My top ACT English strategy tip

Just to be clear, this is a post about strategy — if you don’t know the actual grammar, or you have difficulty understanding when to use different types of transitions, it won’t save you. And if you fall into that category and are looking to do some last minute cramming, you should probably start with my complete SAT and ACT grammar rules.

But assuming you have a reasonable grasp of the actual content and do not regularly run out of time, this is the most important piece of advice I can offer you. It might not sound like much, but it can have very significant consequences; I’ve seen it affect students’ English scores by as many as three points.

So here goes: after you’ve finished an ACT English passage, stop and take a brief break (anywhere from 10-30 seconds) before you begin the next passage. Make yourself stop before every new passage, regardless of whether you feel tired, and even if you’re a feeling slightly concerned about time.

I realize that given the time constraints of the test, that might sound like very counter-intuitive advice, so here’s why:

I’ve looked at a lot of ACT score reports over the past eight or so years, and after seeing certain number of them, I started to noticed something interesting. Often, a student would miss at most a couple of English questions during the first half of the section, but during the second half, there would be a sharp drop-off in performance. In addition, there was frequently a cluster of incorrect answers right around #70, regardless of whether the student was running out of time.

After some puzzling over this oh-so-intriguing phenomenon, I had a light bulb moment. There was nothing inherently more difficult about passages 3-5, I realized; students were just getting tired. And when the end was in sight, their focus would disappear, and they would crash and burn.

Spending that length of time staring at all those tiny commas and semicolons and colons and periods could make anyone a little cuckoo, regardless of how well they knew the test.

Eventually, I came up with what seemed to be a reasonable solution: I asked students to start taking breaks between passages. Very short breaks, mind you, but breaks nonetheless.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I encountered some pushback. Students felt that they were on a roll, that they would lose time, that they didn’t want to interrupt something that seemed to be working.

Those were entirely understandable objections. The problem was that when these students crashed straight through from question #1 to question #75, they always, always lost just a few extra points unnecessarily.

So I insisted: they had to force themselves to stop for even a few seconds, even if they didn’t feel tired. What’s more, they had to do it before every single passage — no skipping. The goal was to do everything possible to prevent the fatigue from accumulating to the point where it would start to affect their scores.

And it worked. Even if students resisted at first, they came around pretty easily once they saw that taking regular breaks got them from the consistent 29-30 range to the consistent 32-33 range.

Again, to reiterate: there is virtually no way to answer all 75 questions in an ACT English section without accumulating some degree of mental fatigue.

Even if you’re not aware that your brain is getting tired, trust me, it is. The change will be subtle at first, so subtle you probably won’t even be aware of it, but it will happen. Your reaction times will get a fraction of a second slower, and you will have to focus harder just to understand what each question is asking. You will also be more likely to miss key information that you would have noticed easily 30 minutes earlier. 

If, on the other hand, you take a breather between passages, some of that mental clutter tends to dissipate. You’ll not only end the English section in better shape than you would have otherwise, but you’ll have more energy left for the rest of the exam. 

So please, do yourself a favor. Stop for just a couple of seconds and let your mind reset. The ACT is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to pace yourself accordingly. Close your eyes, look out the window, meditate… whatever. Just allow yourself that tiny mental break. It may seem like such a small thing, but it can have big consequences.