Introduction to the ACT Reading Test

The ACT Reading test is the third section of the ACT, and it comes right after the 10 minute break after the ACT Math test. It is much more fast-paced than either the English or the Math test. Although you do not need to study any content beforehand for the ACT Reading test, you do need to come prepared with a plan to answer all of the questions in the limited time provided.

Most students run out of time on the ACT Reading test, so if you utilize good ACT test taking strategies and finish the test, you will have an enormous advantage over other students. Do not be deceived by the fact that all of the answers for the ACT Reading test are already within the passages—this test requires just as much preparation as any other test, perhaps even more.

The ACT Reading Test Format: Structure and Timing


Below is a chart that explains what to expect for the ACT Reading test. It includes how long the Reading test is, how many questions are on it, how it is organized, and how long you have for each question:

Overview of the Reading test format

Total Time Number of Questions Organization Time per Question
35 minutes 40 questions 4 passages –
1) Prose Fiction
2) Social Studies
3) Humanities
4) Natural Sciences
8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
52.5 seconds per question

The four passages of the ACT Reading test show up in the exact same order year after year. However, there is an enormous range of content that can show up for each of these types of passages, so there is no use trying to study the topics that might show up. The passages may differ slightly in difficulty level, depending on the year.

ACT Reading

The reason why most students run out of time on the ACT Reading test is because students only have 8 minutes 45 seconds to read an entire passage and answer ten questions. Students who do not have good reading speed and comprehension find that they struggle to comprehend the passage enough in the time given.


The ACT Reading Test Content: The Different Passages and Types of Questions

The Four Passages of the ACT Reading Test

Here is the information that the ACT provides concerning the four types of passages that will show up on the ACT Reading test. Again, do not worry about studying these topics because the ACT’s goal is to make the test fair by choosing passages that will be relatively unfamiliar to all students. The key is practicing your reading speed and comprehension, not preparing for any specific content.

1. Prose Fiction (10 questions) 2. Social Studies (10 questions) 3. Humanities (10 questions) 4. Natural Sciences (10 questions)
Fiction – intact short stories or excerpts from short stories or novels Nonfiction – anthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, or sociology Nonfiction – passages from memoirs and personal essays, architecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, or theater Nonfiction – anatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, or zoology

The Types of Questions on the ACT Reading test

There are three primary types of questions that will show up on the Reading test:

  1. Specific Detail – Specific Detail questions are directly answered by the text. Oftentimes, they will have specific line or paragraph references, so you know where to look in the passage to find the answer.
  2. Evaluation – Evaluation questions require you to make a judgment concerning what the passage is communicating. Although these questions are not answered directly by the passage, the answer will be clear from the passage.
  3. Main Idea – Main Idea questions require you to identify the main idea being presented by the passage as a whole or by a particular section or paragraph.

Next Step

Now that you know the format and content of the ACT Reading test, you might be wondering, “How can I prepare for this test?” To learn more about preparing for the ACT Reading test, visit the ACT Reading Strategies: Tips for the ACT Reading Test page.