ACT Reading

Wrong Answer Choices

The ACT test writers are amazingly skilled at writing tempting wrong answers, so it’s worth taking some time to understand the techniques they use to avoid falling for their traps.

This chapter is designed to give you a look inside the test maker’s playbook to show you how the authors of the ACT can take particular question types and make them incrementally more difficult and frustrating for test-takers.  

Questions become truly difficult in the way that they can tempt you into answers that are not necessarily true, or answers that relate directly to the topic but do not quite answer the specific question asked.

Test makers use many of the same tricks over and over again in difficult Reading Comprehension questions. Here are some of their favorites traps that you should be on the lookout for in any Reading Test Question:

  • They provide answer choices that makes comparisons beyond the scope of the passage
  • They get you to pick an answer choice that is reasonable in the “real world” but is not supported in the passage
  • They use clever wordplay both in the passage and the question so that you improperly interpret a relationship or a piece of information
  • They send you to the wrong place in the passage
  • They make the correct answer simple to prove, but boring and hard to find

Despite your growing ability to read and analyze passages and to understand questions and the right answers, you still might be struggling with some test questions. You can probably narrow down your options to two answer choices, but then you’re stuck.

If an ACT question is going to accurately test reading skills, at least some of the answers must require close reading as an elimination technique. Let’s assume that the test writers have taken four correct answers and changed three of them in ways that will go unnoticed by unwary readers. While the authors of the test put a lot of effort into making those tricky changes, most test-takers don’t give a lot of thought as to why wrong answers are wrong. They instead satisfy themselves with a general “Oh yeah, that’s wrong” and move on.

But it can be instructive to understand why the majority of answer options on the ACT are incorrect. By understanding their common, concrete flaws, you will fundamentally improve your your ability to sidestep the SAT’s many trap answers. Incorrect Reading Test question answers tend to fall into one of five broad “wrong choice” categories:

1. Out of Scope (40-50% of wrong answers)

  • Introduces an unwarranted assertion supported nowhere in the passage
  • The answer might be true in the real world but is not supported in the passage

2. Direct Contradiction (20-25% of wrong answers)

  • States the exact opposite of something asserted in the passage
  • It relates to the passage closely. If you miss the contrast, you can easily think it is the right answer

3. Mix-Up (10-15% of wrong answers)

  • Scrambles together disparate content from the passage
  • Tries to trap the student who simply matches language, not meaning

4. One Word Wrong (10-15% of wrong answers)

  • Just one word (or maybe two) is incorrect. Includes extreme words
  • More prevalent in general questions

5. True but Irrelevant (10% of wrong answers)

  • True according to the passage, but does not answer the given question
  • May be too narrow or simply unrelated

Caution: You should generally NOT try to classify wrong answers right away. Don’t waste precious time or attention classifying an answer choice that is obviously wrong. Rather, use this classification list in the last stage of elimination if you are stuck deciding among answer choices that all seem attractive.

Before we work through solved examples, there is one more important point that I would like to discuss.

Justify every word in the answer choice.

In the correct answer choice, every word must be completely true and within the scope of the passage. If you cannot justify every word in the answer choice, eliminate it.

For example, consider the answer choices below:

     A. The colonists resented the king for taxing them without representation.

     B. England’s policy of taxation without representation caused resentment among the colonists.

The difference between these two answer choices lies in the word “king” versus the word “England.” Although this seems like a small difference, it is the key to eliminating one of these answer choices. If the passage does not mention the king when it discusses the colonists’ resentment, then the word king cannot be justified, and the answer choice should be eliminated.

Be on the lookout for wordplay and misdirection as well. These common tricks are used everywhere on the ACT. For instance, just because an answer choice mentions several words from one part of the passage, don’t assume that it is correct. Test makers are expert at creating answer choices similar to what you have read in the passage, but that actually contradict the reading or go beyond the stated information.

