The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading


The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

Before you learn the structure and timing of the ACT Reading; way before you learn the strategies that will help you earn a better score; before you practice timed drills; there is only one simple, yet fundamental rule you must know.

Rule: There is only one correct answer choice for every question and the other three answers can be eliminated based on various incorrect elements.

In this article, we will discuss the types of incorrect answers you will face on the ACT Reading section, and strategies to eliminate them until you are left with a solid, correct choice.

The Reasons Behind the Rule

The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

As we all know, the ACT is a standardized test. The answers to all questions, even in subjective areas (like reading) must be unambiguous. The only way to accomplish this is to restate something from the passage.

Therefore, every answer must be DIRECTLY and CLEARLY supported by the text. If there is no direct evidence, the answer cannot be correct. If the answer choices were to be challengeable, the ACT would lose credibility.

This means that you should not bring in outside knowledge or make any assumptions on the test. What the passage says is what it means; even for inference questions, you can always find concrete evidence in the text for your answers. Let’s talk about what types of answers you should eliminate.

Types of Incorrect Answer Choices on ACT Reading

The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

Incorrect answers on ACT Reading will always fall into one of the categories listed below.

  • Off-topic
  • Too broad (e.g. the passage discusses one scientist while the answer refers to scientists)
  • Too extreme (e.g. the passage is neutral or lightly negative/positive but the answer is extremely negative/positive)
  • Half-right, half-wrong (e.g. right information, wrong point of view)
  • Could be true but not enough information
  • True for the passage as a whole, but not for the specific lines in question
  • Factually true but not stated in the passage

The best way to learn to recognize which category each incorrect answer choice fits is to do as much practice as possible.

Type 1: Irrelevant

This is an answer choice that sounds realistic but has absolutely no evidence in the passage. 

Let’s illustrate this with an ACT example:



Line 78 in the passage states: “To eliminate the possibility of a placebo effect, Cho also stimulated a nonaccupoint, in the big toe. There was not response in the visual cortex.”

This excerpt clearly supports answer choice D. An example of an irrelevant answer choice is C, “Having them read an eye-examination chart,” because the passage does not mention reading of an eye chart as part of an experiment.

Why is This a Dangerous Option?

Some test takers are unaware that the passage does not need to directly contradict an answer choice to make a choice wrong. Students might see an irrelevant answer choice and think it could be right because they missed something or the passage didn’t say it WASN’T true. Irrelevant answers are common, especially in detail questions where students might think they just missed the part of the passage that would support an irrelevant answer.

Do not assume that the ACT wouldn’t put an obviously incorrect answer on the test. They would and they do, so be aware.

Type 2: Opposite

This is an answer choice that is an exact opposite of what is stated in the passage.

Let’s illustrate this point with an ACT example:



Reading the lines referenced in the question, we see that the paragraph describes that the grandfather, who made the narrator’s crutches, forgot to put rubber tips on them, causing the narrator to fall repeatedly. The family’s response (line 9) was to “buy the rubber tips and put them on the crutches.” The opposite answer is choice D, “fix what wasn’t wrong in the first place,” because the actual solution was to fix what WAS wrong. The correct answer is A, “find a workable remedy for it.”

Why is This a Dangerous Option?

Most students taking the ACT feel rushed and pressed for time. As a result, they don’t read carefully enough. The ACT, of course, knows and uses this to trick students. If the answer choice uses the same words that are in the passage, it’s easy to mistakenly choose it because you missed a “not” (or in this case a “n’t”). You will frequently see opposite answers in detail questions because these questions are the most straightforward, so most people just gloss through them.

Read each question and answer choice carefully to avoid falling into this trap.

Type 3: Concept Confusion

This is an answer choice that includes concepts from the passage but does so in a confused order or relationship so that they don’t actually make sense as an answer to the question.

Let’s illustrate this point with an ACT example:



The excerpt from the passage that includes the word “miracle” uses the pronoun “they.” To find out what “they” refers to, we must back up a little. From this excerpt,


we understand that “they” refers to the “tiny areas” of the brain; therefore, the correct answer is H, “different areas of the brain work together.” An example of a concept confusion answer is choice J, “the creative potential of disease is revealed,” because the main point of the passage is the fact that certain diseases reveal the creative potential of the brain to rewire itself. While the concept of choice J is discussed in the passage, it does not make sense as an answer to this specific question.

Why is This a Dangerous Option?

Similar to opposite answer choices, concept confusion choices rely on you rushing though ACT Reading and not reading carefully enough. You might remember something mentioned in the text and pick an answer choice that contains the same concept, yet not read carefully enough to realize the answer to a specific question doesn’t actually make sense. These types of answer choices are common on big picture questions that ask about main point of the passage. The ACT counts on confusing the students because these answers require understanding of broader themes and understanding of complex ideas.

Once again, your best bet is to read carefully! Do not make any assumptions and make sure you know exactly what the question is asking before picking an answer.

Type 4: Believable Interpretation

This is a type of answer that offers a reasonable interpretation of the passage but is not supported by the evidence in the text.  

