Are you struggling with ACT English scores between 14-24? You're not alone—hundreds of thousands of other students are scoring in this range. But many don't know the best ways to break out of this score range and get 26+ on the ACT.
Here we'll discuss how to improve ACT English score effectively, and why it's so important to do so. Put these principles to work and I'm confident you'll be able to improve your score.
Brief note: This article is tailored for lower-scoring students, currently scoring below a 26 on ACT English. If you're already above this range, my perfect 36 ACT English score article will be better for you as it contains advanced strategies.
In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring high is a good idea, what it takes to score a 26, and then go into ACT English tips.
Stick with me—this is like building a house. First you need to lay a good foundation before putting up the walls of the house and pretty windows. Similarly, we need to first understand why you're doing what you're doing, before diving into tips and strategies.
In this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 26. But if your goal is to get to a 24 or lower, these tips still equally apply.
Understand the Stakes
At this ACT score range, improving your low ACT English score to a 24 range will dramatically boost your chances of getting into better colleges.
The reason? A 26 puts you at right about the 83rd percentile, well above the national average of all ACT test takers. This is roughly equivalent to a 1200 out of 1600 on the SAT.
Let's take a popular school, Syracuse University, as an example.
Its average ACT score is a 27. Its 25th percentile score is a 25, and 75th percentile is a 30.
Furthermore, its acceptance rate is 49.9%. In other words, a little less than half of all applicants are admitted. Good odds, but the lower your scores, the worse your chances.
In our analysis, if you apply with an ACT score of 25, your chance of admission drops to 24%, or around 1/4 chance.
But if you raise your score to a 30, your chance of admission goes up to 55%—a very good chance of admission.
For the English section, this is especially true if you want to apply to humanities or language programs. They expect your English score to be better than your math score, and if you score low, they'll doubt your ability to do college-level humanities work.
It's really worth your time to improve your ACT score. Hour for hour, it's the best thing you can do to raise your chance of getting into college.
Curious what chances you have with a 27 ACT score? Check out our expert college admissions guide for a 27 ACT score.
Know that You Can Do It
This isn't just some lame inspirational message you see on the back of a milk carton.
I mean, literally, you and every other student can do this.
In my work with PrepScholar, I've worked with thousands of students scoring in the lower ranges of 15-21.
Time after time, I see students who beat themselves up over their low score and think improving it is impossible. "I know I'm not smart." "I've just never been good at writing, and I can't see myself scoring high." "I don't know what to study to improve my score. Is it grammar rules? Do I do practice?"
It breaks my heart.
Because I know that more than anything else, your ACT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.
Not your IQ and not your school grades. Not how Ms. Anderson in 10th grade gave you a C on your essay.
Here's why: the ACT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you get the sense that the questions are nothing like what you've seen in school?
You've learned grammar before in school. You know some basic grammar rules. But the ACT questions just seem so much weirder.
It's purposely designed this way. The ACT can't test difficult concepts, because this would be unfair for students who never took AP English. It can't ask you to decompose Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The ACT is a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country.
So it HAS to test concepts that all high school students will cover. How to transition between paragraphs, grammar rules like subject verb agreement, etc. You've learned all of this throughout school.
But the ACT still has to make the test difficult, so it needs to test these concepts in strange ways. This trips up students who don't prepare, but it rewards students who understand the test well.
Here's an example: find the grammar error in this sentence:The senator, along with his dozen campaign staff, are running a competitive race against the newcomer.
This is a classic ACT English question.
The error is in subject/verb agreement. The subject of the sentence is senator, which is singular. The verb is "are," but because the subject is singular, it should really be "is."
If you didn't see an error, you fell for a classic ACT English trap. It purposely confused you with the interrupting phrase, "along with his dozen campaign staff." You're now picturing 13 people in a campaign—which suggests a plural verb!
The ACT English section is full of examples like this. Nearly every grammar rule is tested in specific ways, and if you don't prepare for these, you're going to do a lot worse than you should.
Here's the good news: this might have been confusing the first time, but the next time you see a question like this, you'll know exactly what to do: find the subject and the verb, and get rid of the interrupting phrase.
So to improve your ACT English score, you just need to:
- learn the grammar rules that the ACT tests
- study how the ACT tests these grammar rules and learn how to detect which grammar rule you need in a question
- practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes
I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this. First, let's see how many questions you need to get right to get a certain score.