Example 1: 

          Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a controversial psychiatric treatment involving the induction of a seizure in a patient by passing electricity through the brain. While beneficial effects of electrically induced seizures are evident and predictable in most patients, a unified mechanism of action has not yet been established and remains the subject of numerous investigations. ECT is extremely effective against severe depression, some acute psychotic states, and mania, though, like many medical procedures, it has its risks. Since the inception of ECT in 1938, the public has held a strongly negative conception of the procedure. Initially, doctors employed unmodified ECT. Patients were rendered instantly unconscious by the electrical current, but the strength of the muscle contractions from uncontrolled motor seizures often led to compression fractures of the spine or damage to the teeth. In addition to the effect this physical trauma had on public sentiment, graphic examples of abuse documented in books and movies, such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, portrayed ECT as punitive, cruel, overused, and violative of patients’ legal rights. Modern ECT is virtually unrecognizable from its earlier days. The treatment is modified by the muscle relaxant succinylcholine, which renders muscle contractions virtually nonexistent. Additionally, patients are given a general anesthetic. Thus, the patient is asleep and fully unaware during the procedure, and the only outward sign of a seizure may be the rhythmic movement of the patient’s hand or foot. ECT is generally used in severely depressed patients for whom psychotherapy and medication prove ineffective. It may also be considered when there is an imminent risk of suicide, since antidepressants often take several weeks to work effectively. Exactly how ECT exerts its effects is not known, but repeated applications affect several neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. ECT has proven effective, but it is not without controversy. Though decades-old studies showing brain cell death have been refuted in recent research, many patients do report loss of memory for events that occurred in the days, weeks, or months surrounding the ECT. Some patients have also reported that their short-term memories continue to be affected for months after ECT, though some doctors argue that this memory malfunction may reflect the type of amnesia that sometimes results from severe depression
1. The passage is primarily concerned with
A. defending a provocative medical practice
explaining a controversial medical treatment
arguing for further testing of a certain medical approach
summarizing recent research concerning a particular medical procedure

2. Which of the following is NOT cited in the passage as a current or historical criticism of ECT?
ECT causes the death of brain cells
Seizures during ECT can cause bodily harm
Short-term memory loss results from ECT
Repeated applications of ECT affect several neurotransmitters in the brain

3. The tone of the passage suggests that the author regards ECT with
A. conditional support
academic objectivity
mild advocacy
unreserved criticism

4. Which of the following can be inferred from the third paragraph?
Greater amounts of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine seem to reduce symptoms of depression.
ECT is never used prior to attempting psychotherapy or medication.
Succinylcholine completely immobilizes the patient’s body.
ECT generally works faster than antidepressants.

5. According to the passage, which of the following statements is true?
A. The general public was unaware of the bodily harm caused by unmodified ECT.
B. Research into the side effects of ECT has only recently begun.
ECT does not benefit individuals with anxiety disorders.
Severe depression can have symptoms unrelated to emotional mood.

Answer choice A states that the passage explicitly defends ECT. The passage addresses ECT in an objective manner; the author neither defends nor argues against it.
This is the correct answer. The primary purpose of the passage is to explain ECT, its purpose and the reasons why it has generated such controversy.
Describes a need for further testing that is never mentioned in the passage
D. Although recent research concerning a particular side effect of ECT is mentioned in the final paragraph, this is not the primary purpose of the passage.

The final paragraph indicates that the death of brain cells was the basis for a historical criticism of ECT. Although the research was recently refuted, brain cell death is still a side-effect that, at one time, caused criticism of the procedure.
The second paragraph explicitly and prominently mentions the bodily harm caused by seizures during unmodified ECT in its second and third sentences.
The second sentence of the final paragraph also cites short-term memory loss as the primary reason that ECT, in its current modified form, still generates controversy.
This is the correct answer. The third paragraph specifically states that repeated applications affect several neurotransmitters in the brain. However, this statement is offered in a neutral way, not as a criticism of ECT, but simply as additional information about the procedure.

The authors tone does not indicate support for ECT.
This is the correct answer. The tone of the passage is impartial and objective. The passage explains the history and discussion of ECT in an unbiased, academic manner.
The tone does not suggest even mild advocacy on the part of the author.
The language is too extreme. The tone of the passage is not unreserved.

