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David Recine

How to Get a 36 in ACT English

One thing I love about the ACT is that it’s beatable. Anyone can master the exam and get a top score, with the right preparation and strategies. English skills on the ACT are especially test specific. So to do well on this section, it’s important to understand how your skills will be assessed and seek out the useful practice activities. In this post, we’ll look at the practice activities you should do if you want to get the full 36 points on this section.

Read your way to a perfect 36

ACT English does focus on writing skills of a sort. You’ll be asked to revise writing, grammar, mechanics, and style. But you need to remember that you aren’t actually writing anything yourself. You are proofreading the writing of others. And proofreading, as the name of the term suggests, has a strong reading element to it. In fact, you can really think of the activities in ACT English as a mix of reading and writing skills.

When you do your practice reading, be sure you read the kinds of passages that appear in ACT English. These will be different than the passage types you see in the Reading section of the ACT. English seciton passages are less dense and less academic than the reading ones. You’ll find a similar tone on lighter news and entertainment websites such as Reader’s Digest and Parade. You can also find good practice reading on sites that are specifically for adolescent and teen readers, such as Teen Vogue, Boy’s Life, and Teen Reads.

In addition to this kind of light reading, the ACT English section also contains passages similar to essays written by actual high school and undergraduate students. This brings me to my next tip…

To get a perfect 36 in ACT English, learn to read as a critic

For ACT English practice, you shouldn’t just read for comprehension. You should read with a critical eye, making judgements about the quality of what you read. And you’ll have the most opportunities to read as a critic when you read the writings of other students.

Student writing is developmental writing, not professional writing. Look for sample student essays online (lots of universities and learning websites post student writing). Check out your classmates’ writing too, and review their writing as a critic. You’ll find that many of your classmates will be more than happy to show you an essay they’ve written, if you offer to proofread it and suggest revisions. It’s a win-win where you get free ACT Writing practice, and they get writing help from a peer.

There are also some ways that you can read good professional writing as a critic, Understand why good writing is good, and why authors and editors make the decisions they do. And think about how the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs you read could be structured differently—there is more than just one way to write something, and there’s no one “best” way. Carefully thinking about the work of professional writers will help you make effective revisions of your classmate’s essays, and of everything you see in the ACT Writing Section.

Practice writing

Reading and writing could best be described as symbiotic—these skills are interdependent, and you need to do both to be good at both. When you develop your critic skills in the reading activities above, you’re really learning how to think like a writer. The next logical step is to be a writer. Be the kind of good writer you encourage your classmates to be. Aim for the quality of writing you see on professional websites.

Do writing activities such as keeping a journal and writing short essays about subject that interest you. Again, this can go hand-in-hand with reading; if you read an article on a topic that you really like, read up more on that subject and write about it yourself. The coolest thing about these less personal writings is that they can often double as assignments in the English classes you take.


What’s important

These readings and writing activities are the kinds of things you should do to maximize your chance of getting a 36 in ACT English. There is also some specific content you should know in order to do well on the English section of the exam. In my next post, we’ll go through a checklist of the knowledge you need to get your perfect score.

So those are the activities you should do to score 36 in ACT English. Now, let’s look at the knowledge you need to get your 36.

Know the test materials

For ACT English, this is especially important. The multiple choice format for revising writing is an unusual one, not the kind of thing you normally see in regular high school language arts coursework. Make sure you review a lot of official ACT practice materials, as well as questions from third-party companies like Magoosh. A comfortable familiarity with the exam will help you apply your reading practice skills to the exam.

In the English Section, you will read passages, portions of which are underlined. Each underlined piece of writing corresponds to a multiple choice question that presents different possible revisions of the underlined segment. The first answer choice will always be “NO CHANGE,” while the other answer choices will change the text in different ways.

There are also a few questions that don’t follow format described above. These other questions will correspond to a part of the passage that is numbered but not underlined. In this alternate question format, you’ll be asked for your opinion the effectiveness of a part of the passage, or you’ll need to insert an additional sentence into its correct place within the passage.

This structure is pretty predictable, and there’s a good chance you already have some familiarity with the format of the ACT English test. But it takes more than just familiarity to know this section well enough to get a 36 on the ACT. Really work with practice exam questions for this section. Reach a point where you know the question format so well that you can tell whether you’re being tested on grammar, punctuation, style, rhetoric, and so on. And really understand why a certain answer choice is correct or incorrect. This leads nicely to the next thing you need to know…

Know the hows and whys of punctuation, style, and rhetoric

To understand why a given answer is right or wrong in ACT English, you need to understand how different writing devices are used, and why good writers make the choices they do. Don’t just memorize a bunch grammar and punctuation rules.

Actually understand what punctuation does. Recognize the ways that commas set aside ideas, understand that a semicolon is used to unite two similar sentences, sense the way that a period or question mark allows the reader to “hear” a sentence’s ending tone, and so on.

Understand how word choice and the organization of information work to deliver a message. Realize the ways in which style can help readers understand an author’s message, attitude and intent. Recognize the importance of relevant complete information in a written piece.

And above all, understand how all of these principles can be applied to decisions you make in your own writing, as well as decisions you make when you choose answers on the exam.

The takeaway

The ACT English exam presents writing activities in a unique, test-specific way that you must be prepared for. But the broader writing principles that are being tested are quite universal. Understanding these principles allows you to understand what you’re really being tested on, so that you develop the right writing skills for a perfect ACT score. These very same skills will also help you get excellent scores in your future college classes.

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About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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