What It Takes to Get a 26 in ACT English
If we have a target ACT score out of 36 in mind, it helps to understand how many questions you need to get right on the actual test.
The ACT English section has 75 questions on it. Depending on how many questions you get right, you'll get a Scaled score out of 36.
Here's the raw score to ACT English Score conversion table. (If you could use a refresher on how the ACT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)
So if you're aiming for a 26, on this test you need to get just 60 questions correct. This is just an 80% on the test!
Also, keep in mind that you'll be able to GUESS on a lot of questions. Because there are 4 answer choices, you get a lot of questions right with a 25% chance!
So here's an example. Let's say you know how to solve just 55 questions for sure. You guess on the remaining 20, and get 5 of them right by chance. This gives you a raw score of 60, or a scaled score of 26!
This has serious implications for your testing strategy. In essence, you only need to answer 4/5 of all questions right. We'll go into more detail below about what this means for your testing strategy below.
Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 26. For example, if you're scoring a 21, you need to answer 10-13 more questions right to get to a 26.
Once again, if your goal is a score below 26, like a 23, the same analysis applies. Just look up what your Raw Score demands above.
OK—so we've covered why scoring a higher ACT English score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.
Now we'll actually get into actionable ACT English tips that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.
Tips to Improve Your Low ACT English Score
Strategy 1: Know What's On the Test. It's Not Just About Grammar!
The first tip to doing well on the ACT is understanding what you're actually going to be tested on. You need to predict every type of question that comes up so you have a game plan to get the right answer.
If you've studied ACT English before, you've probably worried about memorizing grammar rules like subject/verb agreement or pronoun antecedent.
The truth is, grammar is only half of the test. The other half is made up of what are called "Rhetorical Skills"—questions that are more about writing style and logic. Examples of concepts you need to know are Wordiness (how to phrase things concisely) and Transitional Logic (how to connect sentences and paragraphs together).
For these skills, you don't just memorize grammar rules—you need to understand how to write effectively in the context of the ACT.
At PrepScholar, we believe in dividing ACT English into individual skills you can attack separately. This is the best way to divide and conquer—understand what the ACT tests, and focus on mastering individual skills.
Here's a complete breakdown of the skills in ACT English:
Grammar (53% of ACT English)
- Number Agreement
- Verb Forms
- Word Choice
- Run-On Sentences
- Sentence Fragments
Rhetorical Skills (47% of ACT English)
- Author Intent
- Transitional Logic
- Macro Logic
- Formality and Tone
That's it! All of ACT English is wrapped up in these 18 skills. What seemed like a scary, giant 75-question section can actually be wrapped up entirely in these 18 skills.
Now, don't get overwhelmed. This may LOOK like a lot of stuff to study, but when you're aiming for a 26, you only have to master a fraction of these skills. I'll explain more in the next strategy.
For a more detailed look, check out our guide breaking down the ACT English section.
Strategy 2: Learn the Most Important Grammar Rules. Ignore the Others
If you've tried studying for ACT English before, you might have been daunted by the large number of grammar rules you seem to have to know.
The reality is, there is a huge difference in how important different grammar rules are on the test. Just as an example, Transition questions appear roughly 9 times per test, but Logical Comparison questions show up only once per test.
So some skills show up nearly 10x more often than other skills! This has a huge implication on what you should be spending your precious time on studying—not all study hours are treated equal. If you study the most important grammar rules first, you will get the biggest bang for your buck.
Here's the complete list of skills and how often they appear on a typical ACT English section:
|# per Test
|% per Test
|Formality and Tone
Look at the difference in commonality between the skills. Transitional logic shows up a whopping 9 times per test, while modifiers shows up just 2 times. If it takes the same amount of time to study both skills, clearly your time is better spent on studying Transitional logic.
Remember what we said about how you only need to get 80% of questions correct to get a 26? If you master the top 10 skills above and get all those questions right, you can totally ignore the other 8 skills! This is what I mean by bang for your buck.
Unfortunately, most books and test prep resources ignore this distinction—they just treat every skill equally. They'll give you the same number of practice questions and give you no guidance on how to spend your time. This means you can waste a lot of time studying things that truly don't matter on the ACT.