For choice A, the third paragraph specifically states that ECT affects these particular neurotransmitters. However, no information is provided about how these neurotransmitters are affected.
The third paragraph states that ECT is generally used in severely depressed patients for whom psychotherapy and medication prove ineffective. This does not mean that ECT is never used before these other therapies.
The third paragraph states that succinylcholine renders muscle contractions virtually nonexistent, rather than completely nonexistent. Moreover, the passage states that a patient’s hand or foot may rhythmically move during ECT.
This is the correct answer. The paragraph also states that ECT may be used when there is an imminent risk of suicide, since anti-depressants often take several weeks to work effectively. The conjunction since indicates that the length of time ECT takes to work is being contrasted with that of anti-depressants. It is implied that ECT works faster than antidepressants.

Answer choice A includes the key words bodily harm and unmodified ECT, which describes ways in which the public was aware of the bodily harm caused by unmodified ECT.
In answer choice B, the key words only recently prompt you to look for time references. The second sentence of the final paragraph cites decades-old studies of ECT.
The first paragraph states that ECT is effective against severe depression, psychotic states, and mania. This does NOT mean that ECT is ineffective for anxiety disorders.
This is the correct answer.
The final sentence states that a memory malfunction is a possible side effect of severe depression. A memory malfunction is clearly unrelated to emotional mood.
Example 2:

          Until recently, Ascaris azure, known as the Diaz blueworm, and Ascaris tropica, known as the Costa Rican heatworm, were thought to be different species of roundworm. The heatworm is about 0.5 centimeters long, and lives within the bark of huge cecropia trees in Southeast Asian rain forests. The blueworm, barely visible with the naked eye, is found in frigid seafloors. Despite these apparent differences, the Institute of Helminthological Studies has officially stated that “both” species are actually Diaz blueworms. Dr. Ginny Bolton, examining roundworm samples collected in Borneo, noticed that the heatworm’s tiny cilia (hairlike organelles) appeared to beat in a single direction, aiding in the expulsion of food. Dr. Bolton later determined that the cilia also made it much easier for the heatworm to live in the stifling confines of tree bark. The cilia project from a cuticle that is made of keratin, a protein that protects the worm’s epidermis from drying out and overheating. The cilia help regulate the proliferation of the keratin, and the force of the cilia’s movements varies as the external temperature changes, allowing for a highly responsive thermostatic system, constantly adjusting the amount of keratin so that the worm would be neither overexposed nor stifled. Knowing that the only other roundworm with directional cilia is the blueworm, Dr. Bolton consulted with several blueworm specialists. The thermostatic system that served the heatworm so well proved to be identical to the one used by oceangoing blueworm. However, the blueworm, which has been known to colonize methane ice mounds, uses the keratin to protect itself from frigid temperatures. The cilia sensed when the temperature was high enough to allow the production of keratin to slow down. Without the surrounding wall of keratin, the worm can more easily graze on bacteria. Genetic testing showed that the blueworm and the heatworm were not merely structurally similar; to the scientists’ surprise, the worms were identical. This was startling, not only because of their vastly differing habitats, but also because of the difference in size. The answer again was to be found in the keratin, a tough substance that normally inhibits growth, keeping the hydrostatic pressure very high within the worm. The relatively large worm found in the rainforest molts as it grows, allowing the worm to increase its volume a very small amount each time it does, but the smaller worm cannot afford this much exposure. The freezing temperatures trigger the production of keratin so quickly that the worm has little chance to grow, thus keeping its volume approximately one-fourth that of the larger worm. If you struggled to master the science behind blueworms and heatworms in your first pass through on this passage, you’re not alone. Then again, if you truly struggled to do so, you can learn to read more efficiently. When you initially read this passage, the details are unimportant. What is important is the general flow, which you can get from an emphasis on structural language. Ultimately, this passage is organized as follows:

Before you attempt to answer the questions, start off by writing an effective concise summary for each paragraph as well as the primary purpose of the passage:

Paragraph 1:____________________________________________________________________________________

