The ACT English section can be intimidating. You have to know grammar rules that may seem obscure to you, and the ACT folks even expect you to know how to properly use commas. Not only do you have to know your grammar, but also you have to to know how to analyze ACT English passages, and you have to know how to organize them. You're tested on a wide range of skills and you don’t have much time to answer each question. If you’re wondering how to possibly go about studying for ACT English and improving your score, then this is the post for you.
In this article, I’ll give you my top 9 strategies to help you ace the ACT English section. These are meant to be study tips that will require time and diligence. The most important advice I can give you is to keep practicing. Focus your studying on areas that need improvement. However, that's advice that anyone can give. If you can successfully execute the following specific strategies, I guarantee your ACT English success:
- Know the Format
- Determine the Best Way for You to Approach the Passages
- Learn the Grammar Rules
- Use Official Practice Tests
- Categorize Missed Questions
- Carefully Review and Analyze Real ACT Questions
- Simulate Test Day Conditions
- Use Your Target Score to Focus Your Study Plan
- Think About the Differences Between Answer Choices
#1: Familiarize Yourself With the Format
If you know the format of the ACT English section well, you'll be more comfortable with the test and can reduce test day anxiety. You should know that you have 45 minutes for 75 questions. There are five passages. The questions test your knowledge of standard written English and rhetorical skills.
Most ACT English questions refer to underlined portions of a sentence within a passage, and you have to determine how to correct the underlined portion. Here is an example:
Additionally, you should know the content distribution of the questions to help prioritize your studying. This is the general breakdown of the distribution of questions that appear in ACT English:
I put a few of the grammar rules in two of the categories because those rules can be tested in multiple ways. For example, a question testing pronoun number agreement would be a grammar question and a question about an ambiguous pronoun would be a style question, but you can learn about both of those rules in the post on pronoun agreement.
Also, because most of the writing style questions are related to grammar concepts, the majority of the ACT English section is based on specific rules that you can master before you take your ACT.
The organization and strategy questions test your reading comprehension and ability to analyze parts of a passage or the passage as a whole.
It's very important that, before you take the ACT, you're comfortable with the content, the types of questions, and completing the ACT English section in less than 45 minutes.
#2: Figure Out the Best Way to Approach ACT English Passages
There are multiple ways to approach ACT English passages and you should determine the best approach for you well before test day. These are the possible approaches you can use: paragraph by paragraph, answer as you go, sentence by sentence, or passage first. For a thorough explanation of how to choose and test your method, check out this article on how to approach ACT English passages.
Make sure to use your preferred approach on practice tests to hone it and determine its effectiveness. Using the same approach maximizes your efficiency; therefore, you need to use the same approach consistently.
If you're not achieving your desired results on practice tests and questions, you can consider changing your approach. However, once you decide on the best approach for you, stick with it. Drill it enough so you use it without even thinking about it.
#3: Know What Grammar Rules the ACT Tests
The ACT tests the same grammar rules over and over, so knowing these rules will be crucial to your success on ACT English. Since the concepts also tend to appear in the same ways, it's also helpful to make sure you understand how the ACT structures the questions.
Read the PrepScholar blogs on each grammar rule:
If you understand the ACT grammar rules and how to apply them, you'll do well on the ACT English section.
#4: Focus on Using Real Practice Tests to Study
The best practice questions are those that come from actual ACTs. Those are most representative of what you'll find when you take your real ACT.
Unfortunately, many unofficial materials aren't true to the test. The practice questions from many prep books or websites don't cover the right concepts, they're presented in a different format, and they're either much easier or more difficult than the questions on the ACT English section.
Make sure you're using the best sources for ACT English practice. If you're using bad materials, you're not using your study time effectively, and your efforts are less likely to produce your desired results.
Also, the PrepScholar program is written by experts who have extensive teaching experience and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. The practice questions are based on real ACT questions.
#5: Categorize and Review Missed Questions
This strategy may sound weird or hard, but it's actually extremely important. When you do ACT English practice, keep track of all the questions you miss or are unsure about. Then, categorize these questions by the grammar rule that's being tested or by the specific type of rhetorical skills question.
Why You Should Categorize Questions
Categorizing all of the questions you miss or guess correctly on will help you determine where you have skill deficiencies. Then, you can focus your studying on the areas on which you have weaknesses.
The ACT English section tests the same types of questions repeatedly. If you know how to correctly answer each type of question, no question should confuse you when you take the test.