(Why do they do this? I believe this is usually because these companies hire people who are good at English to write their materials, not people who are good at taking tests. These are different skills).
At PrepScholar, we strongly believe in getting our students the biggest score improvement for every hour they spend on ACT prep. This is why our program focuses your attention on the most important skills that will lead to the most ACT score improvement. You only have limited time to study, and we don't want to waste it. We designed our program this way because they were the same methods we used to get perfect scores on the ACT.
If you plan to study by yourself—make sure you organize your time well. Instead of reading a book cover to cover, you should be focusing on the most critical grammar rules to improve your score most.
Strategy 3: Find Your Grammar Weaknesses and Drill Them
If you're like most students, you're better at some areas in ACT English than others. You might know transitions really well, but you'll be weak in sentence fragments. Or maybe you really like parallel construction, but have no idea what faulty modifiers are.
If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. You have a lot of homework, you might have intense extracurriculars, and you want to spend time with your friends.
This means for every hour you study for the ACT, it needs to be the most effective hour possible to raise your ACT score.
In concrete terms, you need to find your greatest areas of improvement and work on those.
Too many students study the 'dumb' way. They just buy a book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve, they're SHOCKED.
Studying effectively for the ACT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to apply thin coats of understanding evenly across a lot of subjects.
What these students did wrong was they wasted time on subjects they already knew well, and they didn't spend enough time improving their weak spots.
Instead, studying effectively for the ACT is like plugging up the holes of a leaking boat. You need to find the biggest hole, and fill it. Then you find the next biggest hole, and you fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.
How does this relate to ACT English? You need to find the most important grammar rules that you're having the most trouble in, and then practice hard until it's no longer a weakness.
Fixing up the biggest holes. Doesn't this make sense?
For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is, and why you missed it. When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you then need to find extra practice for this grammar rule.
Say you miss a lot of comma punctuation questions (the most common ACT English grammar rule). You need to find a way to get lesson material to teach yourself the main concepts that you're forgetting. Then you need to find more practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes.
This is by far the best way for you to improve your English score.
Bonus: If all of this is making sense to you, you'd love our ACT prep program, PrepScholar.
We designed our program around the concepts in this article, because they actually work. When you start with PrepScholar, you’ll take a diagnostic that will determine your weaknesses in over forty ACT skills, including individual grammar rules. PrepScholar then creates a study program specifically customized for you to maximize your score.
To improve each skill, you’ll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score. For example, if you're weak in Subject/Verb Agreement, we'll give you a dedicated quiz focused on that skill so that you master your weakness.
There’s no other prep system out there that does it this way, which is why we get better score results than any other program on the market.
Check it out today with a 5-day free trial:
Strategy 4: Attack Passages Sanely—By Paragraph
ACT English has a passage-based format. You get a passage with 4-6 paragraphs, and you get 15 questions per passage.
When you go into the test, you MUST have a plan on how to attack the passage and answer the questions.
Students make two common mistakes on ACT English:
#1: They panic about how many questions there are (75!) and they rush through the passage, making careless mistakes along the way.
#2: They think that only sentences that are underlined are important, and they ignore the sentences in between. This makes you ignore context, which is critical for Rhetoric questions like Transitions and Organization.
Have you ever felt this way before?
The good news is, there's a sane way to attack the passage. We call it the "paragraph method."
Here's how it works:
- Read a paragraph in the passage.
- Answer the questions in that paragraph.
Here's an example passage:
In this case, you read the passage until you hit the purple line. Then you answer all the questions marked in purple boxes. Next, you read the passage until you hit the green line. Then you answer the question marked in a green box.
That's it. Pretty simple, but here's why it works: by reading each paragraph one at time, you force yourself to understand the context around the sentences. This is critical for Rhetoric questions like, "Should this sentence be deleted?" or "Sentence 3 should be placed before..."
For example, notice how Question 26 comes at the beginning of the paragraph, but it requires you to understand the rest of the paragraph first: "which one most effectively introduces the information that follows in this paragraph?"
In our experience, this is the most effective and sanest way to attack the ACT English passage.
If you want to read more about this strategy, and possible alternatives to this method, read more: "The Best Way to Approach ACT English Passages." Because strategy lessons like this can be very effective in improving your score quickly, we include many of them in our PrepScholar ACT program.
