The ACT Reading section is a timed multiple-choice test that evaluates your ability to read, comprehend, and analyze written texts. Many students find standardized exams—and reading exams in particular—intimidating and challenging.
But the good news about ACT Reading is that with the right strategies and a willingness to study, any student can improve their score! In this guide, we’ll share our best tips for boosting your ACT Reading score and becoming a more competitive college applicant.
About the ACT
The ACT is an exam that measures college and career readiness. Questions are linked to the skills and knowledge students have learned in high school classes, and scores are accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
The exam consists of an optional writing test and four multiple-choice tests: English, Reading, Mathematics, and Science. For each multiple-choice test, you receive a score ranging from 1-36. You’re also given a Composite score, which is the average of your four multiple-choice test scores rounded to the nearest number.
In total, the ACT has 215 questions, plus the optional essay. Without the essay, the exam is 3 hours and 30 minutes long, including breaks. If you sign up for the ACT with essay, the exam is just over 4 hours long.
About the ACT Reading Test
On the Reading test, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. The test measures your ability to read and comprehend passages, reason logically using textual evidence, and integrate information from multiple sources.
Specifically, ACT Reading questions will ask you to:
- Determine main ideas
- Find and interpret key details
- Understand sequences of events
- Compare and contrast
- Understand cause and effect relationships
- Determine the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences in context
- Make generalizations
- Analyze the author’s/narrator’s voice and style
- Analyze claims and evidence in arguments
- Synthesize/integrate information from multiple texts
If you didn’t like your score the first time, or if you’re stressed about ACT Reading in general, don’t worry. You don’t have to be the strongest reader or a vocabulary whiz to ace the test. Planning, practice, and strategy go a long way.
What Is a Good ACT Reading Score?
Colleges will look most closely at your ACT composite score (the average of all four multiple-choice tests), not your individual section scores.
If your college application says that you want to major in English or another reading-related subject, however, it’s a good idea to have a strong showing on the ACT Reading section. And no matter what you want to major in, you don’t want to score poorly on any section, since your composite score will suffer as a result.
Overall, a composite ACT score under 16 puts you in the bottom 25%, while a 21 means you’re right in the middle. 24+ lands you in the top 25%, and 29+ means you’re in the top 10%. If you score 35 or higher, you’re in the top 1% of all test-takers.
However, defining a “good score” is a bit tricky. It all depends on you, and which colleges you’re interested in attending. The more selective the schools you want to attend, the higher your score will need to be. A score that makes you a competitive applicant at your top choice schools is a “good” score for you.
Most college websites provide data about admitted students, including ACT scores. If you can’t find this information, Google “average ACT score at [school],” and it should be easy to find. Additionally, keep in mind that a high score can sometimes help balance out a lower GPA. Plus, a high ACT score can help you qualify for some scholarships.
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How Can I Get a Good ACT Reading Score?
Now that you know what a good ACT Reading* score is (short answer: it’s all relative), how can you make sure you get one?
The following 8 tips will help you discover the best ACT Reading strategies, study effectively, and ace your ACT Reading test.
1. Step Up Your Study Habits
To make the best use of the other tips in this guide, start by stepping up your study habits. When you’re studying for a big exam like the ACT, it’s useful to set a clear goal and make a plan for achieving it. Research the average ACT score for admitted students at your top choice colleges. Then, set an ACT Reading score goal that puts you in the competitive range at all of the schools on your list.
Once you’ve got a score in mind, take a practice test to benchmark your current performance. The practice test will tell you how many points you need to improve. It will also give you an idea of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to ACT Reading (more on that coming up!).
Based on this information, make a study plan. Make sure your plan is specific, reasonable, and measurable. How often will you study? For how many hours a week? What will you study? For instance, you might:
- Review the questions you missed on your practice test(s)
- Take additional practice tests
- Drill the question type(s) you struggle with the most
- Practice vocabulary
- Practice the test-taking strategies discussed in this guide
You may even want to create a weekly schedule that looks something like this:
- Monday- Take a practice test
- Tuesday- Review practice test/determine area(s) of weakness
- Wednesday- Drill area(s) of weakness
- Thursday- Practice strategies
- Friday- Review vocabulary (more on how to do this effectively later)
- Weekend- Relax & recharge
Of course, this is just an example! As you read through this guide, you’ll learn more about what you need to work on to achieve the score you want.
