Tips for English ACT to Help You Get a Max Score
How is the ACT English test structured?
The ACT English test is made up of 75 questions that test basic English grammar and syntax. To be completed in 45 minutes, the section is fast-paced and requires a solid understanding of grammar rules and stylistic choices to finish on time.
These questions can be grouped into four categories:
- Punctuation: using the correct punctuation includes how to correctly use commas, parentheses, dashes, colons, semicolons, and apostrophes (for explanations of the most essential punctuation rules, see the “Rules to Expect During the Test” section below!).
- Form or word correction: choosing the correct form or word ranges from vocabulary to pronouns to tenses.
- Logic questions: correctly placing a sentence in a paragraph in its most logical position or whether or not a proposed sentence addition is needed and logical for the flow of the passage.
- Main idea/interpretation of a passage: understanding the main idea of a passage or paragraph and often require skimming through the entire section. These questions are more based on the content of the passage as a whole than the minutiae of any individual sentence.
Comprising ¼ of the total test score, the ACT English test is scored on a scale up to 36. Below is a chart that details how a raw score (on the right, calculated by how many questions were answered correctly out of the 75) will translate into the scaled score (on the left, out of 36).
Top Strategies To Improve Your Score
Short for paragraph-by-paragraph, the graf-by-graf strategy means reading one paragraph at a time and then answering any questions associated with that paragraph before moving on to the next.
While many of the ACT English section’s questions can be answered only by reading the sentence on which the question focuses and do not require any other context, style-based questions rely on students’ understanding of the larger focus of the passage and the logic of the author’s presentation of his or her argument.
By taking the questions “graf-by-graf”, students ensure that the information they are using to answer questions is only coming from the relevant section of the passage. Moreover, while some of this reading might end up being superfluous because of the nature of the questions that refer to that paragraph, this strategy will eliminate mistakes made by forgetting to read the complete sentences for grammatical questions and will also ensure that style and logic questions are made with a full understanding of the purpose of the paragraph as a whole.
Answer As You Go
Unlike the ACT Reading section, where many students like to read the passage in its entirety before jumping into the questions, the ACT English section’s passages and questions are meant to be engaged with simultaneously. If reading through “graf-by-graf” is not appealing, some students like to read as they answer the questions, meaning that they do not finish the paragraph before answering the questions. Instead, this ACT English strategy consists of answering the questions as you reach them in the passage.
If timing for the ACT English section is a weak spot, students should consider answering questions on a sentence-by-sentence basis. While this strategy does not allow students to get a complete understanding of the passage in its entirety, it eliminates the unnecessary reading of sentences that do not pertain to any questions. This technique saves time for punctuation and grammar questions that can be answered only with the structure of individual sentences; however, style and logic questions are more difficult to answer without a broader understanding ascertained by reading the passage in its entirety, whether by breaking it up by paragraph or by reading it in one fell swoop.
Skimming the Passage First
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the previous strategy, skimming the passage first is a technique in which a student briefly reads over the entire passage without consulting the questions. Then, after having a handle on the passage’s content in its entirety, he or she goes back to answer the questions. While this strategy does allow for a comprehensive understanding of the content, it does mean that you are wasting time understanding portions of the text that might never apply to a question in particular. If you typically feel like the context of one or two sentences surrounding a question is not enough for you to feel confident in your answer, this strategy could be for you.
Rules to Expect During the Test
As mentioned earlier, being confident in grammar rules and rhetorical skills is central to being able to complete the ACT English section with any degree of accuracy. Below are some of the central ACT English section requirements to know to make sure you perform well on test day.
Commas: used in a number of ways in the ACT English section compared with some of the punctuation marks that have more limited uses.
Firstly, the comma can be used alone to join an independent clause (a clause that if separated from the rest of the sentence could be its own sentence) and a dependent clause (a clause that, for lack of a subject and/or verb, could not be a sentence on its own).
They can also be used with conjunction to separate two independent clauses. A comma must be used after an introductory phrase and before an independent clause.
Additionally, if a descriptive clause is not essential to understanding the noun it describes, that descriptive clause (known also as an appositive) needs to be surrounded by a comma on either end (Example: Betty, the girl in the red shirt, is reading a book. Since we already know who the subject is because we identify her by name, “the girl in the red shirt” is not necessary to understand the essential elements of the sentence).
Apostrophes: used in two cases on the ACT English test: contractions and possession. In the case of contractions, an apostrophe is used to replace the dropped letter (Ex: can’t, it’s, won’t).
For possession, apostrophes are placed after the noun and accompanied by an s for singular nouns (ex: girl’s books, meaning that one girl possesses multiple books). For plural nouns, the apostrophe comes after the s instead (ex: girls’ books, meaning that multiple girls have multiple books between them).
Dashes: a very versatile punctuation mark. They can be used to show an interjection in dialogue (this application is rarely used for ACT English questions), for emphasis, and to separate an appositive (identically to how commas can be used for the same purpose).
