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Rachel Kapelke-Dale

ACT English Tips

Tips and Tricks for ACT English

Whom’s troubling you? I mean, who’s troubling you? Uh…let’s make that WHAT’S troubling you? Is it the ACT English test? If so, you’re not alone. A lot of students struggle with this section of the ACT precisely because they rely on what “sounds right.” This isn’t necessarily a terrible strategy—after all, it’s the only way (after studying) that you’ll get diction and idioms questions correct—but there’s a problem inherent in it. The problem? Most people don’t speak perfect English in everyday life (and if they did, they would probably sound kind of annoying). But for just one day—test day—let’s pretend like we do so we can master the ACT English test with some precise tips.

Identify the Problem

When you look at an ACT English question, the underlined portion might sound just fine. That’s a start, but go deeper. Look at the underlined portion critically. What part of speech is underlined—a noun? Verb? Punctuation? The truth is, the ACT English test doesn’t examine a huge number (not “amount”—one favorite ACT English test confusion) of topics. By reviewing the topics the test examines beforehand and examining the categories of underlined words, you’re not just relying on your ear to take the test—you’re relying on your knowledge. 

Look for Clues

Early and frequent practice is the best way to identify when the ACT is giving you clues. However, even if you’re cramming a couple hours before the test (look, we’ve all been there), you can still catch on to a few of the ways the test will let you know what’s up. First of all, scan your answer choices. Are they all words that sound the same but are spelled differently? Or are they entirely different words, but with similar meanings? Are they verbs conjugated in different tenses? Or different versions of an idiom using different prepositions? This, in combination with your correct ID of the question type, will help you figure out what’s being tested—which will help you figure out what the answer is.

Note: if you don’t know some of the above terms, like “preposition” or “conjugate,” don’t be hard on yourself—some schools have stopped teaching straight-up grammar. However, it’ll help you a lot in your studying to familiarize yourself with the basics, so you know exactly which areas you’re strongest in, which need improvement—and, most importantly, how to improve those weak areas.

The Fancy Answer Is Rarely Right

When you get right down to it, sometimes, we all have to make educated guesses. Note: educated! The ACT loves to present language that sounds more formal or complex—using words like “one” or “whom” unnecessarily—because it can make students think twice about the correct answer when they’re presented with the “fancy answer.” At the end of the day, the ACT prioritizes clean and clear English. Make sure your choice keeps the meaning of the original—but if it presents the same idea in fewer words, or in active voice, it’s more likely to be correct.

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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is a TOEFL and SAT/ACT blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and is currently a doctoral candidate at University College London. She has taught the TOEFL for six years, and worked with nearly 1,000 students in that time. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. When she’s not teaching or studying, she’s either riding (horses), or writing (fiction), a pair of activities that sound so similar that it confuses even native English speakers. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!

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