Paragraph 2:___________________________________________________________________________________

Paragraph 3:___________________________________________________________________________________

Paragraph 4:___________________________________________________________________________________

Primary Purpose:______________________________________________________________________________

1. Which of the following is the primary purpose of the passage?
To present an overview of the function of keratin in roundworms
To give an example of the kind of discoveries that are still being made in the natural sciences
To show the ways in which scientists who are highly specialized need to work together
To provide some of the details of a surprising scientific discovery

2. According to the passage, in what way do the blueworm’s cilia aid the worm in coping with extreme heat and cold?
A. They help with the removal of food from the worm’s system
They provide a mechanism by which the production of keratin can be regulated
They collect the bacteria on which some blueworms graze
They keep the hydrostatic pressure within the worm high

3. It can be inferred from the passage that, compared to blueworms found in the sea, heatworms found in rainforests
do not graze on bacteria.
do not have high levels of hydrostatic pressure.
have little chance to grow because of extreme temperature.
replace keratin more slowly.

4. It can be inferred from the passage that if the cilia of a blueworm found on the seafloor were to become damaged, preventing the sensing of warmer temperatures, the worm
could grow to a length of 0.5 centimeters.
would be in danger of freezing.
might not be able to gain access to enough nourishment to sustain life.
would be forced to find its way to warmer temperatures.

5. According to the passage, researchers were able to make the discovery of the unlikely relationship between the two worms because of which of the following?
Both worms have mechanisms to produce keratin
Both worms exist in extreme temperatures
C. Both worms are researched by the Institute of Helminthological Studies
Both worms feature directional cilia

Here’s a paragraph by paragraph breakdown:
Paragraph 1:
Blueworms and heatworms are same species
Paragraph 2:
Details the heatworm
Paragraph 3:
Details the blueworm and why their discovery was possible
Paragraph 4:
 Compare/contrast the two worms
Primary Purpose:
To note a fairly surprising discovery, and explain some of the facts behind it.

1. The main idea is to highlight a surprising discovery, and to provide details. That matches with answer choice D.
2. To answer this question, your main objective is simply to follow the organization of the passage. The question asks specifically about the blueworm, so you should know to look in paragraph three. The question specifically asks about the role of cilia with regard to heat and cold, so from there you need to follow the cause/effect relationships. The fourth paragraph says, specifically, “the cilia sensed when the temperature was high enough to allow the production of keratin to slow down.” This sentence should lead you directly to answer choice B, the correct answer. The cilia sense temperature in order to slow down the production of keratin.
3. For this question, you should know upfront that the answer will be found in the final paragraph based on your initial read and concise summary. From there, however, look at how the test authors hide the correct answer, choice D. The question asks about heatworms but the operative sentence in the last paragraph is about blueworms: “The freezing temperatures trigger the production of keratin so quickly that the (smaller) worm has little chance to grow….”The passage explicitly states that the blueworm produces keratin much more quickly than does the heatworm. This leads us, via an inference, to option D. It must be true that the heatworm, then, produces keratin much more slowly.
4. When the question asks you to “infer,” your job is to follow cause-and-effect relationships. Here a cause/effect flowchart could look something like this: cilia -> sense temperature -> slow production of keratin -> allow worm to eat. This means that without the cilia, the effects that follow would also not occur. Therefore, answer choice C is correct: Without the properly functioning cilia, the worm might not be able to obtain enough nourishment.
5. If you have properly read for organization, this question should be manageable. Paragraph three starts with the answer. Dr. Bolton was able to make the discovery because both worms have directional cilia. Therefore, the answer choice D is correct.
Example 3:

