About ACT English Tips

The ACT is one of the two college-readiness tests that high school students can take in order to apply for college, the other being the SAT. Though the SAT was once more valued by colleges over the ACT, that's not the situation anymore. In most cases, students can submit their score from one test over the other, especially if they have a higher score on one. However, it's important to check with the schools to which you plan on applying in order to see what they specifically require. If you are planning on taking the ACT instead of or alongside the SAT, then it's extremely helpful to have some useful ACT English tips on which you can rely to get you through not only this section of the test but the other sections as well.

What's on the English ACT Test?

The English section of the ACT is just one section of the test, and it consists of 75 multiple-choice questions. You will have 45 minutes to complete this section of the test. The English section of the ACT focuses on covering two main skill sets, including usage and mechanics and rhetorical skills. The usage and mechanics section will ask you questions about things like punctuation, grammar and sentence structure, while the rhetorical skills section will ask you about things like style, strategy and organization.

There is also a reading section on the ACT that is separate from the actual English section, but it certainly still involves English material. Therefore, you will have many different kinds of English topics to cover once you begin studying for the ACT. However, you will not be tested on spelling, and unlike the SAT, you will not be tested on vocabulary.

SAT English vs. ACT English

Some students will take the SAT, some will take the ACT and some will take both. Because colleges only require the results from one test as part of your application, you may be wondering which test you should be taking. Though the tests are similar in the sense that there are no other college-readiness tests in the United States that are just as important as these, there are some key differences. Those differences may help you determine which test makes more sense for you to take, especially if you're not interested in taking both.

The SAT test has three sections: math, reading and writing and language, while the ACT has four sections: reading, English, math and science. There is also an essay section on both tests which is optional. The ACT might be more appealing to students who excel in science and can use the science section to raise their composite score, especially for students who don't feel confident about the other sections.

However, when it comes to the English section of these two tests, they are quite unique. For starters, the English section on the SAT, which encompasses both the reading section and the writing and language section, is 100 minutes long, with 65 minutes for the reading section and 35 minutes for the writing and language section. You'll be tested on reading passages, grammar, vocabulary in context and editing skills.

The English section of the ACT, on the other hand, is 45 minutes long. If you add the reading section to that, which is 35 minutes long, you get a total of 80 minutes for all English-related questions. Keep in mind, though, that the ACT English section usually only refers to that 45-minute English section. The ACT English section will test you on everything from punctuation and grammar to developing your writing with style and strategy. The reading section, on the other hand, is similar to the SAT reading section because there are passages you must read and then you must answer questions about those passages.

What to Expect on the ACT English Section

One of the biggest tips you can have at your disposal when it comes to the ACT English section is knowing what to expect in terms of specific questions. You can, therefore, expect to be asked six different types of questions.

Usage and Mechanics

  • Punctuation: Questions that test how much you know in regard to the proper use of everything from commas and periods to colons and semicolons.
  • Grammar and Usage: Questions that test how much you know in regard to the proper use of everything from subject-verb agreement and pronoun use to comparatives, superlatives and idioms.
  • Sentence Structure: Questions that test how much you know in regard to understanding the correct relationship between clauses.

Rhetorical Skills

  • Strategy: Questions that test how much you know in regard to your ability to build the clearest possible argument and choosing the answer that best justifies the decision you make. 
  • Organization: Questions that test how much you know in regard to your ability to build appropriate introductions, closing sentences and transitions between paragraphs. 
  • Style: Questions that test how much you know in regard to your ability to select the most appropriate phrases, words and images that best relate to the tone of the passage. 

Study Tips for ACT English

Now that you know what to expect in terms of questions on the ACT English section, you will need to know some useful study tips to help you prepare as much as possible. Just like any test, you should prepare as much in advance as is reasonable. However, because the ACT is such an important test, some students will prepare more than a year in advance. Since most students take the ACT during their junior year of high school, this means that you may even choose to start prepping during your freshman year. However, no matter how much time you have to study, what is really important is knowing how to study effectively.

