Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules_PrepMaven

3 Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules (You Still Should Know)

3 Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules (You Still Should Know)

Bonus Material: Rarely Tested ACT/SAT Grammar Rules Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

We discuss the 13 major grammar rules you need to know for the ACT/SAT in our Complete Guide to ACT and SAT Grammar Rules.

3 of those 13 rules appear relatively infrequently on both tests. 

But this doesn't mean you should overlook them!

In fact, your proficiency in these 3 rules can be vital for squeezing in those extra points on Test Day. This can be particularly vital for high-scoring students.

What's more, the concepts we discuss in this post are essential for writing style in general. 

This can be essential for crafting a stellar SAT or ACT essay or even college application essay.

Before reading this post, get a head start on practicing these rules by downloading our free rarely tested grammar rules worksheet, which includes practice questions and more. Grab this below.

Here's what we discuss in this post:

  1. 3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the ACT/SAT
  2. 3 Guided Examples
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's Rarely Tested ACT/SAT Grammar Rules Worksheet

3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the ACT/SAT

The following 3 SAT and ACT grammar rules cover the following:

  • Modifiers
  • Idioms
  • Parallelism

Rule #1: Modifiers must be placed correctly.

A "modifier" refers to a word or group of words that provide more information about a certain subject. In most Modifier questions on the SAT or ACT, a modifier is a descriptive phrase that provides additional details about a subject, often appearing at the start of a sentence.

Here are some examples of modifying phrases that might offer further details about a specific subject:

walking down the street

bespectacled and grimacing

associated with ancient tradition

In general, modifiers and modifying phrases must be right next to whatever it is they are modifying! Take a look at these sample sentences that use the modifying phrases above:

Walking down the street, my friend and I took in the gorgeous sunset.

Bespectacled and grimacing, the professor made his way to the lectern.

Associated with ancient tradition, the practice of ancestral worship appears in many cultures.

In all of these examples, the modifying phrases are placed directly next to the subject they are modifying. Misplaced modifiers are called "dangling modifiers," and these incorrectly modify a subject. Here are the same examples written with dangling modifiers:

My friend and I took in the gorgeous sunset, walking down the street. 

The professor made his way to the lectern, bespectacled and grimacing.

The practice of ancestral worship appears in many cultures, associated with ancient tradition.

Technically, due to the misplacement of modifiers, these sentences declare that it is the sunset that is "walking down the street," the lectern that is "bespectacled and grimacing," and the cultures that are "associated with ancient tradition." In reality, the friends are walking down the street, the professor is bespectacled and grimacing, and the practice of ancestral worship is associated with ancient tradition.

Modifiers appear every so often on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, and generally with higher frequency on the ACT. How can you tell that you're dealing with a Modifiers question on either test?

Look at those answer choices and pay attention to what's changing between them. If you see that word order (syntax) changes, this is a good sign that you've got a Modifiers question on your hand. You'll see this in action in the Guided Examples section of this post.

Rule #2: Utilize the appropriate idiom, when applicable.

An "idiom" is a fixed component of a language. Idioms are often hard to translate into other languages, like the English phrase it's raining cats and dogs. It can be equally difficult to learn an idiom in another language--most language learners must simply memorize these turns of phrase.

Idioms do appear on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, but in very specific ways. Yes, these questions are often easier for native English speakers, but that doesn't mean they aren't fair game for all test-takers, regardless of English proficiency.

That's because Idiom questions on the ACT and SAT generally have to do with the following:

  • prepositional phrases
  • homonyms

Prepositions help show relationships between places, things, people, ideas, time, and more. Here's a list of the most commonly used prepositions in the English language.

on at with of before
without in to at by
into toward behind against for
as from about around after

Small, functional words, prepositions are easy to overlook. However, many prepositions are idiomatic, especially when associated with certain adjectives and verbs. Take a look at these phrases, for example, that must be connected with one specific preposition.