Strategy 5: Don't Pick Answer Choices Based on "Sounding Weird." Know the Specific Rule Being Tested
The ACT tests proper English grammar very strictly. Imagine that it's a 60-year-old English professor with perfect diction and grammar.
It's not going to be the same language you use when you talk to your friends or text. For example:
"Jake and me went to the ball game."
This might be something you say informally in conversation, but it's 100% wrong on ACT English.
A lot of students figure out grammar mistakes by what "sounds wrong" to their ear.
The problem is, if you usually don't spot grammar errors easily, you can't fully rely on your ear to figure out what "sounds wrong." The ACT knows this, and it purposely puts in traps that will trick you if you can't precisely identify what's wrong and what's correct.
Here's what you should do instead. For every wrong answer choice that you eliminate, you should justify to yourself clearly why you are eliminating that answer choice.
Here's an example of a real ACT English question:
Here's my thinking as I go through the question:
- When I see this sentence, there's a comma splice error. "The shop opens at six in the morning" and "I arrive thirty minutes early to set up" are both independent clauses. Two independent clauses can only be joined with a semicolon, or a comma and a conjunction (like ", and")
- F: NO CHANGE is incorrect because it keeps the comma splice error we just found.
- G: This gets us closer—there's a comma here, followed by "however," The problem is that "however" isn't a conjunction—it's a conjunctive adverb. That means it doesn't behave like "and"—it needs to follow a semicolon or a period. Strike this out.
- H: This is what we were looking for—a comma and a conjunction. This is grammatically correct.
- J: This is just removing the comma, which doesn't solve the error—it then becomes a "run on sentence" where the two independent clauses are still improperly joined.
- I've eliminated every answer choice but H, which must be the correct answer.
Note that I'm not literally thinking all these words in my head, but this gives the gist of my thinking. I've identified the specific grammar error, so I know what I'm looking for.
It's like if I told you, "The bee fly to the hive." You know this is wrong instantly if you say it aloud because it feels wrong. After a few more seconds, you'd be able to point out that "bee" is singular and "fly" is plural, so we have a subject/verb agreement error.
By learning more grammar rules and practicing them, you'll be able to do this elimination very quickly and naturally. You'll pinpoint exact reasons that a phrase has a grammar error and use that to eliminate answer choices.
This is a lot better than guessing based on things "sounding weird" and you'll get many more questions right.
It really does take repetition to train grammar skills to this level, though. You need both lesson material to teach you the core content, then lots of practice questions to hammer the concepts home.
That's why in PrepScholar ACT, every ACT English skill gets a detailed strategy lesson, followed by dozens of practice questions to test what you just learned. We've found this to be the most effective method to learn the most important ACT English concepts.
If you're studying by yourself without a program, make sure you can find the best study material to teach you grammar and give you enough practice.
Strategy 6: Understand ALL Your ACT English Mistakes
Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.
Too many students scoring at the 12-20 score range spend too little time studying their mistakes.
It's harsh. I get it. It sucks to stare your mistakes in the face. It's draining to learn difficult concepts you don't already understand.
So the average student will breeze past their mistakes and instead focus on areas they're already comfortable with. It's like a warm blanket. Their thinking goes like this: "So I'm good at subject/verb agreement? I should do more subject/verb agreement problems! They make me feel good about myself."
The result? NO SCORE IMPROVEMENT.
Think about this: let's say you were learning how to cook, and you cut your finger accidentally while chopping carrots. Would you just ignore this, brush it aside, and keep chopping?
No! You'd figure out where you went wrong—are you holding the knife incorrectly? Are you holding the carrot incorrectly? Is the knife sharp enough?
You would do everything you can to avoid cutting yourself, because it's painful.
ACT English is the very same way. You have to understand why you're making mistakes, and how you're going to avoid making this mistake in the future.
So here's what you need to do:
- on every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about
- when you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
- in a notebook, keep a separate section by grammar rule. Write down:
- the gist of the question
- why you missed it
- what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future
It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.
By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.
In our ACT prep philosophy, reviewing your mistakes is the #1 way to improve your ACT score. We've designed our program accordingly—after you take a quiz in our PrepScholar ACT program, we give you immediate quiz results to review. We basically force you to review your mistakes before you do anything else. It's that important.
No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.
