Everything You Need to Know about ACT English to Work Towards a Perfect Score: Format, Content, Strategies, and Master Tips

What is ACT English? Why does your score matter? What are the key differences between ACT English and SAT Writing and Language, and how do you choose between them? What are key strategies and master tips to help you work towards a perfect score in ACT English?

In this article, you will find the right answers to these questions as well as others. Let’s get started.


What is ACT English?

ACT English is a 45-minute, 75-question English exam. It is designed to assess students’ knowledge in two major language areas:

  • Usage and Mechanics: punctuation, grammar, idiom, and sentence structure.
  • Rhetorical Skills: strategy, organization, and style.

In ACT English, you can spend only about 30 seconds per question. This means that while you need to read each question carefully, you also need to be working quickly. The test does not require memorization of complex vocabulary but does ask you to apply words in context. Overall, the test does evaluate your ability to use the English language effectively as well as your skills in comprehension reading.

ACT English Test
Format75 questions, 5 Passages, Multiple-choice
ContentUsage and Mechanics, Rhetoric, Expression of Ideas
ScoringEnglish score: 1 - 36
Time Per QuestionAverage of 25 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time45 minutes

Why the ACT English Score Matters

  1. The Truth: Your Test Prep Scores Matter for College Admissions: It’s one of the sure things in the college admissions process: your scores on the SAT and ACT do matter. All colleges in the country and abroad consider students’ ACT scores and GPA during the admissions process. Each college has a unique process and considers the two factors differently. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most colleges look for a minimum score on one of these two tests as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the college or university of your choice.
  2. You’re Investing in Your Future – Higher Test Prep Scores Equal More Merit Based Scholarships: More importantly, college is often the most expensive financial decision most families make. More points on either standardized test (SAT or ACT) will put you in the running for merit based scholarships and financial aid. While test prep resources may cost some time and money in the short term, merit aid saves you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition in the long term
  3. Your Test Prep Scores Impact Your Future Major: A high score in the English section can make up for less-than-perfect scores in other areas of the test. A high grade in the English section can help you to compete effectively for a place at the colleges or universities to which you are applying. If you expect to major in English or Humanities, your ACT English score may have a significant impact on your application.

ACT English Scores

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the ACT English test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for incorrect or omitted answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 1 – 36. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.


ACT English: Format and Structure

The test consists of five passages. Each passage is followed by 15 multiple-choice questions. Some of the questions ask about a certain word or sentence, while others require you to understand an entire paragraph or sequence of paragraphs.

The two major content categories tested are:

  1. Usage and Mechanics
  • Punctuation: (10-15)%

The purpose of these questions is to assess your understanding of punctuation marks as well as their significance in creating meaningful sentences. These marks include commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, apostrophes, and periods. You are asked to identify mistaken, misplaced, or missing punctuation both within a sentence and at its end. The best way to answer questions about punctuation is to read the whole sentence carefully and to consider its meaning.

  • Semicolons: semicolon questions often ask you to choose whether a semicolon, comma, or no punctuation should divide certain clauses. Be aware of run on sentences.
  • Colons: colons are most commonly used to introduce lists or elaborate on an independent clause.
  • Commas: commas are used as scene setters, to join to independent clauses and conjunctions, to offset nonrestrictive clauses, and to separate lists.
  • Apostrophes: apostrophes are used to indicate possession or replace missing letters in contractions. Watch out for singular possessive vs plural possessive.

  • Basic Grammar and Usage: (15-20)%

This type of question tests your knowledge of agreement rules such as pronouns, subject-verb agreement, comparisons, verb tense, idioms, and dictionThe purpose of these questions is to assess your understanding of usage and grammar in creating meaningful sentences.

  • Pronouns: pronoun questions often require you to determine if a particular pronoun should be singular or plural. Be aware of subjects/ objects/ possessives, compound phrases, and its vs it’s.