  • accustomed to
  • protest against
  • associated with
  • curious about
  • necessary for
  • at last
  • in general
  • as a means of
  • by all means
  • from time to time

These are all fixed idiomatic phrases. We wouldn't say, for example, "associated on" or "curious into." Much like subject-verb agreement, our ears can often tell when an idiomatic phrase is incorrect, but it's also vital to ensure your familiarity with some of these commonly tested idioms as they can be easy to breeze by!

The SAT and ACT are also interested in your capacity to distinguish between certain homonyms, words that sound the same but have key differences in meaning.

Here are some very common homonyms that have appeared on official SAT and ACT practice tests:

  • affect vs. effect
  • than vs. then
  • fair vs. fare
  • whose vs. who's
  • its vs. it's
  • their / there / they're
  • your vs. you're

Make sure you know the difference between these homonyms and, more importantly, that you can apply your knowledge of these differences in context!

How can you tell that you're dealing with an Idioms question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language?

Once again, scan your answer choices and identify the differences between these choices. You might notice that 2 answers, for example, reference "than," while the other 2 reference "then," or that each answer includes a different preposition. These are all great indicators of an Idioms question.

Rule #3: Apply parallel structure for comparisons or items in a list.

Parallelism isn't just a concept that appears in math. It also concerns grammatical structure, especially with respect to comparisons or lists. Basically, parallelism in the world of English grammar involves making sure everything matches!

To apply parallel structure, ensure that items in a comparison or list are in the same form, category, and/or number. A list includes three or more words or phrases separated by commas. A comparison involves 2 words or phrases and may include the word "than."

In this next example, the verbs in the list all have the same form (-ing):

Desmond spends his days at the library photocopying, transcribing, and cataloguing articles.

Here, the nouns in the list are all singular, reflecting parallelism in number:

Someday I hope to invest in a car, a retirement account, and a rental property.

Yes, it would be technically grammatically incorrect to list out a mixture of singular and plural nouns (i.e., Someday I hope to invest in a car, several homes, a retirement account, and three rental properties).

Lastly, in this next comparison, notice how the sentence compares nouns that adhere to the same "category:" i.e., the "car enthusiasts of this show" and "those" of "past events." This is parallel structure, too, as it's technically grammatically incorrect to compare things that are not in the same category (i.e., comparing a "person" and a "car" or a "pen" with a "book").

The car enthusiasts at this road show, however, seemed far less interested than those of past events.

How do you know if you have a Parallelism question on your hands on the ACT or SAT? Be on the lookout for the word "than" in the sentence's context, as this indicates a comparison. If you see a list, scan the answer choices and identify what is changing, as lists can be fair game for comma rule application or parallelism.

Ready to apply these grammar rules in practice? Download our free worksheet for these rarely tested concepts now.


3 Guided Examples: Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules

The key to mastering these grammar rules on the SAT/ACT truly lies in seeing how they are tested, which can feel unfamiliar to students. That's what can make the ACT and SAT challenging in general--these exams test familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways!

We'll walk through 3 guided examples that test these 3 grammar rules now, each taken from an officially released SAT or ACT practice test.

Guided Example #1: Modifiers

This Modifiers question comes from SAT Official Practice Test #1.

Modifiers Questions on the SAT and ACT

We can tell that this is a Modifiers question because each answer choice presents a different word order for the same ideas expressed in this sentence. Answer B, for example, begins with "colleagues," while answer D begins with "I."

The first thing we'll want to do here is read for context. What is this sentence trying to say? When we read carefully for context, we see that the first part of this sentence is an incomplete idea: having become frustrated trying to solve difficult problems. This is a descriptive clause designed to modify the subject who is "frustrated."

Remember the golden rule of modifiers: modifiers and modifying phrases must be right next to whatever it is they are modifying. The subject that comes immediately after this descriptive clause must be the subject who is "frustrated."

Does it make sense for "ideas" to be frustrated? Not really. We can eliminate C. The same goes for the answer choices that reference "colleagues," as it's clear that the narrator ("I") is the one who is frustrated. We can eliminate A and B and select D.

Here's how the new sentence would read with correct modifier placement:

Having become frustrated trying to solve difficult problems, I missed having colleagues nearby to consult. 