Strategy 7: Go Deeper—WHY Did You Miss a English Question?
Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't know this material." That's a cop out and you won't learn anything from this.
Always take it one step further—what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?
Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a question, and how you take the analysis one step further:
Content: I didn't learn the knowledge or grammar rule needed to answer this question.
One step further: What specific knowledge do I need to learn, and how will I learn this skill?
Incorrect Approach: I knew the content or grammar rule, but I didn't know how to approach this question.
One step further: How do I solve this question? How will I solve questions like this in the future?
Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or I missed a grammar rule I already knew.
One step further: Why did I misread the question? Why did I miss this grammar error? What trick did the ACT play on me? What should I do in the future to avoid this?
Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're missing questions.
Yes, this is hard, and it's tiring, and it takes effort. That's why most students who study the easy way—just reading a book cover to cover—don't improve.
But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.
If you find it hard to understand why you're making mistakes, then you might find a program like PrepScholar helpful. Every one of our questions has a detailed answer explanation explaining how to solve the question, how to eliminate each wrong answer choice, and common ACT English traps. We purposefully write these explanations to guide you when you've missed an answer choice.
Strategy 8: Don't Spend More than 30 Seconds per Question
Of all sections, ACT English has the least amount of time per question. In one section, you get 60 minutes to answer 75 questions, which means only 48 seconds per question!
Remember what we said above about getting a 26? You only need a raw score of 60 out of 75. This is 80%.
Therefore, DON'T feel bad about skipping a question. Chances are, it's actually a pretty hard question designed to waste your time. You're better off skipping it so you can get more questions right elsewhere in the section.
Furthermore, you can't predict which questions are easy or hard. Unlike ACT Math, where the questions increase in difficulty from start to finish, ACT English is more or less random.
So if you find yourself spending more than 30 seconds on a single question, skip it for now. You might have enough time to come back to it.
You definitely want to avoid sucking up 2 minutes on a single question. This is taking up way more time than a single question deserves, and you're better off spending that time on other questions to get extra points.
This requires discipline during the test, and many students ignore the clock until it's too late. Don't run out of time.
And now, my final ACT English prep tip:
Strategy 9: Don't Study General Grammar. Target ACT English
When many low-scoring students think about studying ACT English, they think it's mainly a matter of learning grammar. So to prep for ACT English, they'll use general grammar books from school or English class.
This points you in the wrong direction. Remember, ACT English tests grammar in very SPECIFIC ways.
You're not learning how to write a good essay and using good grammar generally. You're learning how to defeat ACT English.
The ways that grammar rules like punctuation or run-on sentences appear on ACT English are very formulaic—they show up in similar ways each time, with similar wrong answer choices. A run-on sentence question will have the same types of wrong answer choices, time and time again.
Your job is to learn these patterns, screen out wrong answer choices, and get the right answer.
So to do well on ACT English, you have to train with the best materials focused on ACT English. This means realistic practice questions that test Grammar and Rhetoric skills in the same way.
Understanding the ACT at a deep level isn't easy. That's why at PrepScholar, we hire only the country's leading experts on the ACT to craft our test content. All of our test content writers scored perfect ACT scores or in the 99th-percentile, and they've often tutored for hundreds of hours before joining us. We turn down dozens of applicants who score a 34 or below on the ACT. Our standards for content are extremely high, because we want our students to have the most realistic practice possible.
If you don't use PrepScholar, make sure you're confident of the quality of the materials you're using. If you train on low quality practice questions, you're going to develop bad habits and learn to attack questions the wrong way.
These are the main ACT English tips I have for you to improve your score. If you're scoring a 15, you can improve it to a 20. If you're scoring a 21, you can boost it to a 26. I guarantee it, if you put in the right amount of work, and study like I'm suggesting above.
Notice that I didn't actually teach you that many grammar rules. I didn't point to any tips and tricks that you need to know, or specific grammar rules that will instantly raise your score.
That's because these one-size-fits-all, guaranteed strategies don't really exist. (And anyone who tells you this is deceiving you). Every student is different.
Instead, you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.
This is really important to your future. Make sure you give ACT prep the attention it deserves, before it's too late, and you get a rejection letter you didn't want.
We have a lot more useful guides to raise your ACT score.
What's a good ACT score for you? Read our detailed guide on figuring out your ACT target score.
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.