  • Subject-Verb Agreement: when assessing subject-verb agreement, do your best to ignore the extras and pay attention to the fact that singular subjects require singular verbs, wheres, plural subjects require plural verbs.
  • Comparisons: identify that the same types of ideas should be compared to each other.
  • Idioms: idioms are combinations of words when combined have agreed upon meanings.
  • Diction: diction is the choice of words used.

  • Sentence Structure: (20-25)%

The intention here is to test your understanding of the relationship between clauses and how to create meaningful sentences. Topics include: fragments, run-ons, conjunctions, sentence parallels, and modifiers.

  • Fragments: fragments are incomplete sentences. All complete sentences must have a subject, a predicate, and a complete idea. Pay attention to verbs ending in ‘ing’.
  • Run-ons: run-on sentences result when multiple independent clauses are improperly joined. Run-ons are often fixed with periods, semicolons, and commas.
  • Conjunctions: conjunctions are used to connect ideas (often independent clauses) within sentences. The most commons conjunctions include and, but, or, for, nor, yet, and so.
  • Sentence Parallels: sentence parallels are when things or ideas should also be in the same grammatical form. They often appear as lists.
  • Modifiers: modifiers are descriptive words or phrases that elaborate on a sentence. Always check for modifying phrases that appear at the beginning of a sentence and ask who or what is being modified. The modifier should be describing the subject that directly follows the modifier.

  1. Rhetorical Skills
  •  Writing Strategy: (15-20)%

Writing strategy questions deal with the effectiveness of sentences and paragraphs. In this regard, you need to understand the purpose and tone of a passage together with the appropriate use of evidence. You must also be able to introduce paragraphs in a way that creates appropriate introductions and conclusions as well as smooth transitions in the passage as a whole. Finally, you may need to determine whether it is necessary to add or delete sentences in order to manage the use of evidence or clarify references to other material in the passage.

  • Transition: transition questions ask you to choose the most logical sequence from one idea to another. Look for contrasting and supporting clauses as well as which connections have the best flow.

  •  Organization and Development: (10-15)%

Similar to Writing Strategy, these questions are concerned with an individual sentence, paragraph, or entire passage. The point here is to know how to structure a paragraph or passage by choosing replacement options for designated words or phrases. Questions typically deal with the way in which ideas are organized within the passage. Skills tested include the use of introductions, transitions, wordiness, and conclusions. Development questions target the overall purpose of a passage, addition, and deletion sentences. They often require you to evaluate the evidence most relevant to the focus of the passage.

  • Organization: semicolon questions often ask you to choose whether a semicolon, comma, or no punctuation should divide certain clauses. Be aware of run on sentences.
  • Main Idea: the main idea is the central point or purpose of a passage. When approaching these questions, it is best to stay on point.
  • Addition/ Deletion: Most addition questions will often ask you to find the best position to include a new sentence within a paragraph, whereas deletion sentences will ask you to judge if removing a sentence is appropriate.

  •  Style: (15-20)%

In this area, you must be able to identify the tone and voice of a passage along with the author’s intention in writing. You may be asked to add or delete words and images as well as to eliminate redundancy.

Key Differences between SAT, ACT, and PSAT Writing and Language

During the college admission process, colleges do not usually prefer one test over the other (if they do, they will tell you). As a rule, the ACT and SAT tests are treated equally in the admission process. Both tests have points of similarity and points of difference. In our experience if the decision is difficult for you to make, practice both tests under real test conditions, score yourself, and pay attention to your strengths in each test as well as your rate of improvement as you continue to practice. In addition, consider carefully the difficulty of all the sections before making a final decision.

If you speak English as a second language, and you have been thoroughly grounded in traditional English grammar, the SAT Writing and Language Test may be more appropriate because it tends to concentrate on exact rules and less on intuition or the “sound” of a sentence. If, however, your reading comprehension skills are strong and if you are a dynamic intuitive thinker, you may do best taking ACT English.

Given that both tests have slightly different questions with different nuances and timing, we strongly recommend for you to take practice tests under real test conditions to evaluate which test may be in your best interest.