Once you have a plan, the last step is to follow through. Find a comfy study area, eliminate distractions, and ask someone to help hold you accountable. Stay organized and motivated, and the rest will fall into place.
2. Use Process of Elimination
Every ACT Reading question has ONE right answer. This may seem obvious, but the wording of multiple-choice questions often confuses students. You’ll see questions like:
- “Which of the following best describes…”
- “It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that…”
- “Which statement best summarizes…”
- “Which choice most fully lists…”
- Which of the following most nearly paraphrases…”
And you may notice phrases like:
- “for the most part”
- “the passage suggests”
- “most likely”
These statements and phrases distract from the fact that there is ONE factually correct answer. Don’t overthink or second guess because of tricky wording. Remember: There is ONE right answer. This means THREE of the answers have something wrong with them. And for every wrong answer choice you eliminate, you’re one step closer to choosing the (one and only) correct answer.
Tips for Eliminating Wrong Answers
Here are a few other rules to keep in mind about ACT Reading questions:
- Outside knowledge is not required to answer any question. The correct answer can ALWAYS be found using only the information in the passage.
- So, if the answer choice is not covered by the passage (meaning it relies on prior knowledge or outside information), it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if the information in the answer choice is technically correct. The ACT is intended to be a fair, standardized test. Any student from any background should have an equal chance at answering the question, because the answer is always in the passage.
- If the answer choice inaccurately portrays information from the passage, it’s wrong. Here’s a simplified example: Let’s say you just read a passage about a red horse. If every part of an answer choice is right, but it references a “blue horse” then the entire answer must be wrong.
So, these are some common types of wrong answer choices to look out for:
- Choices that seem right, but aren’t covered in the passage
- Choices that seem right, but contain inaccurate information about the passage
- Choices that are too specific OR too broad
- Choices that use key words from the passage, but are incorrect
Because these answer choices are intentionally tricky, it’s important to read every answer choice carefully. If you go too fast, you might zero in on the wrong choice just because it contains key words. You might choose something that sounds right, without realizing that it wasn’t covered by the passage. Or you might miss the fact that the answer choice said “blue horse” when it was really a “red horse.”
- Ignore confusing or ambiguous language in ACT Reading questions. It’s there to trick you. There is ONE right answer, and it’s based on the passage ONLY.
- Read every answer choice carefully.
- Look out for common types of wrong answer choices. When you find them, cross them out.
- Try to eliminate three of the four answer choices for every question. If you can’t eliminate three, eliminate as many as possible to increase your chances of choosing correctly.
3. Find the Right Passage-Reading Strategy for You
The ACT Reading test gives you 40 minutes to answer 35 questions and read the passages these questions are based on. It’s a time crunch, and running out of time is the biggest issue for many test-takers. One way to save time is to switch up your passage-reading strategy.
Some students read quickly and have time to read ACT Reading passages line by line. But if you struggle with running out of time, consider skimming the passages instead. Skim the passage for big picture concepts like main idea, tone, and author’s point of view. Try to spend no more than three minutes per passage.
Once you get to the questions and answer choices, you can always refer back to the passage if specific details or line numbers are mentioned. However, trying to read deeply and focus on tiny details during your first read-through is a waste of time. Most ACT Reading questions focus on big picture analysis.
Another possible strategy is to read the questions first, then the passage. Some test-takers like to read the questions first so they can mark any line numbers mentioned in the questions. They also get an idea of what information is important to focus on in the passage.
Ultimately, different strategies work for different test-takers. Since you’ll be taking plenty of practice tests, experiment with different passage-reading methods. Take one test reading the passages line by line. Take another skimming the passages, and a third reading the questions before reading the passages. It’s not a direct comparison, since you won’t be answering the same questions every time. But you’ll get an idea of which strategy feels right for you and helps you perform your best.
