ACT reading strategies

The first step in raising your ACT reading score? Stop treating the passages on the Reading Test like a school assignment. You won’t have time to read thoroughly (much less re-read), highlight, or make flashcards. And there’s certainly no group discussion to help uncover the meaning of each passage.

The ACT  is different from the tests you take in school, so you need to approach it differently, too. Learn what types of Reading Test questions and passages you’ll actually face, and the strategies that will help you score higher.

What’s on the ACT Reading Test?

There are four reading passages of about 800 words each, always in this order:

  1. prose fiction
  2. social science
  3. humanities
  4. natural science

After each passage, you’ll answer 10 questions that test you on what was directly stated as well as what meanings were implied in the text.


What it isWhat you can expect
Prose Fiction Excerpts from novels or short stories 

Most passages are contemporary, emphasize diversity, and often center on family relationships.
  • Setting, atmosphere, and the relationships between characters are more important than facts
  • Questions likely to involve identifying the implied meanings vs. what was directly stated
Social Science Topics: anthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology
  • Organization flows logically with clear topic sentences and well-chosen transitions to develop the main idea
  • Author may have a point of view on the subject or may simply deliver informative facts in a neutral tone
Humanities Nonfiction passages—usually memoirs or personal essays 

Topics: architecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, and theater
  • Narrative may use a more organic development instead of a linear one
  • Tone will be more personal and perhaps more emotional
Natural Science Topics: anatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, and zoology
  • Lots of details and sometimes very technical descriptions
  • Linear organization with clear topic sentences and transitions to develop the main idea
  • Author may or may not have an opinion on the topic
  • Questions usually track the text pretty closely and require you to make few inferences

How to Tackle the ACT Reading Test

Now that you know what to expect, here are six ACT reading strategies that will help you approach any passage:

1. Choose Your Own Adventure

On the ACT Reading Test, you only have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. To earn your best possible reading score, you have to invest your time where it will do the most good. Always choose your own order, working first the passages that are easiest for you and leaving for last the most difficult. Learn more ACT strategies for working questions out of order.

2. Get Plenty of Practice

The best way to determine which categories you tend to ace is through repeated practice tests. Do you consistently do the best on social science? What types of questions do you find easy or difficult? Try some ACT reading practice or take a full-length ACT practice test.

3. Read the Questions First

Reading actively means knowing in advance what you’re going to read. So, before you start in on the passage, take a look at the questions. You’ll know what important details to look for, and you won’t waste time on details that never appear in a question.

4. Keep Moving

If you read something you don’t understand, do not reread it. Just keep going, and worry about it later only if you have to. Learn more about finding the right pace for you.

5. Look for Transition Words

Transition words are like road signs. They show you the route, direct you to a detour, and get you back on the path of the main idea.

6. Don't Panic if You Don't Know the Word

In some questions, you’ll have to determine the meaning of a word or phrase as it’s used in context. Most of these questions use relatively common words, but their meaning in the passage can be figurative more than literal. If the question asks you about an unfamiliar word, try to come up with your own word that fits the context, and then use process of elimination on the answers. If you can’t eliminate three choices, guess from what’s left and move on.


Take a Free ACT Practice Test

Want more ACT reading tips? Learn techniques for each passage type on the Reading Test in our book Cracking the ACT. Or, take a free, full-length ACT practice test with us, and see how you score. Ready to hit the books? Check out our ACT prep options.