If you’re aiming for a top score on the ACT Reading section, you probably want to know what the hardest questions look like so you’re prepared for everything the test throws at you. In this article, I’ll walk you through the answers to some of the toughest questions I’ve seen on the ACT Reading section.
Why exactly are they so hard? How do you tackle them? How well will you do? Challenge yourself for that top score.
Detail Questions will ask you to paraphrase or analyze a specific part of the passage. These questions can be difficult because they require a strong understanding of the author's specfic viewpoint and a high level of reading comprehension.
Here’s one of the hardest detail questions about the narrator’s point of view that I’ve come across on the ACT:
In the last paragraph, a comparison is made between "diminished excellence" and "flawed competence." From the narrator's point of view, the conditions are different because the one is:
F. a source of sorrow while the other is a source of pride.
G. based in the family while the other is based in the self.
H. inherent in the environment while the other is inherent in the individual.
J. a sign that the individual can improve the world while the other is a sign that the individual can't.
This is the comparison the question refers to:
We plan makers are accustomed to things turning out not-quite-as-good-as-we-had-in-mind. Our world view includes the “diminished excellence” component. Diminished excellence is a condition of the world and therefore never an occasion for sorrow, whereas flawed competence comes out of character and therefore is frequently the reason for the bowed head, the furrowed brow.
How do we go about solving a question like this?
First, we need to establish what the narrator is saying about the difference between diminished excellence and flawed competence.
What is diminished excellence, according to the passage? It’s a “condition of the world” and “never an occasion for sorrow”. Diminished excellence is not something to be sad about because it’s out of our control and exists naturally in the world.
Ok, how about flawed competence? In contrast, flawed competence “comes out of character” and is a reason for “the bowed head”. Flawed competence is a part of the individual, not an immutable condition of the world, so it can be cause for distress.
Ok, we know the difference. Now let’s examine the answer choices.
Choice F: a source of sorrow while the other is a source of pride
Well, one of them is a source of some degree of sorrow (flawed competence), but neither is a source of pride, so this doesn’t work.
Nope, this is an irrelevant answer!
Choice G: based in the family while the other is based in the self
Again, this is sort of half-correct in that flawed competence is based in the self. However, diminished excellence is not based in the family - it’s based in the world at large. Nothing in this answer choice describes diminished excellence.
Cross this one out too!
Choice H: inherent in the environment while the other is inherent in the individual
This seems likely. Diminished excellence is described as a “condition of the world”, so it’s inherent in the environment. Flawed competence “comes out of character”, so it’s inherent in the individual.
Keep this one!
Choice J: a sign that the individual can improve the world while the other is a sign that the individual can’t
This is a confusing answer choice, because we don’t see either of the conditions described as signs of anything in the passage. Diminished excellence could be interpreted as a sign that the individual can’t improve the world, but flawed competence certainly isn’t any kind of sign that an individual CAN improve it.
This answer is a weird concept jumble - get rid of it!
Choice H is our answer!
This question was tough because it asked us to consider and compare two complicated ideas in the passage. We had to grapple with abstract concepts as well as be very specific with our answer choice.
You can see, however, that when we closely examine the direct evidence and definitions provided, it becomes very clear which answers should be eliminated. If you come across unfamiliar concepts in the passage that you need to understand to answer a question, sometimes it's helpful to write down their definitions in a simpler form next to the question so you can stay focused.
Sometimes you have to look at things from the author's point of view on the ACT, even if you can tell he's someone who wears ugly glasses and stares off into the sunset wondering why he wasted the best years of his life.
Development and Function Questions
Development and function questions ask about the structure of the reading passage and how certain lines or paragraphs contribute to its meaning. These questions can be difficult because you have to have a strong understanding of the argument presented in the passage and how each piece of the passage fits into that argument.
Here’s one of the hardest ACT questions I’ve seen in this category:
The author uses the events listed in lines 77-79 primarily to:
F. show how weather-related disasters threatened the survival of Western civilization.
G. criticize subsistence-level agriculture as being too dependent on the weather.
H. illustrate how environmental determinism operated in the Little Ice Age.
J. suggest the part that climate shifts may have had in producing modern Europe.
Here are is the paragraph we need to reference:
Consider, for instance, the food crises that engulfed Europe during the Little Ice Age - the great hunger of 1315 to 1319, the food dearths of 1741, and 1816, "the year without a summer" - to mention only a few. These crises in themselves did not threaten the continued existence of Western civilization, but they surely played an important role in the formation of modern Europe. Some of these crises resulted from climactic shifts, others from human ineptitude or disastrous economic or political policy; many from a combination of all three. Environmental determinism may be intellectually bankrupt, but climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage.
I have the whole paragraph copied here, rather than just the lines in the question, because it’s necessary to read beyond the lines to get the right answer. That’s part of what makes this question difficult.
All right - how do we solve this?
First, let's figure out what the question is asking.
What is the primary purpose of lines 77-79? It’s important not to miss the world "primary" in this question because some of the answer choices are tricky. They might support the author’s point, but they’re not her primary reason for using those lines.
Now let’s go through the answer choices and see which one works.
Choice F: show how weather-related disasters threatened the survival of Western civilization
If you just read the lines mentioned in the question, you might think this answer was plausible. This is why it’s important to make sure to read the whole paragraph surrounding the lines to get the context.
