The ACT: Powerful Tips to Help Your Teen Raise Their English and Reading Scores

ACT/SAT test prep expert and author, Erica Meltzer, offers proven tips to help your child raise their ACT score

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: The ACT: Powerful Tips to Help Your Teen Raise Their English and Reading Scores

Written By: Erica Meltzer

Unlike the SAT, which has undergone two major revisions in less than a decade, the ACT has remained essentially the same for many years. This consistency can work in your teen’s favor…

It allows students to obtain a good idea of what to expect on the test; it also allows access to a large body of official practice material – both helpful ingredients for successful performance.

As a tutor, I spent nearly a decade helping high school students raise their ACT English and Reading scores by as many as 14 points. Here are my top tips for navigating these sections.

The ACT: Powerful Tips to Help Your Teen Raise Their English and Reading Scores

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Mastering the English Test

When students begin studying for the ACT, many are intimidated by the sheer number of English questions: 75 questions that need to be answered in 45 minutes. The key to doing well is understanding that not all English questions are created equal: certain questions can be answered almost instantaneously, while others may require considerably more thought.

To save energy and ensure sufficient time on genuinely challenging questions, your teen should focus on mastering the most straightforward and commonly tested grammar rules, as well as the particular ways in which they are tested.

The ACT places heavy emphasis on punctuation, targeting uses of common punctuation marks that many students have not been exposed to in school (commas around names and titles, colons used to introduce explanations) as well as types of punctuation they may not have studied (semicolons and dashes). The good news is that the concepts covered are generally clear and tested in very predictable ways. I routinely saw students’ scores improve from the low 20s, or even the high teens, to the high 20s just from focusing on learning punctuation.

Moreover, some English questions are vulnerable to shortcuts that allow test-takers to immediately eliminate multiple answers, or even jump right to the correct answer. A couple of examples include: On questions testing transitional words and phrases, words with identical meanings such as “furthermore” and “moreover” can be automatically crossed out because no question can have more than one correct answer. Another common pattern is that when all the answers to a meaning-based question convey the same information, the shortest option will nearly always be right.  

To be clear, doing well on ACT English is by no means just a matter of learning a few little “tricks,” and students should always plug their answer back into the passage to make sure it makes sense. However, knowing a few shortcuts can be invaluable in managing the section as a whole. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive, many test-takers also strongly benefit from pausing for about 15-30 seconds between passages to stretch or just look up from their test. I frequently observed that students would perform extremely well on the first four passages (60 questions) but then have a string of incorrect answers on the final passage. However, when they began pausing between passages, they remained more focused until the end, and their scores often jumped several points.

If time allows, this technique can be used during the other sections as well. But that said, it’s important students pace themselves on the English Test because it’s only the first section of the exam. Squandering too much energy upfront can affect performance on the Math, Reading, and Science Tests.

Mastering the Reading Test

Many students find the Reading Test to be the most challenging portion of the ACT, largely due to the timing. Test-takers are given 35 minutes to read four passages of around 750 words and answer a total of 40 questions (10 per passage). To obtain a strong score, students need to be able to skim effectively and quickly locate key information, without getting distracted by irrelevant details. 

As is true for the English Test, success on the Reading Test is often a matter of identifying and focusing on the most straightforward questions and avoiding getting bogged down on questions that are more difficult and time-consuming.

For example, a strong reader who has difficulty with “big picture” questions might choose to guess one such question per passage, using the additional time to make sure that the other nine questions are correct – a strategy that can still translate into a mid-30s score. (Note: There is no additional penalty for incorrect answers, so students should never leave a question blank.) A student who struggles seriously with time and is aiming for a score in the mid-high 20s might choose to skip two questions per passage or even focus on only three passages and guess the same letter for every question on the fourth (earning anywhere from 1-4 additional points by default).

One advantage of the Reading Test is that the passages are always presented in the same order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Science. To avoid getting stuck on potentially confusing material, students should plan to read the passages in the order of most to least difficult. For example, a test-taker who finds Science and Social Science passages easy, and Prose fiction and Humanities challenging, might decide to begin with the former two and end with the latter two.  

Set Clear (and Realistic) Goals

Aiming for a specific target score helps students stay focused and motivated.

Knowing how many questions per section is necessary to answer correctly to achieve a specific goal keeps the study process concrete, which will allow your child to strategize accordingly and determine what material is necessary to master vs. helpful to cover if time allows.

 The Importance of Practice Tests

Taking periodic practice tests helps mark progress and determine what material needs to be focused on.

When they are consistently scoring in their target range, they’re ready to take the real thing. Even if it isn’t feasible to take multiple mock tests, it’s not a good idea to take the actual test without taking at least one full-length practice exam under simulated testing conditions (ideally at a library or in an empty classroom – with no texting breaks during sections!). Knowing what to expect, and what to watch out for, can help teenagers feel more confident and in control on test day.

Only Use Official Material

In addition to the six exams in The Official ACT Prep Guide, many officially released practice tests can easily be found online.

 When taking practice tests, make sure your teen uses official exams only rather than ones produced by outside test preparation companies. Third-party material may be too easy, too hard, or simply “off.” They also may not allow students to get familiar with the patterns of the test, or to obtain an accurate sense of timing.

Worry About Accuracy Before Timing

Because ACT time constraints are tight, it’s tempting to put too much emphasis on time management early on. 

Unless students are scoring very well from the start, a more effective approach is to worry about mastering the necessary material first, without concern for timing, then gradually add the time factor back in as mastery increases.

Plan Post-Test Fun

Because sitting for a three-hour test isn’t exactly most teenagers’ ideal way to spend a Saturday morning, it’s a good idea to plan something enjoyable for the afternoon.

As a tutor, I consistently found that having something to look forward to after the exam helped students earn scores that genuinely reflected their abilities. It allowed them to keep the situation in perspective and helped them focus while keeping their stress in check.

About Erica Meltzer:

Erica is on a mission to level up the reading and writing skills of high school students everywhere. She is the author of the popular series of SAT and ACT test-prep guides known as “The Critical Reader.” To date, they have sold over 400,000 copies worldwide. Going far beyond the standard “tips ‘n tricks” approach, they have a proven track record of getting kids from scoring okay-ish to scoring fantastically well. Until she turned to writing full-time in 2015, Erica spent nearly a decade tutoring students from some of New York City’s most prestigious high schools. She holds a BA in French from Wellesley University. You can find Erica’s books on Amazon as well as her website,

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