How to Categorize Questions
Ideally, you should be able to categorize questions on your own. However, if you need help determining the type of question, there are some sources you can use that provide real ACT example questions and thorough explanations to those questions.
On the PrepScholar blog, we have written articles on every grammar rule and type of rhetorical skills question that appears on the ACT. Each PrepScholar article has example questions, explanations, and offers strategies for answering questions related to the topic.
The ACT website has free English practice and explanations for the answers.
Additionally, The Real ACT Prep Guide has 5 official ACTs with detailed explanations of all of the test questions.
#6: Review Examples of Questions Related to Each Grammar Rule and Type of Rhetorical Skills Question
This strategy will help you increase your familiarity with and comprehension of all of the different types of questions that appear on the ACT.
Create a study guide of real ACT questions for each grammar rule and each type of rhetorical skills question. Compile questions from the PrepScholar blog, official ACT tests, and other quality source material in a notebook or computer document, and organize them according to question type (e.g. subject-verb agreement, relevance, etc.).
For each question in this study guide, you should be able to understand and explain how to arrive at the correct answer. I recommend doing this in addition to keeping track of your missed questions, which you should also categorize and review.
If you spend ample time reviewing these questions, you'll solidify your understanding of the concepts and be much more confident with the material on the ACT English section.
#7: Take Timed Practice Tests Simulating Test Day Conditions
Taking the ACT can be a mentally draining, pressure-filled experience. To alleviate your test day anxiety and build up your endurance, you should take 3 full length, timed practice tests prior to your real ACT.
Use a timer and take only the ACT-allowed breaks. It's important to practice maintaining focus for such a long period of time.
Also, taking practice tests will enable you to determine if you're having issues with time management. If you're running out of time on the ACT English section, monitor your time spent per question when you're doing practice questions. You should spend less than a minute on each question and easier questions should take less than 30 seconds. To complete the ACT English section in the allotted time, you can spend no more than an average of 36 seconds per question.
If you're finishing with more than 5 minutes left and getting more than a couple of questions wrong, slow down. You're rushing. Read questions more carefully and look at the answer choices more closely. With the time you have left over, review the questions you're unsure about.
#8: Use Your Target Score to Focus and Inform Your Studying
Knowing your ACT English target score can give you a better idea of how and what to study. Because your ACT score is an average of your section scores, your ACT English target score should roughly match your ACT composite target score.
If you're particularly good at English or applying to a humanities program, your ACT English target score can be slightly higher. If you're better at math and science or applying to an engineering program, your ACT English target can be slightly lower than your ACT composite target score.
Based on your ACT English target score, you can determine roughly how many questions you need to get right to reach your goal. Refer to this article for information on how the ACT is scored and a sample conversion table for the ACT English section.
Typically, if you want to get a 36 on ACT English, you need to get every single question right. Therefore, you need to know how to correctly answer every type of grammar and rhetorical skills question.
If your goal is a 25, you need to get about 58 questions right out of 75 (the exact number varies based on the scale for that edition of the test). To reach this target score, you should focus your studying on the most commonly tested rules. If you can master the basics and the most common types of questions, you should have no trouble reaching this goal. Make sure to review the article on the distribution of appearance of the grammar rules on the ACT.
Use your target score to help you.
#9: Consider How Answer Choices Are Different From Each Other
For grammar questions, the answer choices can provide clues indicating the specific grammar rule that is being tested. When you're doing practice questions, consider how the answer choices vary from one another.
If the only difference between choices is the presence and placement of commas, it's a comma question. If the answer choices only vary in that they're different tenses of the same verb, it's a verb tense question. Check out this real ACT example question:
Just from looking at the answer choices, we can tell this is a verb tense question. In case you're wondering, the correct answer is J. The verb tenses in the first and second sentences should be consistent.
Also, keep in mind that one question can test multiple grammar rules. For example, a verb question might test your knowledge of both verb tenses and subject-verb agreement.
If you follow the 9 strategies I gave you in this post, you'll be able to ascend to the top of Mount ACT English. You'll be proud of your discipline, confident in your skills, and grateful that you read this article.
To supplement the information in this article, make sure to study the top tips for ACT English and the 5 critical concepts you must understand to ace ACT English.
You'll also want to review the most common ACT English mistakes so you don't fall into the common ACT English traps.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?
Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.
Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this English lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.
Check out our 5-day free trial:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.