         Erythropoietin, known also as EPO, is a glycoprotein hormone that controls the production of red blood cells in a process called erythropoiesis. When the kidneys detect a lack of oxygen flowing through the bloodstream, they secrete this glycoprotein, increasing the production of red blood cells, the body’s primary method of transporting oxygen to tissues and muscles. Typically a human’s hematocrit level, the percentage of red blood cells in the bloodstream, is between 40 and 45. For most adult males, a hematocrit level of less than 42 is said to be anemic, meaning that red blood cells are in dangerously low supply; this number is substantially less for women. Synthetic EPO is used to boost low hematocrit levels in chemotherapy patients and those suffering from kidney disease, who are unable to maintain the necessary levels without frequent EPO injections. Perhaps more famously, it is also used illicitly by many endurance athletes seeking to gain a competitive advantage by artificially increasing their red blood cell count. Traditionally, athletes have trained at high altitude to achieve a similar natural effect, but today more and more have chosen to artificially boost red blood cell activity through the use of synthetic EPO. For all its negative publicity, synthetic EPO remains a positive medical advancement to treat anemia and prevent hypoxia, the condition in which tissues are deprived of oxygen. Researchers continue to improve the effectiveness of synthetic EPO and even to develop a new glycoprotein—called novel erythropoiesis-stimulating protein (NESP) which eliminates several drawbacks of EPO in its current form. NESP not only requires smaller doses, but also lasts longer, eliminating the need for frequent and often-painful IV administration, which can have complications. Still, unlike the natural stimulus that occurs with the release of EPO, any artificial stimulus of red blood cell production has potential risks, as it raises hemoglobin to the desired levels above 15 grams per deciliter far too quickly. The body cannot properly adjust to the quick change in blood viscosity and substantial cardiac risk results. Given that risk, synthetic EPO must be highly regulated by the FDA so that its use is limited to medical necessity, not athletic performance enhancement.
1. Which one of the following is a challenge in using synthetic EPO to treat patients?
It has to be administered more frequently and in larger doses than is ideal
It does not increase hematocrit levels as quickly as naturally occurring EPO does
It has more cardiovascular risk than other treatments
It is frequently stolen by those seeking performance enhancement

2. Which of the following can be inferred about training at high altitude?
It is not as effective as synthetic EPO at increasing red blood cells in an athlete
It does not allow athletes to reach levels of hemoglobin above 15 grams per deciliter
C. It increases hemoglobin levels in an athlete more slowly than synthetic EPO does
It does not increase the viscosity of blood to a dangerous level

3. All of the following are potential risks of synthetic EPO except?
It can raise hemoglobin levels too quickly
It increases hemoglobin to levels above 15 grams per deciliter
It abruptly increases blood viscosity
It increases the likelihood of cardiac problems

4. Which of the following can properly be inferred from the passage?
Training at high altitude is safer than using synthetic EPO.
A higher percentage of athletes are using performance enhancing drugs than in the past.
NESP is a more effective treatment for raising hematocrit levels than synthetic EPO.
NESP carries fewer risks than synthetic EPO.

1. Synthetic EPO is introduced in the second paragraph, but most of the details about how it is used come in the third paragraph. The third paragraph states that NESP eliminates several drawbacks of EPO by requiring smaller doses and less-frequent injections. Therefore, it must be true that large doses and frequent administration are challenges in using EPO. Answer choice A is correct.

2. Because training is discussed in the second paragraph, your natural tendency is to look there, but the more important information lies in the third paragraph. This is another classic example of misdirection; you’re tempted to look in one place, but the answer lies elsewhere. Since training at high altitude is well defined as a “natural” stimulation of red blood cell production in the second paragraph, you can be sure the stimulation occurs more slowly with natural EPO than it does with synthetic EPO. Again, this is easy to miss but well defined when you put it together. Answer choice C must be correct.

3. Most of the risks of synthetic EPO are discussed in the third paragraph, but you may have to look in the second for a clue. Answer choice B is the correct answer, as it is not a risk of synthetic EPO. As stated in the second paragraph, hemoglobin levels above 15 are “desired,” so this is not a risk.

4. In questions like this, go to the answer choices and examine them individually, finding clues about where to look. Answer D is the correct answer. This is relatively easy to prove with this sentence in the first paragraph: “When kidneys detect a lack of oxygen flowing through the bloodstream, they secrete this glycoprotein, increasing the production of red blood cells, the body’s primary method of transporting oxygen to tissues and muscles.”