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9 ACT English Tips You Need to Know

If you’re nervous about the ACT English Test, the first part of the exam, and the second-longest, then have no fear—your Prep Expert instructor is here!

The following are some tips and tricks I’ve shared with my students over the years to help them improve their scores.

So, without further ado:

Go Paragraph by Paragraph

Read a paragraph, answer its questions. Repeat.

Many of the questions on the English Test require you to have read the entire paragraph the question is contained in, rather than the one or two sentences you would have read in between questions. These include questions related to the main idea, paragraph organization, sentence order, maintaining tone, and eliminating redundancies, among others. Therefore, as you complete the English Test, it’s best if you read an entire paragraph, and then answer the associated questions. This way, you’ll have an understanding of the entire paragraph, and be able to answer these questions correctly.

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Answering questions paragraph-by-paragraph will save you time on the exam, as well. While it might seem insignificant, you waste a considerable amount of time overall in switching between the exam booklet and scantron sheet to bubble in answers. If you answer questions in paragraph-by-paragraph sets, and then bubble in your answers, you’ll save a bit of time. You can even answer an entire exam booklet page worth of questions, and then bubble in your answers—just be sure to stay organized, and bubble your answers in the right places.

Use Conjugations as Guides

Conjunctions tell you how words, sentences and paragraphs relate to each other.

The most difficult questions for my students on the English Test are the sentence order questions—those where you are asked to either keep or change the order of sentences within a particular paragraph. The key to these questions is understanding relationships between sentences, and conjunctions signal these relationships.

Conjunctions such as ‘however’ and ‘but,’ for example, indicate a contrast. So, a sentence beginning with the word ‘however’ should follow a sentence it contrasts with. For example, “I got a C- in Physics last semester. However, I still made the Honor Roll.”

On the other hand, a conjunction such as ‘therefore’ indicates an effect or a conclusion. So, the information preceding ‘therefore’ should provide evidence or a cause. For example, “I got a C- in Physics and a D in Calculus last semester. Therefore, I did not make Honor Roll.”

Furthermore, conjunctions such as ‘then,’ which indicates order or time, help place sentences in a logical order. For example, “Sign in with your username and password. Then, open up Safari to begin your research.”

Therefore, if you have a good understanding of the different types of conjunctions—also known as transition words—and how they are used, you should be able to use these words as guideposts after you’ve read a paragraph, and are attempting to answer a sentence order question.

Have an Ear for Grammar

If something sounds wrong, it’s wrong. But the opposite isn’t always true!

You can always trust your ear to tell you whether writing is ungrammatical, unidiomatic, awkward, or excessively verbose. If a section of underlined text sounds wrong, there’s something wrong with it, and you should look for an alternative in your list of answer choices.

The reverse, however, isn’t always true. In daily conversation, we often speak ungrammatically, so we can’t rely on our ears to affirm proper grammar. For example, people often misuse the word ‘everybody’ as a plural pronoun, when it is in fact a singular pronoun. So, while you might often hear sentences such as, “Everybody must bring their own lunch,” the grammatically correct sentence is, “Everybody must bring his or her own lunch.”

The English Test wants only grammatically correct sentences, so be sure you have the rules of grammar down pat, and aren’t relying exclusively on your ear.

It’s All About the Details

Pay close attention here—subtle details like punctuation marks make all the difference.

Every time I review a practice English Test with my students, no matter how much I’ve belabored the point, a few students will have answered questions about the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ incorrectly. (‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun, while ‘it’s’ is a contraction.) These students aren’t answering these questions incorrectly because they’re not smart enough to understand the difference; they’re answering incorrectly because they’re not paying enough attention, and are therefore missing small details such as these.

It’s important that you finish the English Test in time. However, it’s even more important that you answer the questions correctly. So, maintain a deliberate pace and pay close attention to what you’re reading. You’ll perform better this way than you will speeding through the test, missing details like the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its,’ and losing lots of points in the process.

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For what it’s worth, the English Test isn’t particularly challenging time-wise. Even though there are only 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, I find that most of my students have no trouble completing the test in time, even when they’ve kept a careful pace. So, don’t let time worries stress you out as you take this test.

The Answer Choices Tell All

Oftentimes, the answer choices hint at what is wrong in the passage.

Oftentimes, all the answer choices associated with a particular question do the same thing—for example, move a modifier, or replace a pronoun. So, if you’re not sure what, if anything, is wrong with the underlined portion of text you’re looking at, look to the answer choices for a hint. If each answer choices adds a comma and a conjunction, for example, you should check to see if the underlined portion of text contains a comma splice.

In addition, for vocabulary-related questions, if two or more answer choices are synonymous, then they’re all wrong. Only one of the four answer choices is correct, so those that mean the same thing are wrong. Remember this when you’re trying to narrow down your choices.

Monitor the Length of Underlined Text

Correct answers are rarely longer than the text they’re replacing.

Answer choices considerably longer than the underlined text are wrong more often than are those with lengths shorter than, or similar to, the underlined text’s. This is because longer answers contain more room for errors. Oftentimes, longer answer choices correct the problem with the underlined text, only to add a different error. Shorter answers, on the other hand, often eliminate redundancies and other grammatical errors. So, keep this advice, often summed up as ‘short is sweet,’ in mind as you look at the lengths of answer choices.

Separate Main Ideas and Supporting Details

Main ideas are mentioned again and again, supporting details only once or twice.

The main idea of a paragraph or a passage will be repeated or referenced throughout, whereas supporting details are given in service of the main idea, and are mentioned only once or twice. Remember this as you answer questions that ask you whether to keep or delete a particular sentence: generally, a sentence should be kept if supports the main idea, and deleted if it doesn’t.

Additionally, if a question asks about the main idea of a paragraph or passage, you can rule out the answer choices containing ideas mentioned only once or twice. Most of the incorrect answers to these questions will feature supporting details taken word-for-word from the passage. Don’t be fooled: generally, the correct answer will paraphrase or sum up the main idea, and will not contain verbatim text from the passage.

‘No Change’ Can Work

Remember that ‘no change’ is the correct answer one out of four times, so don’t be afraid to choose this answer.

Some students are uncomfortable selecting ‘no change’ as an answer, thinking they’re just not noticing the problem with the underlined text. However, the English Test is just as concerned with your ability to notice when something is correct as it is with your ability to notice when something is incorrect. So, if you’ve looked over the underlined text carefully, and there aren’t any problems as far as you can tell, then don’t hesitate to choose ‘no change’ as your answer. As mentioned, this answer choice is correct one out of four times, so you’ll be choosing it quite a bit.

The Rules of Grammar are Easy

You can learn on your own what you didn’t in English class.

From time to time, I have a concerned student come to me, and tell me that he or she never learned proper grammar in high school, and is worried this guarantees a poor English Test score. If this describes you, don’t get too stressed out: while you will be playing catch-up, the rules of grammar tested only the English Test are easy to learn within a few hours. Whether you’re starting from square one, or simply need a refresher, a test prep course such as Prep Expert’s will provide you the grammar knowledge you’ll need to score a 36, even if your high school English classes fell short.

Prep Expert offers classes and one-on-one tutoring, both in-person and online, throughout the year, at locations across the United States. For students with busy schedules, online classes can be watched On Demand wherever and whenever needed. So get studying, and give us a call if you need a little extra help!

Best of luck with the ACT!

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.