How To: Answer Specific Detail Questions on a Reading Passage

We’ve talked before about how to avoid running out of time on the Reading section. A lot of it boils down to reading efficiently and logically eliminating answer choices. But test-takers aren’t always the most logical people. You’re reading difficult and often-boring passages under a strict time limit. You may have no idea where to begin, so you pick one answer choice because “it looks right” and you move on.

The ACT takes advantage of this mentality and purposefully sprinkles answers that don’t scream “ELIMINATE ME!” when you first look at them. In particular, it loves to ask questions about very small details. Maybe you understood the main point of a paragraph, but there could have been a few sentences that you skipped because it didn’t seem that important. Now, you’re reading a question about something you don’t remember reading about and you’re not sure where to begin. Don’t worry, take a breath, and use the following strategies.

To start, make sure that your question is asking about a specific detail, rather than a general concept. Often, when a question opens with “As indicated by the passage,” or “As stated by the author,” it is referring to a specific detail. That means that whatever answer choice you pick, you will likely find the answer choice within the relevant paragraph, often written word-for-word. Once you see one of those key phrases in the question, flip the switch in your brain to detail-seeking mode.

Next, read the question carefully. Circle or highlight what the question is referencing. Let’s use the question “What does the passage indicate was the reason the ash from Mount Tambora could travel around the world?” as an example. In this case, you should circle “ash from Mount Tambora could travel around the world,” so you know what phrases in the paragraph to lock onto. They may be broken up into smaller pieces, but you’ll still be able to find them. With this reference in mind, let’s read the paragraph:


Unbeknownst to most people living in the Northern Hemisphere, Mount Tambora, a volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia had erupted over four months in 1815. The Mount Tambora eruption was the most powerful explosion of the last 10,000 years, but, because it occurred before the invention of worldwide communication devices like the telegraph, it remained virtually unknown outside of Asia. Within Southeast Asia, however, its effects were devastating: ten thousand people were killed instantly and many more died from the resulting tsunamis that raced across the Java Sea. The Mount Tambora eruption followed on the heels of four other eruptions (three in Asia and one in the Caribbean) from 1812-1814 that had released a large amount of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. A portion of this ash was light enough to reach the stratosphere (the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere) where it blocked some of the light coming from the sun and thus reduced temperatures. The stratosphere contains few clouds, and air tends to move horizontally rather than vertically. This meteorological pattern had important implications for the following year. Once the ash reached the stratosphere it stayed there for a long period of time because there was little vertical air movement to displace it. In addition, the horizontal air currents pushed the volcanic ash from the point of eruption in Southeast Asia to places all over the world—so ash from a little-known volcano was able to cause disastrous consequences thousands of miles away.


Notice that the reference we’re specifically looking for doesn’t appear until the very end of the paragraph. We backtrack a little bit from the reference and note that the author links it with horizontal air currents. With that in mind, we can return to the question and its answer choices:


Question: “What does the passage indicate was the reason the ash from Mount Tambora could travel around the world?”

A. The eruption was so large that the volcano spewed ash for thousands of miles.
B. Heavy westward winds carried the ash from Indonesia across Asia and then to Europe and North America.
C. The volcano erupted for an extremely long period of time.
D. The ash reached the stratosphere and was carried around the world by horizontal currents.


Based on what we just skimmed over, the answer choice must be D, as it’s the only one that mentions horizontal currents.

Finally, watch out for misleading answer choices. The ACT loves to take advantage of test-takers that don’t carefully read by sticking in answer choices that can be found in the passage, but don’t answer the question. For example, answer choice C looks good because Mount Tambora erupted for four months, which seems like a long time. However, notice that the passage doesn’t state that the long eruption time was the reason for why the ash traveled around the world.

Long story short, when you see the phrase “As made clear in the passage,” the strategy is quite clear too. Figure out what the question is asking you and go find that information. Details that you skipped over on your first reading stick out a little more and will help you pick the correct answer choice each time.

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