How to answer inference questions on an ACT/SAT Reading passage

We’ve talked about how to answer ACT/SAT Reading questions that deal in nitty gritty details, but the ACT and SAT test more than your ability to find basic facts. The test makers have also crafted some questions that test your ability to use logic and critical thinking. These are known as “inference questions” since you read between the lines of a passage and make an inference, a logical deduction, based on what you’ve read.

These questions are easy to identify on the exam. You’ll see keywords like “infer,” “suggest,” and “imply” in the question itself. Instead of looking for details, you’re going to put on your deerstalker hats and channel Sherlock Holmes’ logic to help you out.

But don’t get too carried away with sleuthing. Where test takers most often trip up on these questions is reading too much into the passage and making assumptions that aren’t supported by the text. You are much more likely to overanalyze a passage than under-analyze it, so you will want to keep your logic very simple and direct. The fewer assumptions and hoops you have to jump through to justify an answer choice, the more likely it is to be correct.

Where test takers most often trip up on these questions is reading too much into the passage and making assumptions that aren’t supported by the text.

For example, let’s say that your parents baked a batch of cookies at 3:00 PM earlier today. They set them to cool on the counter and then left to go run some errands. You come home around 4:00 PM and don’t see any cookies on the counter. What can you reasonably infer? You can’t infer that your younger brother ate all the cookies, because you don’t have the proof. The only thing that you can logically conclude is that something happened between 3:00 and 4:00 that caused the cookies to disappear. Maybe a heavy gust of wind blew the cookies off the counter. Or a very particular burglar came in and stole the cookies. All you know is that whatever happened occurred between 3:00 and 4:00. This is the kind of logic the ACT expects you to use, so let’s see how it applies to a particular question.


Dominican sugar cane workers labor tirelessly for twelve hours just to earn enough money to be able to feed themselves and live in company owned plantation housing, called batays. Many of these workers are of Haitian descent and so face threats of deportation if they report or challenge these labor practices. This type of modern day slavery persists in many parts of the world. That’s what the International Labor Rights forum is seeking to combat, with support from the United States Department of Labor. They investigate and press charges against American corporations that perpetrate these types of human rights violations. In cases where international law fails to provide justice, these organizations seek to publicize the plight of the workers.

Question: It can most reasonably be inferred that the human rights violations are:

A. committed most frequently against Dominicans.
B. the result of unchecked corporate exploitation.
C. one consequence of the expanding sugar cane industry.
D. experienced most acutely by workers living in batays.

As before, we want to find where the passage talks about “human rights violations.” We see towards the end of the paragraph that the International Labor Rights forum and the US Department of Labor “investigate and press charges against American corporations that perpetrate these types of human rights violations.” With this sentence in mind, we examine each answer choice and find that B is the only one that can be a reasonable inference, that corporate exploitation is linked with human rights violations.

Maybe your eye was drawn to answer choice C. You might think in your head, “Well, if the sugar cane industry is expanding, they’ll need to have more workers for cheap, and that could lead to exploitation and human rights violations.” Notice that answer choice C required you to assume a couple of different ideas to make the answer choice work.

Though answer choice B is not explicitly stated by the passage, the logic follows much more directly. Those groups are investigating how American corporations perpetrate human rights violations, so human rights violations are likely the result of unchecked corporate exploitation. You can summarize it in one sentence. It’s easy to follow, making it the best answer choice of the four.

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Jon Chang

About Jon Chang

Jon holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and NYU. He has helped students of all ages prepare for standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, PSAT, GRE, and MCAT. Jon firmly believes that every student can achieve top marks on any test with the right amount of effort applied in the right direction. He goes beyond rote learning and teaches creative problem-solving as a method for better understanding of any material. Jon’s work has been featured on and in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics. 

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