Along with the SAT, the ACT is one of two common standardized tests taken by many high school students applying to college. The ACT is often used by college admissions committees to assess your college-readiness, and in some states it is even a graduation requirement of all high school students.

There are five sections to the ACT, four of which are required and one of which is optional. The required sections include math, reading, English, and science, while the optional section is a written essay. In this post, we will introduce the English section of the ACT. We’ll start with an introduction to its format and scoring, and then move onto the specific skills it assesses. At the end of the post, we’ll share some of our favorite strategies for the English section of the ACT. Read on to learn how you can master the ACT English section.

What is the format of the test?

The English section of the ACT is the first part of the test to be administered. Some students find that they are most focused at the beginning of a prolonged standardized test, while others find that they take a while to settle in to the testing experience. If you know that you are a student who takes a while to adjust when beginning a test, consider some pre-test warm ups to get into the right mindset ahead of time. We will discuss these in more detail in our test strategy section below.

The English section of the ACT contains 75 multiple-choice questions that you’ll have 45 minutes to complete. The questions are paired with five written passages, each of which is associated with 15 questions. This means that you’ll have only nine minutes to read through each passage and answer the 15 questions that go along with it. Time management will be key.

The questions on this section will be paired with text and presented alongside the associated passages, much like the Writing and Language section of the new SAT. Passages will appear on the left-hand column of your test booklet with questions along the right-hand column. Underlined sections of the passage will indicate specific areas to which the questions refer. The underlined sections of the passage will also include an embedded number to indicate which number question is associated with it.

Be sure to review the format of practice exams in advance so that you are not confused by the format of the actual test. Although it will seem unfamiliar at first, once you know what to look for it will become second nature. 

The questions on the English section of the ACT will ask you to correct or improve areas of text ranging from specific words or punctuation to entire sentences. You will also have the choice to leave the passage as is by choosing the NO CHANGE answer option.

How is the English section of the ACT scored?

Like the other required sections of the ACT, your score on the English section will range from 1-36. This number is scaled using your raw score. Raw scores are simply the number of questions that you got right on each section. Your raw score on the English section will be scaled to take into account the difficulty of the test you took compared to other ACT tests. The goal of scaling is to make scoring consistent from one test to the next, with the same level of mastery required on any ACT to receive the same specific score.

Your resulting scaled score between 1-36 is the number that you will receive on your score report and it will be used to average into your overall composite ACT score.

In addition, you’ll also receive a number of subscores for the English section. You will see subscores for Production of Writing, Knowledge of Language, and Conventions of Standard English. For each of these subscores, you’ll see how many questions you got correct.

Beside the number of correct answers will be a bar graph showing your percentage of correct answers for each subscore, and how that percentage compares to the ACT Readiness Range, which is indicated by a purple bar above it. This range indicates where a student who has met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark on this assessment would typically perform. ACT College Readiness Benchmarks predict a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding introductory college courses.

You shouldn’t worry too much about specific subscores, since colleges do not generally give them much weight at all in the admissions process. Instead, you can use this information to help guide your studying for any future ACTs.

What skills does the English ACT assess?

Put simply, the English ACT assesses your ability to edit written work. You are asked to recognize and fix errors in grammar and punctuation and to improve the style, tone, or organization of different written passages. In order to do this, you will need to have good knowledge of the conventions of standard written English, including grammar rules, punctuation, and sentence structure. In addition, you’ll need to have a good ear for identifying and improving how sentences and paragraphs work together and how ideas are connected throughout a written piece.

In terms of the specific grammar skills assessed on the test, be prepared to show your mastery of punctuation, such as commas, apostrophes, and semicolons. Know how to track number agreement between subjects and verbs and between pronouns. Be familiar with common idioms and common wrong word choices like affect/effect and its/it’s. Pay attention to parallel sentence construction, verb tense and conjugation, and sentence fragments or run-on sentences.

Beyond grammar skills, you’ll also need to demonstrate your rhetorical skills related to written style, strategy, and organization. Stylistic writing skills include formality and tone. Strategy questions will test your knowledge of how the author builds and supports an argument and how the author’s intent is reflected in the written passage. Organizational questions will focus on how sentences and paragraphs fit together, how ideas are connected through transitions, and whether specific words or sentences are relevant or extraneous.

What are some good strategies for the English ACT?

1. Have a plan to hit the ground running.

As noted above, the English section is the first section of the ACT. For some students, it can be difficult to get into the right frame of mind to start testing as soon as you arrive. It might take some warming up for you to perform at your strongest, and unfortunately you won’t have time for that once you sit down to take the test.

If this is the case for you, there are some simple things you can do to prepare before you even sit down for the test. There are two major ways to do this—you can warm up your brain, or you can warm up your body. You’ll need to decide which one works best for you ahead of time, or settle on a combination of the two.