Guided Example #2: Idioms

This Idioms question comes from SAT Official Practice Test #1.

Idioms Questions on the SAT

How do we know that this is an Idioms question? For one thing, the answer choices contain three prepositions (as, like, for) and one verb infinitive (to be).

Reading for context, we also see that this question concerns the verb "serves" and the preposition that fits with it idiomatically. Many students will be familiar with the phrase serves as. Given that the sentence describes the functions and characteristics of Greek yogurt, it makes sense for us to choose answer B here.

This is how the corrected sentence would read:

Nutritionists consider Greek yogurt to be a healthy food: it is an excellent source of calcium and protein, serves as a digestive aid, and contains few calories...

If this question stumped you, try plugging in the other answer choices. Notice how "serves like a digestive aid," "serves to be a digestive aid," and "serves for a digestive aid" all sound a little off, indicating incorrect idiomatic expression.

Guided Example #3: Parallelism

This Parallelism question comes from ACT Official Practice Test #3.

Parallelism Questions on the ACT and SAT 

It might be tough to identify this question as a Parallelism question at first glance. However, the key lies in the answer choices themselves. Notice how each answer choice generally expresses the same idea but includes different pronouns (she, her, one), syntax, and length.

Context shows us a list describing what the narrators love about this individual: "her loyal companions," "her bravado." What's the golden rule of Parallelism? Items in a comparison or list must be in the same form, category, and/or number.

We need to choose the answer choice that includes the same possessive pronoun ("her"), for one thing. This only eliminates answer J, which doesn't include "her." However, notice how H is the most concise expression of the idea here: her freedom to do what she wanted. There's no need for the extra words expressed in answers F and G.

Here's how the new sentence would read:

We loved her loyal companions, her bravado, and her freedom to do what she wanted.

Download Our Rarely Tested Grammar Rules Worksheet

Just because these questions appear relatively infrequently does not mean that you should overlook them in your test prep!

We encourage students to hone their skills in modifiers, idioms, and parallelism by working through the additional practice questions and guided examples in our free 3 Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules worksheet.

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the three rules we discussed in this post
  • Guided examples of questions from official practice tests
  • Practice questions with detailed answers/explanations 


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.


Essential Grammar Rules for High School Students

14 Essential Grammar Rules for High School Students (Without the Fluff)

14 Essential Grammar Rules for High School Students (Without the Fluff)

Bonus: $50 Discount on PrepMaven’s Essential Grammar Workshop

Proper grammar is the foundation of strong writing. 

Yet many high school English classes don’t include grammar components. If they do, they are either too brief or too technical to be effective in the long run.

Given that high schoolers have to apply knowledge of grammar rules to the SAT and ACT and need proficiency in certain rules to succeed in college, we’ve done two things:

  1. Written this post about the most essential grammar rules high school students need for success
  2. Compiled an entire summer workshop series devoted to essential grammar rules and style

You can get $50 off one-time enrollment in this workshop right now. Otherwise, keep on reading to dive further into these essential rules.

Here’s what we cover:

  1. 14 Essential Grammar Rules
  2. PrepMaven’s Essential Grammar Summer Workshop
    • Bonus: $50 Discount for One-Time Enrollment

14 Grammar Rules You Need to Succeed

We’ve spent years working with high school students in academic writing, SAT/ACT prep, and college essay writing. Time and again, we’ve seen the same 14 grammar rules come into play in all of these areas.

We also know that grammar itself can be technical and boring. That’s why we outline the rules in this post in a simple and straightforward way, without jargon or “fluff.”

Rule #1: A complete sentence has a subject, a verb, and full expression of a thought.

Understanding the difference between complete and incomplete sentences is crucial for so many things. 

It’s especially valuable for applying most of the punctuation rules discussed in this post. 

A complete sentence must have the following three things:

  1. Subject
  2. Verb
  3. The complete expression of an idea

A subject is a person, place, thing, or idea. Examples of subjects include apple, optometrist, dyslexia, and the United Kingdom. A verb expresses the action of a subject, such as is, completed, running, and have.

