The ACT English test: 6 tips students should remember on test day

The ACT English test is one of four multiple-choice tests students take on ACT test day. (There is also an optional writing test.) The test puts students in the position of a writer or editor who makes decisions to revise or edit the presented text. It measures the following skills:

  • Understanding of the English language and its conventions—Sentence structure, punctuation, word usage
  • Understanding of the writing process—Identifying a purpose and focus of a passage
  • Knowledge of language skills—Using the correct word choice and consistency in style and tone

There are 75 questions on the English test, and students have 45 minutes to complete them. The test is structured around five essays or passages, each followed by a set of multiple-choice questions. Some questions refer to portions of the passage or the entire passage. Some questions give the option of “NO CHANGE,” meaning the passage is correct or appropriate as it is.

Here are six tips students should keep in mind while taking the ACT English test:

1. Be aware of the writing style used in each passage.

The five passages cover a variety of topics and are written in a variety of styles. It is important that students take into account the writing style used in each passage. When responding to a question, students should be sure to understand the context of the question. Consider how the sentence containing an underlined portion fits in with the surrounding sentences and into the passage as a whole.

2. Examine the underlined portions of the passage.

Before responding to a question with an underlined portion, students should carefully examine what is underlined in the text. Consider the elements of writing included in each underlined portion.

  • Some questions will ask students to base their decision on some specific element of writing, such as the tone or emphasis the text should convey.
  • Some questions will ask students to choose the alternative to the underlined portion that is NOT or LEAST acceptable.
  • The answer choices for each question will contain changes in one or more of those elements of writing.

3. Be aware of questions with no underlined portions.

Students will be asked some questions about a section of the passage or about the passage as a whole, in light of a given rhetorical situation. Questions of this type are often identified by a question number in a box located at the appropriate point in the passage.

Questions about the entire passage are placed at the end of the passage and introduced by a horizontal box enclosing the following instruction: “Questions __ and __ ask about the preceding passage as a whole.”

4. Note the differences in the answer choices. 

Many of the questions in the test will involve more than one aspect of writing. Examine each answer choice and how it differs from the others. Be careful not to choose an answer that corrects one error but causes a different error.

5. Determine the best answer. 

When a question asks students to choose the best alternative to an underlined portion, consider the following approach:

  • Decide how the underlined portion might best be phrased in standard written English or in terms of the particular question posed.
  • If the underlined portion is the best answer, select “NO CHANGE.”
  • If not, check to see whether their phrasing is one of the other answer choices. If students do not find their phrasing, choose the best of the answers presented.
  • For questions cued by a number in a box, decide which choice is most appropriate in terms of the question posed or the stated rhetorical situation.

6. Reread the sentence, using your selected answer.

Once students have selected the answer they feel is best, they should reread the corresponding sentence(s) of the passage, inserting their selected answer at the appropriate place in the text to make sure it is the best answer within the context of the passage.

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