Let’s illustrate this point with an ACT example:


Here’s the referenced paragraph:


The lines in the question read: “that may not seem like much, but when talking about a planet billions of years old, it adds up.” This phrase refers to the statement earlier in the paragraph that comets bombard earth and can produce enough water vapor to add an inch to the planet’s surface every 10,000 years.

The correct answer to this question is F “give a sense of proportion to the numbers provided earlier in the paragraph.” An example of believable interpretation would be answer choice J, “provide readers with a sense of how old the planet really is.” The sentence does mention that the planet is billions of years old so that could be its purpose in the paragraph, but that does not explain the phrase “that may not seem like much.” Ask yourself, what doesn’t seem like much? An inch of water added every 100,000 years. This explanation makes answer F a lot more logical.

Why is This a Dangerous Option?

This is actually the MOST dangerous type of wrong answer choice for students who do not take time to prepare for the ACT. If you’re looking at a passage on ACT Reading in the same way you’re looking at an assignment in a high school English class, it is easy to get trapped by an answer that is believable but not true.

These answer choices are especially problematic and prevalent with inference and function questions because those questions do ask you to look beyond the literal details of the text. Remember the #1 rule that every question has one and only one correct answer and the correct choice, while not directly stated in the passage, will still have enough “implied” support.  

Even if the answer could be correct, if there is no supporting evidence in the passage, you must eliminate it.

Step-by-Step: #1 Rule in Action

The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

Let’s work through an ACT Reading question step-by-step:


Here’s the excerpt from the passage that the question refers to:


 Step 1: Understand What the Question is Asking

Based on the phrase (in the question) “directly referring to” as well as the referenced lines, we know the answer is related to a specific detail in the text. The question could be rephrased to read “What fact from the passage does a phrase ‘a man without a country’ refer to?”

Our goal is to find a direct connection in a passage between a fact stated by the narrator and her description of a cosmonaut.

Step 2: Read the Lines Referenced in the Question

Here’s the sentence that contains the phrase “a man without a country”:


Reading this excerpt, we understand that there is not enough information to answer the question. We must read the entire paragraph to understand why the narrator says what she says about the cosmonaut.

Based on the rest of the paragraph, it looks like what caused “man without a country” line was the fact that the cosmonaut’s home country, the Soviet Union, was dissolved while he was in space. The narrator describes reading an article about a cosmonaut who was stuck in a space station for 16 months during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  

The final part of the lines referenced in this question reads, “at least without the country he left behind,” emphasizes the point. The phrase referenced in the question, “man without a country” can ONLY be referring to the political changes that occurred in Soviet Union while the cosmonaut was in orbit.

Step 3: Consider All of the Answer Choices

  1. Cosmonaut’s feeling that he is now a citizen of space, not the former Soviet Union.

This answer choice is an example of believable interpretation.

It is possible to believe that after being in space for a long time (16 months), the cosmonaut could feel as a citizen of space, but nowhere in the passage is this notion supported. Regardless how tempting it may be to pick this answer choice, remind yourself that ONLY concrete and specific evidenced answer choices are correct. Eliminate choice A.

  1. Cosmonaut’s unrealized expectations that he would be treated like a hero.

This is an example of irrelevant answer choice.

This has nothing to do with the passage or the referenced portion. Don’t let answers like this trick you – even if you think this is a possible scenario, you can’t make any assumptions on the ACT.  Eliminate choice B.

  1. political transformations that occurred while the cosmonaut was in space 

This answer choice looks good.

We can find direct evidence in the paragraph that the cosmonaut was in orbit for 16 months “during the takeover attempt and ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.”

This is exactly what is being referenced in the line cited in the question. The cosmonaut is coming back to “find that his whole world changed” in a political sense.

Keep this one!
  1. sixteen months that the cosmonaut spent in orbit around Earth

This is an example of concept confusion answer choice.

Yes, the passage does directly state that the cosmonaut spent 16 months in space. This information is what differentiates this answer choice from a completely irrelevant one. However, the fact about him spending sixteen months in space does not answer the questions being asked. The concept of “a man without a country” and the length of time spent in orbit are not meaningfully connected by the author of the passage. Eliminate choice D.

The correct answer is C!

This process should not take this long on the actual ACT reading test, but it is helpful to walk through it step-by-step and understand exactly why 3 of the choices are being eliminated.


The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

The #1 Fundamental rule of ACT Reading is that every question has one and only one correct answer choice and three of the choices can be eliminated.

The wrong answers can fit into one of the following categories:

  • Irrelevant
  • Opposite
  • Concept confusion
  • Believable interpretation

Every question on ACT Reading can be answered correctly by eliminating these types of answer choices until you are left with the one option that is evidenced directly in the text.

Next Steps

The #1 Critically Important Rule for ACT Reading

Need more help with ACT Reading? Take a look at the articles on how to read passages, how to answer vocabulary in context questions, and how to avoid running out of time.

Also, take a look at the detailed article describing what’s tested on ACT Reading section and four types of passages you will see.

Feel like you’ve mastered the material? Take a practice test.

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