SAT Writing and Language TestACT English TestPSAT English Test
Format44 questions, 4 Passages, Multiple Choice 75 questions, 5 Passages, Multiple-choice 44 questions, 4 Passages, Multiple Choice
ContentStandard English Conventions & Expression of IdeasUsage and Mechanics, Rhetoric, Expression of Ideas Standard English Conventions & Expression of Ideas
ScoringEvidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 200 – 800, Writing and Language Test Score: 10 – 40 English score: 1 - 36Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 160 – 760, Writing and Language Test Score: 8 – 38
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 secondsAverage of 25 secondsAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time35 minutes45 minutes35 minutes

Key Strategies For Preparing and Taking The ACT English


Now that you have learned about the ACT English test, including its format and the way in which it is scored, it is time to learn the key strategies for getting a top score in ACT English.


STRATEGY #1: Master Grammar and Rhetorical Skills

ACT English questions look for answers that promote straightforward, logical, and concise sentences. If you know usage and mechanics rules and how to apply them (approximately 50% of the test), then you will likely strengthen your confidence and improve your performance.

With a strong foundation in this area, you can use your practice time to make choices that identify what makes a sentence grammatically correct and how to link sentences to create coherent paragraphs. In addition to grammar skills, you’ll also need to have rhetorical skills that help you to evaluate the organization of sentences and paragraphs.

The most common usage rules include:

A. Elements of Punctuation: commas, apostrophes, semicolons, colons, dashes, and unnecessary punctuation

B. Grammar: independent clauses, dependent clauses, possessives, subject/verb agreement, pronoun/number agreement, word use, diction, idiom, prepositions, verb tense, and modifiers

The most common rhetorical skills include:

A. Organization: transition statements, appositives, correct placement of sentences, dependent and independent clauses

B. Style: Idioms, correct word choice (diction), redundancies

C. Strategy: addition or placement of paragraphs; addition, deletion, and placement of sentences; effective summarizing; authorial      intent and tone; conciseness.


STRATEGY #2: Master Your Strategies

Interesting as a passage may be, your task is not to appreciate the content of the passage or its qualities as a work of literature. You need to look for the specific areas that the test writer is testing for. Because you only have 45 minutes to do 75 questions, you need to read smart and find the clues that will guide you to correct answers. Keep your cool; keep a positive attitude; stay alert and focused.

A. Should you read the entire passage before beginning with the questions? Should you look at the questions first? The only correct answer is: Do what works best for you based on your practice.  For most students, however, skimming lines and slowing down when you get to underlined words, phrases, or sentences works well. You can then take questions one by one.

B. As you read smart, you should also notice how the passage unfolds, because there may be questions about organization, placement of sentences, and the addition or deletion of evidence. For these questions, you probably will need to have read the entire passage. In practice, these “big picture” questions come after those dealing with vocabulary, punctuation, and word choice.  So you will, in fact, have already worked through the entire passage before you address the “big picture” questions.

C. Learning to think like a test writer is also important. It’s no mystery, for example, that the ACT is interested in basics of punctuation; sentence structure; use of evidence; and inference or deduction. With practice, you can begin to anticipate what the test writer is looking for as you observe what is underlined.


STRATEGY #3: When You See a Word or Words Underlined Together With a Mark of Punctuation or a Blank Space, Assume that Punctuation is Being Tested

During your practice runs, you’ll need to review the use of commas, colons and semi-colons, and dashes. Be aware of which marks of punctuation can join independent clauses (complete sentences) and which cannot. For example, if you have two independent clauses with a comma between them, you’ll know that you’re in the presence of that notorious beast: Comma Splice aka Run-On Sentence. Look for options like a semi-colon.


  • If a sentence begins with a phrase that sets a time, place, or purpose.

After students take their SAT and receive their scores, students then often begin to investigate the college application process.

  • When two independent clauses are joined by a conjunction (and, but, or), there should be a comma placed before the conjunction.

Many students assume that taking subject tests are not necessary for the college admission process, but they are best to research their target schools and application requirements.

