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ACT English Tips

ACT English Tips

How should you prepare to ace the ACT English section? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, including over 15 tips, to earn a top score!

Tess H.
Tess H.

How should you prepare to ace the ACT English section? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, including over 15 tips, to earn a top score!

What is on the ACT English section?

The best way to prepare yourself for the ACT English section is to familiarize yourself with the format. Standardized testing can be anxiety inducing (Academic Anxiety specific tips) and the ACT experience is no exception. Knowing what to expect when you begin the English subsection will help ease any anxiety!

ACT English Section Format

The ACT English section will consist of passages followed by a set of multiple-choice questions. The task of a student is to act as an editor revising and editing writing. Many questions refer to a sentence in passage (underlined on paper tests, highlighted on online tests), offering 3 alternatives to the section and a NO CHANGE option.

The passages selected for the English section range in genre. These genres provide a variety of rhetorical situations and reflect student interests. The questions themselves will test one of two question types: Usage/Mechanics or Rhetorical Skills. Usage/Mechanics questions test punctuation (7-11 questions), grammar & usage (11-15 questions), and sentence structure (15-19 questions). Rhetorical Skills questions test strategy (11-15 questions), organization (7-11 questions), and style (11-15 questions).

Examples of each type of question are available at StudyPoint.

ACT English Timing

The ACT English section will feel the quickest of the four subsections. With 75 questions in 45 minutes, you will have the least amount of time per question in the English section. This section will be the first of the four, followed immediately by the ACT Math section. If you struggle with English make sure that you take the time during your test preparation to practice pacing in addition to the content.

Based on our experience, the best way to practice your pacing is to give yourself unlimited time on the first practice English section you take. The second practice section you take, limit yourself to 60 minutes. Finally, narrow the time to 45 minutes (the true length of the section). This method will allow you to build accuracy and speed as you get more comfortable with the format of the English section.

Taking full, strictly-timed sections for practice builds your test-taking stamina. Our advice is to simulate as many test conditions as possible. This includes taking your ACT English practice sections Sunday morning to get a feel for your energy levels the time of the day when you’ll take your ACT. If possible, you should also bubble in your answers to account for the time that it will take.

Is English hard on the ACT?

For many of our students, the ACT English section is often the hardest the first time taking the test. This is because they often are rusty on the grammar principles they are being tested on. However, it is also the section with the most significant score gains on additional tests.

The English section is the most predictable of the four subsections. Once students understand that the questions are in 3 categories (grammar, punctuation, & rhetoric/word choice) they can identify what is being asked by each “question” and improve their score drastically.

Compared to the SAT, the ACT does have less time per question on the English section but the two cover the same material. If you find that the SAT vocabulary and grammar more challenging then you may not benefit from the additional time.

ACT English Score

How is ACT English scored?

The ACT English section is scored the same as the other four subsections: each correct answer contributes a point to the raw score. There is no deduction for wrong answers or guessing, so you should always answer EVERY question. The raw score, or number of correct answers, is then converted to a “scale score” out of 36.

What is a good ACT English score?

To be in the top 20% of scores on the ACT English section, you should aim for a “scale score” of 25. To be in the top 10%, you should aim for a “scale score” of 30-31. And to be in the top 5%, you should aim for a “scale score” of 33-34.

What should you study for ACT English?

The most important information to study for the ACT English section are the standards of grammar and punctuation. Missing basic grammatical mistakes will take points off of your raw score. The following tips will help you refresh your knowledge of grammar rules.

Top tips for the English section of the ACT

Grammar Tips

Avoid run-ons and fragments.

The only correct answer in the English section is a complete sentence. Both fragments and run-ons are erroneous and should be avoided. A complete sentence has one primary clause made up of a subject and corresponding predicate or predicates with complete punctuation. Multiple clauses can be connected with semicolons or commas.

A fragment sentence has only a subject without a corresponding predicate.

A run-on sentence is characterized by multiple clauses or complete thoughts without correct connecting punctuation. A comma splice is the most common type of run-on sentence. Look for subjects and predicates and ensure that multiple clauses are correctly connected with semicolons or commas, avoiding comma splices.

No commas before or after prepositions.

One of the known tricks used by the ACT English writers is including commas before prepositions. Don’t fall for this trick! It is always wrong to place a comma after a preposition. There is one exception when a preposition is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause which adds additional context to a sentence.

Keep a short word count.

Prioritizing answers that are shorter and still grammatically correct are normally your best bet on the ACT English section. The best answers are clear and concise. This is because shorter sentences are easier to understand and use. Any answer choices which include unnecessary additional words of phrases should be discarded.

Check for dangling modifiers.

The use of dangling and/or misplaced modifiers is another common concept tested on the ACT English section. Modifiers are phrases or words that modify another word or phrase to provide additional information. When a modifier is followed by a comma, ensure that it is providing relevant additional information about the word or phrase directly following the comma.

When a modifier, followed by a comma, is not directly followed by the referenced word or phrase this modifier is known as dangling or misplaced.

Watch out for idioms.

