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Strategies for Taking the ACT English Test

From The Real ACT

I highly recommend this book available on  It's written by the ACT folks, so it's the authority on the test. It has tons more than we will have time to explore.  Buy the latest version and previous versions for more sample tests. 

1.  Pace yourself.  I would have more difficulty with ACT than you all will because I like to take my time and think about the questions and what’s for lunch and how much do my feet hurt. Consequently, I don’t do well on timed tests, but you can focus better than I.  The English test has 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes and that includes reading the essays the questions address. The book from the ACT folks does the math this way:  1 minutes to read the essay and 30 seconds to respond to each question.  However, some questions will be easier than others so you won’t use all 30 seconds every time, so you will have some leftover seconds to spend on the tough questions.  It is important to make sure you don’t get bogged down on one question.  If you need to, skip it and come back to it.

2.  Be aware of the writing style used in the essay.  Some of the questions won’t be based on grammatical correctness.  They will instead target the consistency of style and tone of the essay as a whole.  Consequently, recognizing that your reading a formal, scholarly essay and not an informal first-person narrative is crucial to picking a sentence or phrase that fits the overall tone of the writing.

3.  Be sure to consider a question’s context before you choose an answer.  Questions about moving a sentence to a better location or about paragraph order will require you to read more than just the one targeted sentence.  As a rule, be sure to read at least a sentence before and after the one specified in the question.  Examining the sentence’s surroundings (context) is crucial.

4.  Be aware of the connotations of words.  The definitions found in a dictionary for a word are denotations.  Connotations are the feeling and association that we have for a word. The example I always used was the differences is how we feel about these three words that share a meaning:  firm, obstinate, and pig-headed.  They all mean you aren’t likely to change your mind, but firm has a positive connotation (firm in one’s convictions versus wishy-washy) whereas obstinate has a negative one.  It’s not as negative as pig-headed, but it’s still mildly negative.  If a question asks you to pick a word that fits in a sentence meant to describe a paragraph you just read, be aware of the connotations for the options.

5.  Be aware of key words in a question that addresses an underlined portion of the reading.  Sometimes the question will ask which is NOT acceptable instead of which one is acceptable.

6.  Note the differences in answer choices. (Avoid making new mistakes.) Sometimes you might be tempted to focus in on the answer that corrects the one mistake you noticed easily, but another answer may fix that mistake and reveal another mistake you didn’t notice.  Look at them all.  The Daily Oral Language questions show this very well.

7.  Determine the best answer.  Well, that sounds kind of lame, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t look for the right answer?  That should read “Use Multiple Approaches to Determine Write Answers.” The first method is to substitute each answer in the underlined portion’s place.  The other method is the reverse:  look at the underlined portion, determine what would fix the problem(s), and look for that answer in the lettered options.  Of course, I’d use both and avoid the problem defined in item six. Also read the sentence with your final choice just to make sure you chose wisely.

8.  Watch out for questions about the entire essay or a section of it.  The questions with their number in a box target in the left column target sections, so scan the entire section to determine your answer.

9.  Be careful with two-part questions.  Don’t stop at yes or no in an answer.  Look at the reasoning used beyond the first answer (often preceded by because).

10.  Watch for interrelated questions.  Sometimes one question sheds light on another question.  Take whatever help you can get!