In the next sentence, the author specifically says these crises “did not threaten the continued existence of Western civilization”.
This is an opposite answer - get rid of it!
Choice G: criticize subsistence-level agriculture as being too dependent on the weather
Hmm - it does seem based on these lines that subsistence-level agriculture was too dependent on the weather. But was that the primary point the author was trying to make by citing these crises? No, this answer misses the larger point even if it makes sense on a factual level.
Choice H: illustrate how environmental determinism operated in the Little Ice Age
This answer choice would be easier to understand if you had the whole passage to look at, but the Little Ice Age is a time period of climate instability that was described earlier in the passage. These crises did occur during that time period, so that part makes sense.
But is the author trying to support environmental determinism? She says it’s “intellectually bankrupt” at the end of the paragraph.
This answer is slightly off - cross it out!
Choice J: suggest the part that climate shifts might have had in producing modern Europe
This seems right. The paragraph says the crises “surely played an important role in the formation of modern Europe”, so that's a pretty close paraphrase of this answer choice.
This one’s a winner!
Choice J is our answer!
You’ll notice that the correct answer choice was the last one, so this question could be particularly difficult if you were rushing on the test. Some of the other choices also seem partially right at first glance. That’s why reading carefully and making sure every part of an answer makes sense is so important.
That guy on the right is SO done with everyone he knows dying from malnutrition.
Perhaps the most difficult ACT Reading questions are those that ask you to make inferences about the passage. This requires more developed extended reasoning skills and a deep understanding of the points being made by the author.
Meaning in context questions are a subset of inference questions. They will ask you to look at specific lines in a passage to infer and then paraphrase their meaning.
Here is an example of a very difficult meaning in context question on the ACT:
Which of the following statements best paraphrases lines 5-8?
A. The imagination lacks value and should be ignored in favor of paying attention to the actual world.
B. Reason can enhance the imagination but at the expense of experience in the actual world.
C. Rather than become isolated, the imagination should connect to the actual world at least occasionally.
D. Reason, not the imagination, is the best way to appreciate and enrich the actual world.
Here are the lines we’ll need to reference:
A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched. The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world - if only from time to time.
This question is so difficult because the lines it references deal with a somewhat confusing and high-level concept. The answer choices also combine a lot of different concepts that are included in the lines but don't necessarily answer the question correctly.
Ok, time to solve this.
First, let’s try and understand what the lines are saying.
What does the first sentence mean?
A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched.
It seems like it's saying that people often gain an enriched imagination at the expense of their knowledge of the real world. “Real ignorance” is the price they pay for an “imagination enriched”.
Ok, how about the second sentence?
The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world - if only from time to time.
It's saying that in order to overcome the problem in the first sentence, you have to get your imagination to connect with or “seize” the real world sometimes.
It seems like we have a pretty good understanding of the sentiment in the passage: imagination can make you lose touch with the real world if you don’t bridge the gap between the two sometimes.
Now let's go through the answer choices.
Choice A: The imagination lacks value and should be ignored in favor of paying attention to the actual world.
Hmm this sounds pretty extreme. Even though the author does say that you shouldn’t totally lose yourself in imagination, there’s no mention of ignoring it. She says imagination should “seize the actual world”, so the two are compatible. Imagination doesn’t “lack value”.
This answer is incorrect!
Choice B: Reason can enhance the imagination but at the expense of experience in the actual world.
This is definitely an opposite answer.
How can reason enhance your imagination if you are sacrificing real world experience? The author’s point is that reason should allow you to enhance your imagination by occasionally putting imagination in the context of your experiences in the real world.
Eliminate this one!
Choice C: Rather than become isolated, the imagination should connect to the actual world at least occasionally.
The author definitely says that the imagination shouldn’t be isolated from the real world or the imaginer “risks real ignorance”. She also says imagination should “seize the actual world - if only from time to time”. This seems synonymous with connecting “to the actual world at least occasionally”.
Keep this one!
Choice D: Reason, not the imagination, is the best way to appreciate and enrich the real world.
This is a plausible interpretation of what the author says, but it’s still not correct. It seems like she does believe that imagination can cause you to lose touch with the real world, so it might not be the best way to appreciate or enrich the real world. However, that’s not the point specifically being made in these sentences.
Eliminate this one!
Choice C is our answer!
These answer choices were very difficult because almost all of them included a plausible element, even though only one was close enough to the meaning of the lines to answer the question correctly. This is common with inference or meaning in context questions, which is why reading the question carefully and being ruthless about eliminating answers that aren’t a perfect match is so crucial!
What is the "actual world" anyway? How do we know our imaginations aren't, like, just as real? Duuuude.
The hardest questions on the ACT Reading section ask you to analyze abstract concepts and paraphrase complex viewpoints expressed in passages. Often the answer choices provided will seem plausible or provide a statement that is true but does not directly answer the question being asked.
No matter how difficult or confusing a question seems, you can always find the answer by referring to direct evidence from the passage. If you read carefully and don’t stray from the information you are given, you will get all of these questions right every time!
Read these articles for tips on how to approach ACT Reading passages and to learn more about the four types of passages you'll see on the test.
Do you keep running out of time on the ACT Reading section? Learn about how to avoid the time crunch.
If you're already achieving high scores on the Reading section and want to know how you can take it to the next level, check out our article on how to get a 36 on ACT Reading.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.