Preparing for the ACT English section can feel overwhelming. This section covers a lot of material that is often not taught in school, and the format is probably different from that of any other test you’ve taken.
Even more confusing, there are a ton of different sources for ACT English prep. How do you decide which ones to use? How do you make the most efficient use of your study time? What should you do to prepare for ACT English to reach your target score?
In this article, I will break down the best way to prepare for ACT English. I've arranged my tips by how important I feel they are to ACT English success, but you need to follow them all if you want to be fully prepared on test day. By following these tips, you can have a more disciplined, focused approach to your ACT prep, and you can be more confident in the methods you’re using to prepare.
#1: Comprehensively Learn the Grammar Rules on the ACT
Understanding the grammar rules the ACT tests is essential to doing well on the ACT English section. The ACT tests the same grammar rules repeatedly; if you can master these rules, you'll be well on your way to reaching your ACT English target score.
On the PrepScholar blog, we have written articles on the grammar rules and errors that appear on the ACT. Each article provides real examples, explanations, and strategies for answering related questions:
Run-On Sentences/Sentence Fragments
Focus your studying on the rules that are most commonly tested, but ultimately you should be familiar with all the rules, especially if you're targeting a 36. Check out this article on the distribution of appearance of the grammar rules on the ACT.
#2: Review the Types of Rhetorical Skills Questions and Strategies for Answering Them
Many of the rhetorical skills questions differ greatly from the grammar questions, as they test your reading comprehension and your ability to analyze the passage rather than your knowledge of conventions. To tackle these questions, you need to be able to identify what you're being asked and know how to find the correct answer.
On the PrepScholar blog, there are articles on each type of rhetorical skills question, examples, and strategies for correctly answering each type of question. Here are links to these articles:
Understanding the content and questions that appear on ACT English is imperative to doing well. However, if you want to prepare yourself fully, you need to repeatedly test your understanding by doing practice problems.
#3: Do Tons of Practice Problems and Understand Every Mistake
Doing tons of practice problems will make you more confident with the material and increase your comfort level with the unique format of the ACT English section. Make sure you keep doing practice problems consistently.
Use official practice tests, when possible, because the problems on those tests are most representative of what you're likely to see on the ACT. I highly recommend you follow the advice in this post on the best sources for ACT English practice. Additionally, PrepScholar has over 1500 practice problems customized to each skill.
It's important to note, however, that just doing practice problems isn't enough.
Why You Need to Understand Your Mistakes
Even though doing a ton of practice problems will be beneficial to your ACT English preparation, if you keep repeating the same mistakes, your score won't improve. You have to understand why you're getting questions wrong so you can address your weaknesses and continue raising your score.
Students often neglect to take the necessary time to understand their mistakes and figure out how to correct them in the future. Understanding your mistakes can be more difficult than just doing practice problems, but it's an extremely important step in the preparation process.
How to Understand Your Mistakes
Fully understanding your mistakes takes time and effort. Here is the process I recommend you use to comprehend why you made each mistake and know how to improve your deficiencies. This process is somewhat rigorous, but it's the best way to prepare for ACT English.
- On every practice test and problem set you do, circle every question on which you're even 20% unsure what the answer is.
- When you grade your test or quiz, carefully review each question you circled or answered incorrectly. This way you'll be reviewing both your missed questions and the questions that you got right by guessing.
- On your computer or in a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Create different sections for each grammar rule and type of rhetorical skills question.
Try to determine why you got questions wrong on your own. However, if you're having trouble figuring out why you made mistakes, the ACT website has a test with explanations and The Real ACT Prep Guide has 5 tests with explanations.
Take notes on what you specifically missed and how to improve in the future. Be as thorough and specific as possible.
For example, don't just write that you missed a comma question. Did you add a comma unnecessarily? Did you forget that you should put a comma before and after an appositive phrase? What resources will you use to learn this rule and ensure that you don't make the same mistake again?
Also, don't just take notes on your content issues. Write down any information about your careless errors and what steps you'll take to prevent repeating them. Did you forget to read the whole sentence? Do you need to look at the answer choices more closely?
You want to really dig into why you're missing questions and focus on specific ways to improve.
#4: Identify Your Weaknesses and Drill Them
As long as you do a thorough job of categorizing your missed questions, you should be able to easily determine your weaknesses.
Spend additional time practicing the areas in which you're struggling. Maybe there's a specific grammar rule like pronoun agreement or parallelism that's causing you difficulties. Maybe you struggle with a specific type of rhetorical skills question like author main goal or macro logic questions. Do extra content review and practice problems related to those types of questions.
We think PrepScholar is a great resource for this type of practice because it's designed to customize your ACT prep to focus on your weaknesses. If you'd prefer to try something else, the best ACT prep books and websites also have real and realistic practice problems for each type of ACT English question.
Additionally, you should continue reviewing all the questions you missed and marked. Focus your studying on the areas where you're having problems. If you spend the majority of your time practicing stuff you already know, you're not using your time effectively.
#5: Determine If You Have a Time Management Issue and, If So, Address It
How to Determine if You Have Time Management Issues
Find an official ACT and take the ACT English section. Use a timer and treat it like a real test. If time runs out and you're not finished, keep going, but for every new answer or answer you change after the allotted time, mark it with a note as "Extra Time."
Grade your test, but we want two scores: 1) The Realistic score you got under normal testing conditions and 2) The Extra Time score.
If the difference is more than 4 raw points, then you need to address your time management issues.
How to Fix Time Management Issues
Generally, time management improves as you become more familiar and confident with the content. If time management is a lingering issue, you may have to change how you approach ACT English passages.
Also, you may need to monitor your time spent per question. Easier grammar questions should take around 15-20 seconds. Big picture rhetorical skills questions can take up to a minute. I recommend never spending more than a minute on any individual question.
Keep in mind that you have an average of 36 seconds per question in ACT English.
While some of you may struggle completing the ACT English section, others may find that they're rushing. This is an equally serious problem.
If you're finishing the section with more than 5 minutes left and you're getting more than a couple of questions wrong, you need to slow down. Reread the previous sentence. Slow down!
Read the questions more carefully, take a closer look at the answer choices, and spend time reviewing your answers.
#6: Build Your Test Endurance
The ACT can be mentally draining and it's easy to lose focus during the test. Fortunately, the ACT English section is always first, so you should have plenty of energy. On the other hand, you won't have time to ease into the test.
Before test day, take at least 3 official tests simulating test-taking conditions. Mimic the test day experience as closely as possible. Use a timer. Bubble in your answers. Only take the ACT-allowed breaks. Turn off your cell phone. Yes, you read that correctly. Turn off your your cell phone! I know that will probably be scary and cause you anxiety, but you have to turn off your cell phone during the ACT, so you might as well practice going a few hours without posting an Instagram pic.
If you follow all these tips, I guarantee you'll be ready for the ACT English section when test day arrives. You'll know the content, be comfortable with the format, and be confident that you can successfully complete the section.
As you continue your ACT English prep, I encourage you to study this post on the 5 critical concepts you must understand to ace ACT English.
If you're striving for a perfect score, learn how to get a 36 on ACT English from a perfect scorer.
You'll also find helpful advice in this article on my top tips for ACT English success.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.