Idioms are common expressions that the ACT English writers test on. There are both two-part and prepositional idioms. Two-part idioms include the common pairings “neither…nor” and “not only…but also”. Some examples of prepositional idioms are “opposed to” and “participate in”. There are no hard-set rules for idioms, so the best way to prepare is familiarizing yourself with the most common idioms and their uses.

An extensive list of common idioms can be found here.

Remember the basics of subject-verb agreement.

Whenever there is a verb in the referenced sentence of the passage, match it to its subject. A matching subject and verb agree in number. This means plural subjects need plural verbs and singular subjects need singular verbs. If there are any prepositional phrases in the sentence, remove them and read only the subject and verb together.

When answering a question in the English subsection, if the tense of the verb, for example, does not agree with any of the subjects in the answer choices, then eliminate these answers. Subject-verb agreement is the easiest to spot when the subject and verb are next or near to each other in the sentence.

Unfortunately the subject and verb are often not colocated, making your job more difficult. Removing extraneous information from the sentence and reading it in its simplest form will help you confirm subject-verb agreement in these more difficult sentences.

Colons must follow complete sentences.

Colons are used to present a list or explanations. The key rule to remember when using a colon is to only use a colon following a complete sentence. The ACT English writers will try to trick you by either using a colon incorrectly or following a fragment with a colon introduced list. Knowing to look for a complete sentence ANYTIME a colon is used will prevent you from losing easy points on the ACT English section.

Check pronoun-antecedent agreement.

A pronoun refers to an antecedent. A simple example is the antecedent “Students” could be replaced by the pronoun “They”. You should ensure that the plurality or singularity of the pronoun-antecedent pair is conserved. This means the antecedent “Student” should be replaced by “He/She” instead of “They” as shown in the previous example.

The pronoun and antecedent almost always fall in different parts of the sentence, which can make identifying the pair more difficult. You can always check that you have identified the correct pairing of antecedent and pronoun by replacing the pronoun with the antecedent and ensuring the message of the sentence has not changed.

Semicolons can combine complete thoughts.

Semicolons act similarly to periods making it possible for them to connect two complete, related clauses. However, if the two thoughts are not independent clauses then a semicolon cannot be used. One way to test if you have appropriately placed a semicolon is replacing it with a period and ensuring both sentences are still complete on their own. If you find a comma splice that has created a run-on sentence, you can replace the comma with a semicolon to correct the sentence.

Keep consistent verb tenses.

In addition to ensuring that verbs agree in number with their subject, all verbs must also match the tense and form of other verbs. Mixing past, present, and future verb tenses in a single sentence is always incorrect, irrespective of the ACT English section. If your sentence starts in the future tense, it must end in the future tense. If you are unsure of the referenced sentence’s tense, check the surrounding sentences for context.

More Tips for the English section of the ACT

Taking a standardized test is daunting, especially when timing is tight. The ACT English section is no exception; with 75 questions in 45 minutes, it allows only 35 seconds on average per question. It can be scary! Preparing yourself with the following tips and tricks will help you hack the English section and increase your score.

Take your time.

The time limitation of the English section makes many students feel as though they need to rush through the section in order to complete it. Don’t feel rushed, feel prepared. If you are going too quickly, you may miss relatively easy questions.

Set a pace for yourself and stick to it, we recommend about 30 seconds per question. This pace will give you adequate time to read and understand each question. Remember that the ACT doesn’t take points off for incorrect answers, so in the case that you do run out of time you can guess on the few remaining.

Think simple.

Remembering to think simple will also help you to manage your time. The English section values conciseness highly. This often means that the correct answer will use the fewest words to convey an idea. Do keep in mind that this does not mean the shortest answer will be correct. Rather, the grammatically correct sentence that is not wordy will be correct. The best answers are clear and concise.

Read the full sentence but not the full passage.

The long-winded directions of the ACT English section are to be ignored, they instruct reading the full passage before answering the questions. If you follow these directions you are sure to run out of time on this fast-paced section.

Rely on grammar rules, not your ear.

Although it is generally advisable to read each answer choice quietly to yourself to listen for correctness, you should not discard answers which sound wrong. Spoken and written English frequently breaks grammar rules tested by the ACT English section. If it sounds weird, read it again and go through the grammar rules in your head. Then make a decision. You should default to your knowledge of grammar rules when selecting the correct answer choice for a referenced sentence.

Keep clauses parallel.

Parallelism means all clauses of a sentence have a matching structure. This grammatical structure becomes easier to spot the more you see and pay attention to it. A common example of parallelism is listing verbs in gerund form; an example is the sentence “I was running, walking, and swimming”. If the previous sentence had listed “running, walking, and swim” the sentence would not be parallel. On the ACT English section you should select the answer which conserves parallel sentence structure.

Eliminate similar or identical answers.

A good way to eliminate answer choices on the ACT English section is looking for selections which are similar. If two answers differ in vocabulary but the two words are synonyms, then you can eliminate both choices. Similarly if two answers use equivalent punctuation, such as a semicolon and a period, then you should eliminate both.

If you’re still struggling to hack the ACT English section, Ivy Tutors Network can help! Our expert ACT tutors know all the tips and tricks for excelling high on the exam. With a little personalized attention, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your target score – or higher!


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