Semicolons: one of the most straightforward punctuation marks to remember for the ACT English test. They are essentially equivalent to a period, meaning that they can only separate two independent clauses. The semicolon is typically used to separate two related, often short sentences to show a connection between their content and to avoid short, choppy sentences in succession. A specific application of the semicolon rule is when the word however shows contrast in the middle of a sentence (Ex: I wanted to go to the game; however, I had too much homework).
The ACT English section questions ask students to choose the correct form of an underlined portion of a sentence. For questions that deal with subject/verb agreement, either the subject or the verb will not be included in this underlined portion. This leaves the student to choose the answer choice that correctly pairs with the other that cannot be altered (Ex: She goes to the store every day after work. Other choices for the underlined portion might be were going, go, and have gone). A key ACT English trick for questions like this is to eliminate any prepositional phrases between the subject and the verb to avoid matching up the verb to the incorrect noun (Ex: The students
at the school were late because of traffic. At the school can be crossed out to avoid matching the verb “to be” to the singular noun “school” instead of the plural noun “students”).
Similar to the idea that either a subject or verb is unable to be changed and the other must be chosen accordingly, pronouns and the nouns they refer to function in a similar way. Most often, the noun that the pronoun replaces will be set in stone, and the pronoun will be up to the student to choose. *Note: the ACT considers singular pronouns only to be he or she. They, on the ACT, is only considered as a plural pronoun, not a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
Idioms and wrong words
Make sure to study homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings). Common ones include effect (noun)/affect (verb), their (possessive)/they’re (contraction)/there (location), its (possession)/it’s (contraction), and your (possession)/you’re (contraction). Idioms, or common phrases, can also be difficult. Questions whose answers depend on correctly wording an idiom are some of the only questions in the ACT English section whose correct answers can often be determined based on what sounds correct rather than on a rule. The differences between answer choices for this type of question are often which prepositions are used and the order in which words are placed.
Parallel construction refers to making sure that verb tenses, pronouns, etc. do not vary within a list and sometimes even in a sentence or between multiple sentences. In the case of a list that is not composed of nouns only, it is important to make sure that each component in the list is structured identically. Example: I went to school to study, to make friends, and to gain professional experience. In this example, “to” is necessary before “professional experience” because it is present before the other items in the list. If the list was formatted as “I went to school to study, make friends, and gain professional experience,” then “to” would not be necessary before “professional experience” because it is not present before the other articles in the list in this case.
Run-on sentences are sentences that include multiple independent clauses joined incorrectly. They can typically be fixed by either separating the clauses into separate sentences altogether or by adjusting the punctuation between the clauses. Between two independent clauses, acceptable punctuation includes a comma with a conjunction, a semicolon, a colon, or a dash, depending on the context of the clauses and the relationship between them.
Essentially the opposite of a run-on sentence, a sentence fragment is an incomplete portion of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. To turn a sentence fragment into a complete sentence, most likely add a subject or a verb depending on the specifics of the fragment.
Also known as an adjunct, a modifier is a descriptive phrase that provides more information or modifies the understanding of a word in a sentence. On the ACT English section, misplaced modifier questions often take the form of a question whose introductory phrase does not modify the correct noun in the sentence. Usually, the modifier that begins the sentence remains unchangeable while the structure of the rest of the sentence changes to have different subjects. To succeed, make sure that the modifier is describing the subject of the sentence. For example, if the introductory modifier of the sentence is “While walking down the street,” the answer choices might be “a girl saw a dog on the sidewalk,” “a dog was jogging next to me,” “the leaves were crisp,” or “the girl’s hair blew in the wind”. The correct answer in this scenario would be the first choice because the subject, in that case, is “a girl”, and the girl, in this case, is the person who was walking down the street. The second choice’s structure would mean that the dog was the one walk
Questions of sentence organization on the ACT English section deal with the order of sentences in a paragraph. A helpful hack for this type of question is to analyze the sentence out of context before attempting to figure out where it best logically fits out of the multiple possible locations in the paragraph. In doing so, there are two main things to look for in the sentence. Firstly, what role does the sentence seem to play? Is it introducing a new idea or defining a new term? Is it providing evidence or an example for an idea that has already been introduced?
Questions based on the tone of the passage ask students to choose a word (most likely out of answer choices that are synonymous) based on the level of its formality. If the passage is written in a casual tone, opt for an answer choice that reflects that. Similarly, if the passage is more academic and formal, then be sure to cross out any colloquial answer choices and opt for a more formal choice.
This type of question asks you to understand for what purpose the author wrote the piece. Think about the audience, tone, and rhetorical devices that the author uses to glean clearer insight. Leave these questions to answer last for that passage because you will have a stronger idea of the logic of the passage and its goal after reading its conclusion.
