on irrelevant information that might not even feature in the questions. This proactive approach enhances your comprehension and streamlines your reading process, making it more efficient and targeted.

Look Out for Transition Words

Transition shifts in the passage's ideas help you follow the author's argument or narrative. Transition words indicate relationships between ideas, such as cause and effect or comparison and contrast. Paying attention to them helps you grasp the passage's flow and answer questions more effectively.

Brush Up On Your Skimming Skills 

Skimming is a time-saving necessity in the ACT reading section; hanging on to every word on your first read-through can eat up time. A good rule of thumb for skimming is to spend more time on the first and last sentences of paragraphs to get a broad idea of the text’s message. 

Because there are so many questions for each passage, we typically recommend you skim the passage first before looking at the questions. 

Order Your Passages 

to-do list on paper

Whether you love social science or literary narratives, you can begin with whatever passage you want. No rule says you must complete them in order. Start with whichever passage you consider most straightforward; it can help build your confidence! 

Don’t Search Outside Line References 

If the question asks you to evaluate information from lines 22-26, don’t search for content in 21 or 27: you’ll have enough information from those lines to find your answer. 

Try to Predict Your Answers

There's a good chance you'll know some answers after your first skim through. After your first read-through, you can look at the questions and try to "predict" the answer before looking at your options: it may be correct if your prediction matches one of the options. 

Be Wary of Some Answers 

The ACT reading section can get a little tricky. Ambiguous answers can confuse students, as can options that are too broad, too narrow, or use the same words as the passage, even if it's wrong. Be careful with answers that include "always, never, best, worst," or any other "extreme" words. They can sometimes be there to trip you up. 

female student working on laptop

Use the Process of Elimination

While you can use the process of elimination in all ACT sections, it can be especially helpful in ACT reading. Cross out answers you know can't be correct: your chances of getting the correct answer can immediately increase from 25% to 50%. 

Check Out the Pre-Passage Description 

Many students skip the pre-passage descriptions, but a glance can give you more context about the author, when the text was written, and any other background knowledge that can give you more insight into the author's point of view. 

The ACT is an Open-Book Test; Use It to Your Advantage

Since the ACT is open-book, there is no required reading preparation for any of the passages. The easiest thing about the ACT reading test is that all the information is given to you. You just need to use your comprehension skills to answer them correctly.

Use the ‘Short Note’ Method for ACT Reading Comprehension

Student highlighting page

When you read each passage, it helps to write short notes or underline words or phrases that you think would help you answer the questions. Focus on the topic and purpose of the passage and keep track of any differing opinions stated. 

This way, you can locate helpful hints. Try predicting an answer before looking at the choices so you already have a proper framework of what you will write down.

Find the Author’s Point of View 

Try not to get lost in the details of the passage, or read too quickly and miss the important information. In this test, you have to look for the author’s perspective and the function of each paragraph, and remember the location of the details in case you need to refer to them later.

For Vocabulary in Context Questions, Refer Back to Passage

eyeglasses on top of open book

A word that is commonly used in modern-day language may take on a different definition within the ACT reading passages. Do not assume that the common meaning of a word in the passage is correct; one word can have several meanings you do not know. 

For example, when you hear ‘murder’ you think of an attempt to take someone’s life; however, a murder can also mean a pack of crows. Refer back to the passage to see what context the word is being used in.

Simplify Complicated Questions

If there is a question that seems confusing or unclear, try to rephrase it to make it simpler. Here’s a suggestion: how would you explain the question to a small child? What is the question asking?

These ACT reading section tips can give you the confidence you need to ace the test!

ACT Reading Test Format 

The ACT reading section requires you to answer 40 multiple-choice questions within 35 minutes. You’ll be presented with four passages: three long and one broken up into two shorter passages. Four main groups characterize passages: 

  • Literary Narrative 
  • Social Studies 
  • Humanities 
  • Natural Science

There are also different question types you should be aware of. 

Question marks

Question Types

Five scores are reported based on your performance: an overall section score, three reporting scores (covered below), and an “Understanding Complex Texts indicator.” 

Key Ideas and Details (52-60% of Questions) 

This reporting area reflects your ability to: 

  • Understand central ideas and themes 
  • Summarize information and ideas 
  • Understand relationships (including sequential, comparative, and cause-effect) to infer and draw logical conclusions 

These questions measure your proficiency in determining "big picture" ideas and the ability to differentiate key information from text. 

Craft and Structure (25-30% of Questions)

Craft and structure questions focus on the more technical aspects of the writing you evaluate, including word and phrasing choices. This metric measures your ability to:

  • Analyze the author’s choices of words or phrases and the text’s structure 
  • Understand the author’s POV/perspective 
  • Examine the POV/perspective of characters or individuals referenced in the text 

Overall, these questions are about analyzing why the author made particular choices and understanding perspectives and points of view. 