To warm up your brain, you’ll want to get do some mental exercises to get thinking without actually focusing on test content, since that could stress you out and actually work against you. Instead, try a few brains stretches like counting backwards from 100 as quickly as you can or naming an advanced vocabulary word for each letter of the alphabet. If you do these brain exercises before practice tests as well, they will become a mental cue that it’s time to get in the testing frame of mind.

Others might find that it’s their body that needs to get to work in order to get into the testing mindset. Some studies have shown that people who exercised physically before an exam actually performed better than people who were sedentary. If this is the case for you, try building ten minutes into your morning routine before the ACT to get your blood pumping. Park at the far end of the parking lot and speed walk before the test, or get dropped off around the corner and jog from there.

Find a way to get your brain or body moving before the test, so that when you begin the English section of the test you won’t need to spend any time warming up.    

2. Have a time management plan.

The ACT is notorious for its quick pace. You’ll need a plan if you want to get through all five passages and 75 questions in only 45 minutes.

One great strategy for time management is to guess on questions that seem impossible at first, and return to them at the end of the section if you have time remaining. This will allow you more time to focus on the questions that come easily to you, hopefully maximizing your scoring potential. Remember, if you don’t reach a question, you have zero chance of getting it right. It’s always worth it to conserve time on questions that seem very difficult if it means having more time to do the questions that come easily to you.

Another approach we recommend is answering questions as you read rather than reading first and then going back through the test booklet to answer questions. The side-by-side format of the passages and questions lends itself well to this method.

Ultimately, though, you’ll need to decide for yourself how to tackle the bulk of the reading and questions strategically. Some students find that reading each paragraph and then answering the associated questions works well. Others find that simply answering each question, sentence by sentence as they appear, works best. No two students learn or absorb information in exactly the same way, so try a few strategies out and see which works best for you.

3. Learn how the test tries to trick you.

The English section of the ACT has some common grammar tricks that you will almost certainly see at least once on every test.

One of the most common is subject-verb agreement when the subject and verb are broken up. The sentence will look something like this:

The captain, with input from his many crewmembers and support teams, decide which course to take.

Here, the subject and verb might sound correct initially because the verb decide immediately follows the plural word teams. Looking more carefully, though, you will see that the subject of the sentence is actually the captain and if you break the sentence down into a simple subject and verb, it should be the captain . . . decides. Get in the habit of reducing a sentence down to its most basic components to compare subject and verb agreement.

Another common trick you will see on the test involves comma placement. The English section of the ACT will nearly always include a question in which commas are unnecessarily included or not included when they should be. Using the example above again, consider the sentence if it were written like this: 

The captain with input from his many crewmembers and support teams, decides which course to take.

A great strategy here to determine comma placement is to read the sentence in your head as you would read it aloud. Do you hear the pause after the captain? Even if you don’t, break the sentence down into phrases. The phrase with input from his many crewmembers is a nonessential relative clause. The sentence would still make sense without it, so it gets a comma at the beginning and a comma at the end. 

One old school way to prepare for these kinds of tricks is through sentence diagramming. You probably won’t have time to actually diagram any sentences on the test, but being familiar with the process will make it easier for you to mentally break sentences down into their bare grammatical elements.

4. Do lots of editing.

The English section of the ACT essentially tests your editing skills. One great way to prepare is to do as much editing as possible. Edit your own work, edit your friends’ work, and review your teacher’s editing. Make sure that every time a friend or teacher returns work to you, you review it thoroughly before shoving it to the bottom of your backpack. Make sure you understand each edit and why it was made. If there’s anything unfamiliar or confusing, ask for clarification.

5. Practice lots of actual ACT questions.

As much as you practice writing, editing, and diagramming sentences, there is really no experience that will compare to the actual ACT test. Your best way to practice for the test is to take lots of practice tests or practice test questions.

The format and content of the test might be things that you can prepare for ahead of time, but ultimately taking such a specialized standardized test becomes a skill in and of itself. Be sure to prepare for it as such by maximizing how much practice you do using actual ACT practice materials.

Where can I find free study materials?

The ACT website provides a number of sample test questions that you can use to help guide your studying. They also provide a free ACT study guide that includes a test overview and some test strategy tips.

If you create an account with ACT Profile, you will also have access to the ACT Question of the Day that comes with an explanation of the answer. You will also need this account to register for tests online and to access your online score report, so it’s a good idea to open one, regardless of whether you plan to use the Question of the Day feature.

You may also find an official, full-length printable ACT practice test here.

Finally, you can find an extensive collection of free ACT Quizlets to reinforce specific grammar rules.

If you still have questions about ACT Test strategies or you are interested in our full-service, customized ACT Test tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s ACT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist