Types of Reading Questions on the SAT and ACT Exams

Posted by Colleen on 1/24/18 7:31 PM

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Welcome back to my blog series on reading for the SAT and ACT exams! New here? Loop back to the beginning and check out my post How to Read for the SAT and ACT.

In this post, I will be looking at the different types of reading questions that you can expect to find on the two exams.

What are the Reading Questions About?

Both the SAT and the ACT exams have sections dedicated to reading. The point of these reading sections is to see how accurately you read, understand the main arguments of a text, and draw conclusions or make inferences from a text. The SAT also tests how well you understand the construction of the text—why did the author present this material in this specific order?

The tests are timed, meaning that test makers are also seeing how well you can read fast and under pressure.

What Material are the Reading Questions on?

The answers to the reading questions can be found in the passages given on the exam. Both the SAT and ACT exams include predictable groups of reading passages.

The ACT will always have four passages, with about 10 questions each. These passages will be: fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. You will have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. 

For the SAT, there will be 5 passages in total: 1 literature, 2 social studies, and 2 science passages. You will have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.

In both tests, one section will involve the comparison of two passages. You will have to answer questions about both passages individually and about the two passages in comparison.

What Kinds of Questions Can I Expect to Find?

Both the SAT and ACT exams ask questions on the following topics:

Many reading questions focus on big ideas. Here, you might see questions about:


What is the main point of the passage or a smaller section of the passage?


How does a word, line, or paragraph function in the larger piece?


What is the author’s point-of-view or particular claim?


There are also questions in which you have to extrapolate from the given information:

Relating Two Positions 

In a passage with two points-of-view (or a section with two separate passages), how do the two opinions or arguments relate to each other? When would they agree, and when would they disagree?


What conclusions or inferences can be drawn from the author’s argument or research?


Finally, there are questions about the nitty-gritty:

  1. Definitions: what do particular words mean in their context?
  2. Characters: traits, motivations, and relationships of the fictional characters or authors

Are there any differences between SAT and ACT exam reading questions?

The list about covers many of the questions that you will find. However, both the SAT and ACT have their own particularities. Let’s check out the differences below.


Many of the SAT questions focus on how the author composed the material and structured the essay’s argument. There are nitty-gritty questions, but these questions appear less frequently.

SAT questions therefore focus on the first two sections above: big ideas and extrapolation. In addition, the SAT asks questions about assumptions: what premises does the author assume at the start of his argument? Are these assumptions always true?

For some SAT questions, you will also have to choose the particular line in the passage that backs up your answer choice. For instance, one question might ask, “What is the main argument of the essay?” and the next question would then ask for the line that most directly backs up the answer that you selected in the previous question.

Finally, the SAT will also have graphs, charts, and other non-essay forms of data in two of the passages. You will be asked questions about the graphs and also about how the data in them relates to the arguments in the essay itself.


The ACT has more questions about details, as opposed to how the author wrote the essay or structured the argument. You will have to think about the big picture, but you will also need to pay attention to individual words and lines. Some additional questions that appear on the ACT are:

  1. Attitude/Tone: what attitude does the author take toward other arguments? How does writing style in a piece of fiction show the relationship between characters or the relationship of the author to one of the characters?
  2. Reaction: how do characters or authors react to particular events or pieces of information? Why?
  3. Literary Devices: these questions ask about particular writing tools, such as alliteration, simile, and metaphor. Need to brush up? Check out my quick list of ACT literary devices.

What Comes Next?

Now that you know the different types of questions that come up on the exam, check out my next post on strategies for answering these ACT and SAT  exam reading questions. Want more one-on-one work? Reach out to Cambridge Coaching for personalized test prep!

After spending her first twenty-two years in the Midwest, Colleen moved out east (broadly defined) in 2010 and has since lived in Boston, DC, the United Kingdom, and Germany. She holds a BA from the University of Notre Dame, masters degrees from both the University of St Andrews and Harvard University, and a PhD from Harvard University.

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Want to read other posts by Colleen?

How do I use Punctuation on the ACT and SAT Exams?

How do I use Punctuation on the ACT and SAT Exams? Part II

ACT Testing Tip: How to Identify Main and Subordinate Clauses