Relevance of sentences
Questions involving the relevance of sentences ask students to determine if a sentence is essential and logical to the passage. If a question asks if a sentence is essential or logical to the paragraph in a specific location, take out that sentence and see if the understanding of the sentence is the same, more clear, or less clear.
This category is particularly broad because it can refer to the tone of the passage, the definition of a word, or even the phrasing of an expression. For tone-based questions, reflect on the level of formality of the passage (Is it academic? Casual?). Then, choose whichever of the answer choices shares that level of formality. As a general rule, very colloquial words or phrases can be ruled out right away. For definition-based questions, take out the word in the sentence and try to replace it with your own synonym. Then select the answer choice whose meaning most closely resembles your word. The phrasing of expression questions are some of the only questions that are best answered by ear: choose the answer choice that sounds closest to how you would phrase the expression.
ACT English Tips and Tricks to Follow
- Practice, Practice, Practice: Taking multiple practice tests is critical to making progress leading up to test day. While the questions from test to test evaluate the same skills, individual questions vary based on context. Understanding one way in which a grammar rule can be tested is not enough to guarantee success. Make sure to take multiple tests to get acquainted with all of the different ways in which Collegeboard can test the same grammar rule. Additionally, try to standardize your practice tests so that your testing environment mimics the conditions of test day as much as possible (including time of day, materials, noise, access to food or drink, etc).
- Understand Your Mistakes: The English section of the ACT is the section of the exam where understanding why incorrect answers are wrong is just as important as understanding why the correct answer is right. Developing an understanding of patterns of mistakes will make you more likely to catch mistakes on the test day. Even on questions where guessing might be necessary, remembering past mistakes can help you to make more educated guesses. Similarly, understand your strengths and accomplishments on prior tests. You are less likely to have trouble choosing between answer choices for a question for lack of confidence if you know you usually get that type of question correct!
- Manage Your Time and Don’t Rush: Since the differences between answer choices can be nuanced, bringing a critical eye to each question is essential to test day success. Make sure not to rush through the questions while maintaining a swift pace to ensure you finish on time. Unlike other sections whose questions’ difficulty progresses as you go along, the ACT English section’s questions are relatively equal. While individual questions are obviously harder than others, there is no demonstrable trend to this variation in difficulty. As such, you can plan out your time relatively equally and stick to a structured schedule rather than trying to get through the easier questions faster so you have more time for the latter part of the section (as is the case with Math).
- Rely on Rules, Not Your Ear: While the English section can seem easier in theory because of familiarity with English, there is a double-edged sword to being so familiar with the content. A common mistake is to rely on only what sounds correct, and while this strategy might work for some unique questions, this is not a sound strategy on which one should base their approach to the section. Instead of trying to find which answers sound correct, always try to determine which grammatical rule(s) is/are being tested and do your best to apply it/them to each answer choice.
- Don’t Be Afraid of the “No Change” Answer: The “No Change” answer is correct just as often as any of the other answer choices, so don’t be afraid to choose it. A good first step is to try to find an error with the “No Change” answer so it is easier to understand the errors with other answer choices. For example, if the “No Change” answer is incorrect because it does not properly link two independent clauses, this should help you to pick up on similar issues with the other options.
- Eliminate Similar Answers: Grouping answer choices is a great strategy to help with time management for the ACT English section because it allows you to rule out multiple answer choices at a time without needing to reference more grammar rules. For example, if a question is asking you to understand what would be the best transition between two sentences that complement each other by building on the same point, you can group together possible answer choices that would show a contradiction between them, such as however, by contrast, and on the other hand.
- Pick the Clearest Answer: The ACT English section focuses on conciseness and clarity (always think quality over quantity!). If you’re having trouble finding any grammatical reasons why an answer choice would be any better than another, check for any redundant information in the sentence as well as in the sentences preceding and following the one in question. For example, if an answer choice described an actress as “comedic, funny, and hilarious,” the answer choice would be incorrect if there were an alternative answer choice that reduced the description to be more concise (with one adjective instead of three synonyms, for example).
- Pay Attention to the Transitional Sentences: As much as it is important to understand the main points of each paragraph in the ACT English section, it is equally important to understand the logic behind the transition from one paragraph to another. Paying attention to transitional sentences helps to better understand the passage as a whole despite having to break it up into paragraphs or sentences to answer specific questions.
- Finish With Extra Time and Double-Check: This is obviously easier said than done, but having time to go back at the end of the section is ideal. Often, questions that test the same grammatical rules in different ways can complement each other and help students to pick up on tricks in one or the other. If a later question would elucidate an aspect of a former one, then having the time to go back to that earlier question to apply that clarity can be helpful.
- Double-check for paragraph indentations: For questions that ask students to identify the main points of a paragraph, make sure not to trust that a paragraph ends at the end of a page. Some paragraphs are split between pages, so always assume the paragraph continues until the next indentation.
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