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13-23% of Questions) 

This reporting area measures your ability to: 

  • Recognize the differences between facts and opinions 
  • Identify connections between related topics in different texts 
  • Evaluate how authors construct their arguments 
  • Evaluate evidence from multiple sources 

Overall, this category focuses on your ability to differentiate between fact and opinion and connect ideas. 

Understanding the exam format and question types is imperative to preparing for the section and knowing what’s required of you. Remember, most question types focus on central themes and ideas!

ACT Reading Score Scale

Along with ACT reading tips, you can also prepare for the test by familiarizing yourself with the scoring system. The reading score scale measures your score by the structure and depth of your answer. 

Your ACT score is graded by counting the number of questions on each section that you answer correctly. There is no penalty for guessing or getting it wrong. Then, your raw score is converted into ‘scale scores.’ Score scales refer to a raw score that has been converted into the consistent and standardized ACT scoring scale. 

Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled
40 36 29 26 18 18 7 10
39 35 28 25 17 17 6 10
38 34 27 24 16 16 5 8
37 33 26 23 15 16 4 7
36 32 25 23 14 15 3 6
35 32 24 22 13 14 2 5
34 31 23 21 12 14 1 3
33 30 22 21 11 13 0 1
32 29 21 20 10 12 - -
31 28 20 19 9 12 - -
30 27 19 19 8 11 - -

All scores are converted the same, regardless of the year or school. You will have a composite score that consists of your scores from all sections of the ACT. The lowest score is 1, the highest is 36

All your scores are averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number. Your ACT score will be reported and aligned with the ACT College and Career Readiness Standards as well as other standards that target college and career preparation.

ACT Reading Practice Tests

male student reading textbook

One of the best ACT reading tips is to use practice tests often! Practice tests are an excellent way to help you prepare for the ACT. 

Here’s how practice tests can make the most out of your ACT preparation: 

  • Get comfortable with test content: ACT reading practice tests help you become more comfortable with the content and can help increase your speed and accuracy over time. 
  • Simulate test day conditions: By timing yourself, turning off your phone, and practicing in a quiet environment, you can get as close to test day conditions as possible. This type of ACT reading practice can make test day feel more comfortable: you’ve been practicing for this! 
  • Setting your target score from your initial score: Completing a practice test before studying determines your initial score. This score can help you identify a reasonable target score to strive for as you study. 
  • Benefit from the “testing effect:” The testing effect means that taking practice tests is a “retrieval practice:” meaning “you are actively recalling information, which leads to improved ability to recall later on (on the exam!).” 

Let’s look at some practice test questions you may stumble upon as you study. 

ACT Reading Practice Question

Evaluating ACT reading passages is an excellent study tool to help you get used to the types of questions you’ll see. Read this ACT passage here to help you better understand the questions below: 

Source: ACT.org

If you click on the above link and read this passage, the correct answer is C. The person telling this story is never identified, even though they know a lot of information about the main character.

Sample ACT Reading question

Source: ACT.org

The answer is H. The author states in the first paragraph that “Abshu's goal was to expand the horizons of the children he worked with.” You can find evidence to support this answer in lines two to five and 12. 

ACT Reading Example Question

Source: ACT.org

The answer is H. Pay attention when questions ask about specific lines and don’t look for information outside them. Information about what Abshu remembered is referenced in the fifth paragraph, not the fourth.

ACT.org has a free ACT reading exam for you to practice with. ACT reading practice is crucial to performing well on the test! 

If you want to know if you’re ready to take the ACT, check out this free quiz

FAQs: ACT Reading Test 

If you still have questions about the ACT reading test prep, check out these FAQs! 

1. How Do I Practice for the ACT Reading Test? 

To practice, you can take ACT practice tests, engage with college-level texts, and evaluate the main idea and author's POVs of what you read. 

2. Is ACT Reading Hard? 

The answer depends on your reading comprehension level and skill in interacting with texts. On average, you have less than one minute to answer each question: many people may consider that difficult. 

3. What Is a Good ACT Reading Score? 

The answer is subjective and depends on what your definition of a “good” ACT score is. The average ACT reading score is 20.1. However, if you consider anything above the 75th percentile good, you’ll want to score a 26 or higher: it depends on your goals. 

4. How Long Do You Have to Complete the ACT Reading Test? 

You have 35 minutes to complete 40 questions. 

5. What Types of Questions Are on the ACT Reading Test? 

You'll see questions about main themes, word choice and text structure, author POV, interactions with other texts, and more. The ACT recently added one visual element per test that will have you evaluate a graph, figure, or table related to the text. 

6. Are ACT Reading Questions in Order? 

The ACT reading questions may or may not be in chronological order. You may have to flip back and forth between different sections of the passage. 

7. How Many Questions Are on the ACT Reading Test? 

There are always 40 questions in the reading section. 

Final Thoughts

While reading through passages can take time, the ACT reading tips in this guide can help you navigate this section more efficiently. To prepare for the test, ensure you do enough ACT reading practice to help you get more comfortable with the content. With enough preparation, you can confidently ace the ACT reading test.

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

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