4. Zero in on Your ACT Reading Weaknesses
Another great thing about practice tests is that they help you identify your ACT Reading strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your weaknesses is the key to studying effectively. If you want to see a big score jump, devote your time to improving on your weaknesses, not making tiny adjustments in areas where you’re already strong.
Each time you miss a question on a practice test, identify what type of question it is. Is it main idea? Cause and effect? Making an inference? Specific detail? Author point of view?
Pay attention to the patterns, identify your areas of weakness, and work toward improvement. Answer practice questions for this particular skill, ask your teacher for help in this area, find resources online about the skill (e.g., you might need to go back to the basics on learning about cause and effect relationships), etc.
See if you can determine why these questions are difficult for you. Work on learning more about the skill, drilling questions, and finding alternative strategies that work better for you. Whatever you do, it’s all about making the most of the time you spend studying.
5. Focus on Context, Not Vocabulary Lists
Although studying vocabulary can give you a slight boost on the ACT Reading test, it’s much more important to understand context.
Remember, many words have multiple definitions. And on most ACT Reading questions, several answer choices will be possible definitions of the word. The ACT wants you to determine which definition is correct in the context of the sentence or passage.
So, knowing the definition or definitions of a word won’t always help you. If vocabulary is an area of weakness for you, it’s more helpful to sharpen your overall reading comprehension skills. Read challenging passages in magazines, books, or online. When you don’t know a word, train your brain to figure it out from context instead of immediately turning to Google. (You won’t figure it out every time; the point is to practice developing this skill.)
Of course, having a better vocabulary can increase your ability to read and understand passages (and therefore, context). We aren’t saying don’t drill vocabulary at all. But only drill vocabulary if it’s a true area of weakness for you, and work more on overall reading comprehension and test-taking strategies. Vocabulary should only consume a very small amount of your studying time.
6. Play to Your Strengths
On the ACT Reading test, questions are not ordered according to difficulty. This is one reason running out of time is a problem—you may have struggled for too long on harder questions, leaving easy points unanswered.
Play to your strengths by skipping hard questions and coming back to them later. You can do the same with especially time-consuming questions, like the ones that include the word “EXCEPT” or make you hunt for a specific detail (without even giving you a line number). Knowing your weaknesses comes in handy here too. If you’re still struggling with inference questions, for example, save them for the end.
Some students even like to flip through the test and start with the passages they perform the best on. For example, if you’re better at answering questions about nonfiction passages, focus on all of the nonfiction passages before moving on to fiction.
Your goal is not to answer every question in order. Your goal is to pick up as many points as you can, as quickly as you can. So, start with the questions (or even the passages) that give you the best chance of success. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want to spend much more than 30 seconds on a question. When you find yourself stuck, don’t be afraid to move on and come back later.
7. When in Doubt, Guess
On the ACT Reading test, there is no penalty for guessing. This means you don’t lose points for getting an answer wrong. You only gain points for getting an answer right.
Since there’s no guessing penalty, you should answer EVERY question. Here’s how:
- For every question, eliminate as many answer choices as possible. Cross out wrong answer choices in your answer book.
- If you’re able to eliminate three choices, or if you’re reasonably confident you can make an educated guess, answer the question.
- If you’re completely stuck, move on and save the question for later.
- When you come back to the questions you skipped, make an educated guess based on eliminated answer choices.
- Even if you couldn’t eliminate a single answer, guess! Bubble something in. Do not leave any blanks on your answer sheet. Not answering definitely won’t earn you any points, but even a wild guess gives you a 25% chance.
8. Be Confident!
If you study diligently and effectively AND have the right test-taking strategies under your belt, there’s no reason to feel intimidated by the ACT Reading test. Follow the other tips and strategies on this list, and you can show up on test day feeling confident and prepared. And when you feel confident, you perform better!
Try not to overthink or second guess yourself because of nerves. If you have to skip a question, don’t get down on yourself. Take a deep breath, remember that you’re using a smart strategy, and move on to the next one.
Confidence goes a long way in putting your best foot forward on tests like ACT Reading. Know that you’ve put in the time, you’ve got the strategies, and you’re ready to ace the ACT Reading test.
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