ACT Writing Tips for Non-native English Speakers

The ACT writing section is no easy feat, even for native speakers. The good news is that the grammar and logic involved is rule-based--with one slight exception (I’ll get to this later). So as long as you improve at English grammar you’ll likely have an easier time. But English grammar - as you well know - is a vast subject. Luckily, the ACT writing test focuses on several key areas, which I’ll discuss below.


The rules of punctuation might come a little easier to a native-speaker because the speakers have been around English their entire lives. Fear not, though. Punctuation rules are very mathematical in the sense that they follow strict rules. Learn how these rules work and learn how to apply them in the ACT writing section.

Tip #1: Have a solid grasp of how colons, semicolons, and em-dashes function.

Sentence construction

It is very important to understand how sentences and the clauses that make up sentences are constructed. This will help you lots with punctuation, as well. Many ACT writing questions will ask you how two parts of a sentence go together.

Tip #2: Develop an understanding of how a dependent clause differs from an independent clause. Make sure you pay attention the punctuation.

Tip #3: Read writing in an English newspaper or magazine (Time, USA Today, and the Washington Post are good). Analyze how writers use clauses and use punctuation accordingly. In fact, you can look at this post; I’ll even use a semicolon.

Transition words

The ACT writing section will test how well you choose words that connect the idea between different sentences or clauses within a sentence. These questions aren’t quite as common as punctuation or clause-related questions, but will likely pop up at least once per passages, sometimes even more.

Tip #4: There are about a dozen common transition words (furthermore, additionally, nonetheless, however, still, yet, etc). Learn what these words means and how they function in context.

Tip #5: Answering these questions correctly isn’t just about knowing the rules. You’ll have to have solid graphs of what the passage is talking about. This context will allow you to choose the correct transition word.

Phrasal Verbs

While the rest of the writing of the writing I’ve talked about follows logical rules, there is one question type that doesn’t - and in which a native speaker has an advantage. But that doesn’t mean you can’t catch up.

What I’m talking about are phrasal verbs, which are probably not unheard of if you’ve studied for the TOEFL or have taken many English grammar classes. The problem is that these phrasal verbs do not follow any rules. For instance, why do the prepositions “with” or “on” follow the verb “agree”. Why not “agree about”? Typically, there is no logical explanation; this is just the way that usage has developed over decades. Your job is to memorize as many phrasal verbs as possible. These questions will pop up a few times per section, so learning them will have an impact on your ACT raw score.

Tip #6: The flashcard site allows you to make online flashcards. This will help you memorize these pesky phrasal verbs a lot more easily.

About Chris Lele

For the last ten years, Chris has been helping students excel on the SAT and the GRE. In this time, he’s coached 5 students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog, and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.