  • Utilize all resources and tools that are available. This means reading guide books, taking practice tests, watching videos on study tips and even talking to your parents about hiring a tutor or signing you up for an ACT course.
  • Determine what score you're hoping to get on the English section of the ACT. A good tip is to try to aim for the 75th percentile of recommended ACT scores for the schools to which you're applying. Knowing what score you need can help give you the incentive to focus more time on your studying.
  • Set aside time every day or a few hours a week to study only for the ACT English section.
  • Use practice tests to determine what score you're averaging and take note of the areas in which you are doing well and the areas in which you need to spend more time.
  • Practice timing. Because this is a timed test, you will need to work on managing your time as best as possible. So, keep your eye on the clock.
  • Practice specific test-taking strategies, such as learning how to identify important points, how to break down questions and how to practice with substituting potential answers to see what makes sense and what doesn't make sense.

ACT English Tips and Tricks

While tips on studying for the ACT certainly come in handy, it is also useful to have tips at your disposal that you can apply on the day of the actual test. With each section on the ACT, there are tips you can use that will make those sections feel easier or less overwhelming, and the English section is no exception.

  • Read out loud to yourself as much as possible. This can help you catch any mistakes or let you know if something sounds strange. 
  • Ask yourself, "Does it make sense?"
  • Read the whole sentence, not just the underlined part about which you're being asked.
  • Check for dangling modifiers.
  • Check for wordiness. If the sentence in the question is too wordy, then something likely needs to be changed. Likewise, if there is any punctuation that is not necessary, see if the sentence makes sense without it.
  • Remember the four C's: complete sentences, consistency or "flow," clear meaning and concise, meaning no errors.
  • Use the various answers as clues to help you determine which answers should be eliminated right away and which answers make more sense than other answers.
  • Remember that "no change" answers are perfectly legitimate. If there's nothing wrong with the text, passage, grammar, picture, punctuation or anything else to which the question refers, then don't change it.
  • Don't forget subject-verb agreement and other rules and exceptions of the English language. 

General ACT Tips and Tricks

In addition to remembering certain study tips and test-taking tips that are specific to the English section of the ACT, it never hurts to also be aware of general ACT tips and tricks as well. These can really help you to tackle not only the English section of the test confidently but also the reading section as well as all the other sections on the test:

  • Don't dwell on questions with which you're having trouble. That being said, it's better to just guess instead of leaving the answer to a question blank because there is always a chance that your guess may be correct, and there is no penalty for guessing.
  • Get a good sleep the night before the test.
  • Eat a nutritious breakfast the morning of the test.
  • Don't cram. It's OK to double check a few things during the days leading up to the test, but you should use the last week to just rest and get into the proper mindset. 
  • Don't worry about what others are doing during the test. Just focus all that energy on yourself.
  • It will be important to manage your time wisely. However, make a rule for yourself that you will only check the time after 10 questions or after completing two pages. Otherwise, you might spend more time checking the clock than actually focusing on the test.
  • Bring plenty of sharpened pencils. You don't want to be worrying if your pencil breaks, even though the test administrator will likely have pencils you can borrow in case of a pencil emergency.

Things to Keep in Mind

Like the SAT, the ACT is a high-pressure test that can make even the best students feel nervous or uneasy. While you should strive to do your best on the ACT, remember that your scores on this test won't be the only criteria used to determine whether or not you'll be accepted into the college you want to go to. Colleges will also be looking at your GPA, your leadership experience, your involvement in extracurricular activities and community service, your essay and ultimately what makes you unique.

Either way, the colleges to which you get accepted (or to which you don't get accepted) and what score you achieve (or don't achieve) on the ACT does not define you as a person. Life goes on after the college admissions process, and as long as you continue to work hard, you should have nothing about which to worry.