  • When clauses provide nonessential information about a subject they are offset by commas. Think of nonessential information as if you can remove it from the sentence without disrupting the flow of the sentence, then it is nonessential information.

My best friend, David, is taking the bus.

  • When you are attempting to separate items in a list.

During dinner, we discussed politics, religion, and history.

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Semicolons, like period, are used between two independent clauses. A semicolon indicates that two ideas are related. Watch out for run-ons and comma splices.

Embrace played a major role in my understanding of the SAT Writing Language Test; they made the test approachable and fun.

Colons are most commonly used to introduce lists or to elaborate further on a point.

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STRATEGY TIP #4: Be aware of Verb Tense and Subject Verb Agreement

One of the biggest issues about sentence structure concerns the use of verbs. Remember that verb tenses should remain consistent unless the sentence indicates a change in time.

  1. If a verb is underlined, look first for subject-verb agreement. Then check for tense.
  2. Because the subject will often be separated from the verb by intervening phrases (especially prepositional phrases) don’t get hindered by nouns that have nothing to do with the main verb.
  3. When you think you’ve found the subject, “speak” it mentally along with the verb. Your inner-ear will help you know whether the verb needs to be singular or plural.

When referring to verb tense, be aware of the has, have, or had dilemma.

In short,

  • Past tense is used to describe completed actions
  • Present perfect tense is used to describe actions that are still continuing and typically contain auxiliary verbs such as “has” or “have”
  • Past perfect tense is used to describe completed actions that occurred before other actions and typically use the auxiliary verb “had”


STRATEGY #5: Pay Attention to Evidence

Questions about evidence often ask where a sentence or detail should be added to achieve a specific effect.

A. As you learn to read smart, attempt to follow the way that an argument unfolds.

B. If you find yourself thinking, “Why did the author put this sentence here?” and if the sentence is underlined, be aware that you may be asked to consider relocating the sentence.

C. Because this category of question will point to placement before or after other sentences, ask yourself where the sentence would make the argument flow most smoothly. Look at the sentences before and after the one that is underlined.

D. If the sentence presents evidence, ask yourself where that evidence is needed in order to drive home a point.


STRATEGY #6: Be Careful about Inferences and Deductions

When asked to draw an inference or make a deduction, ask yourself what you think the author would say. Stay focused on the context of the sentence or word that is underlined.

A. On occasion, questions on the ACT will set you up to choose a point of view that you may believe in, but which the passage does not support.  Remember that your responsibility is to the text in front of you.

B. This is not an English class where you are encouraged to “argue” with the author’s point of view. Stay with the text.

C. If you are asked to infer the meaning of a word, look for the context.  While the SAT can still assume that you should know the meaning of a word, the ACT will give you context clues to help narrow your choices.

D. You can also supply a word that you already know that makes sense of a sentence. Then try to align that word with one of the choices in the question.


STRATEGY #7:  Be Honest About What You Need to Improve Your Score.

With a bit of honesty about what you don’t understand, you can take charge of your learning in ways that help you to master the ACT and to enhance your skills as a life-long learner.


STRATEGY #8: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Practice deeply! This is not just taking random math practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified. Start by taking several authentic ACT diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, we would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question 2) what you believed the question was asking and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.




Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best personal and online tutoring services to help you achieve to the best of your ability.

Test Day and Beyond

Readying Yourself The Day Before The Test

  • Plan how you will get to the test site. If it’s in a large school or office building, be sure to find out which door you should enter to register for the test. If you haven’t been in the building before, find out how to get to the room.
  • Set two alarms. Even though alarms rarely fail, it can happen. You always want to have a backup.
  • Pack your items the night before.
  • Review the test directions so you’re aware of what is expected on test day.

What To Pack

  • Photo admission ticket and valid photo ID: A valid driver’s license, school, or state-issued ID are acceptable. Remember that the photo must resemble you on the day of the exam and comply with the rules posted on www.act.org.
  • Several number 2 pencils with soft erasers.
  • Approved calculator with fresh batteries.
  • Watch
  • Snacks
  • Water in a clear bottle, label removed.