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More on ACT and SAT Reading “Reasonable” Inferences

Every correct answer on the ACT and SAT Reading sections must be directly supported by the passages. The exams try to obscure this seemingly-simple fact with questions that sound more open-ended than they actually are. One common example of this obfuscation is questions that ask what can “reasonably be inferred” from a passage.


In order to conform to the “directly supported” rule, ACT and SAT inferences must be more limited and literal than the kinds of inferences you can make in a high school literature class.

In a previous lesson, we looked at what the ACT/SAT considers a “reasonable” inference within and between sentences. This time we’re going to explore what can and cannot be inferred from an entire paragraph.


To begin, let’s read the following sample paragraph:


Human beings are irrevocably shaped by their childhoods. Each of us has unique experience during out youth that fundamentally influence who we are. We internalize these experiences and take them with us throughout our lives. A person who grows up in extreme poverty develops a very different outlook on life than a person who spends his or her childhood in the lap of luxury. Even if an individual’s situation changes, he or she will continue to be affected to some degree. My grandmother spent her early years struggling to survive by saving and reusing whatever she could. Despite becoming a financially successful adult, she continued to wash and reuse sandwich bags and to sell back empty cans for five cents each.



Next, let’s look at some reasonable inferences we can draw:


  • The concept of childhood shaping adulthood is central to the author’s argument.

The main idea is always the one that comes up the most often in the passage.


  • The author includes the story of his/her grandmother washing and reusing sandwich bags and selling back cans to provide a specific example of this concept.

Passages always include supporting evidence for and/or specific examples of the ideas they present.


Finally, let’s consider some unreasonable inferences that would not pass the ACT/SAT “directly supported” rule:


  • The “grandmother” story is true.

We have no way to verify this independent of the passage.


  • The author himself/herself grew up in poverty.

The author doesn’t refer to his or her own situation growing up, only his/her grandmother’s.


  • A parent of the author (son/daughter of the grandmother) also grew up in poverty.


The parent did NOT grow up in poverty.

We don’t know at exactly what point the grandmother became a “financially successful adult” or when the grandmother gave birth to the author’s mom or dad.  Therefore, we do not have enough information to make an inference one way or the other.







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