Now, what do we mean by "the complete expression of an idea"? Basically, this stipulates that the sentence doesn't leave you hanging. It expresses a full idea.

Here's an example of a complete sentence that expresses a full idea:

Cherise decided to travel to the United Kingdom and seek employment after she completed her teaching certification.

The subject of this sentence is "Cherise," while the verb is "decided." The sentence fully expresses the idea that Cherise made a choice to travel to another country following completion of her teaching certification.

Yet a sentence doesn't have to be super long to express a full idea. Check out these sentences that are, in fact, complete:

I understand.

She couldn't go.

David waited.

In grammar language, a complete sentence is called an independent clause. Clauses contain a subject and a verb. 

If a sentence doesn’t have one or more of the three things needed for a complete idea, it’s incomplete. If it contains a subject and a verb, but not a full expression of an idea, it is called a dependent clause.

Here's an example of a trademark dependent clause:

Although I intended to sign up for PrepMaven’s Essential Grammar Workshop series

Notice how this sentence still has a subject ("I") and a verb ("intended"), which makes it a clause. However, the sentence does not express a full idea. In fact, it leaves us hanging! We know this person intended to sign up for the summer workshop, but the rest of the story is missing.

That word "although" is the secret culprit behind the incompleteness of this sentence. Subordinate conjunctions like although always make a sentence incomplete!

Here's a list of common subordinate conjunctions. When you see these words at the start of a sentence, be on the lookout for an incomplete idea:

while after because although before
unless as if since when
whenever whereas even though rather than until

Here are additional examples of incomplete sentences:

The long-awaited decision to appeal

While the rest of the class worked on the exam

Horses running through the field on a cloudy day


Rule #2: Combine two complete sentences with either a period, a semicolon, or a comma + FANBOYS conjunction.

That’s right! If you are trying to join two complete sentences to create what is called a compound sentence, you can only do so with one of the following punctuation options:

  1. Semicolon
  2. Period
  3. Comma + FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

Here is the same compound sentence written three ways to prove this point:

It’s not that people are disinterested in climate change. Many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet’s gradual warming.

It’s not that people are disinterested in climate change, for many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet’s gradual warming.

It’s not that people are disinterested in climate change; many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet’s gradual warming.

Two Tips About Semicolons

Semicolons only like to hang out between 2 complete sentences. Yet, occasionally, they can come before a transition word like "however," "nonetheless," or "moreover."

This is perfectly acceptable, as long as that transition word has a comma after it, as in this example:

It’s not that people are disinterested in climate change; indeed, many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet’s gradual warming.

Additionally, FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) never follow a semicolon.


Rule #3: Use a comma to join a dependent clause to an independent clause (most of the time).

To create what is called a complex sentence, use a single comma. This means linking together a dependent clause with an independent clause.

Here is an example of a complex sentence that includes a comma:

In light of the fact that women are still earning less than men in the workplace, equity consulting companies are likely to prove their value in years to come.

There are cases where a comma is not needed, but this depends on the dependent clause, as in this example here:

I won’t go to the store until I have finished my work.

“I won’t go to the store” is an independent clause; “until I have finished my work” is a dependent clause. However, no comma is necessary here.


Rule #4: A colon must come after a complete sentence.

The sentence that precedes a colon must be complete. A colon also introduces a list, explanation, definition, and/or elaboration, as in this example here:

Based on these facts, some might conclude that Shakespeare was, in fact, the opposite of who he was allegedly acclaimed to be: not an original writer but, rather, a clever plaigarist.

Additional Tip: A single long dash functions much like a colon in that it must also come after a complete sentence. It differs from a colon, however, in that it must precede a new thought, interruption, or clarification.

Rule #5: Use 2 commas to separate nonessential information from the rest of the sentence.

Just as we use parentheses to separate additional information from the rest of a sentence, we can use 2 commas to accomplish the same goal.

What is "additional" or "non-essential" information?

This includes anything that is not essential for making a sentence complete (i.e., a subject, verb, or words that contribute to the full expression of an idea), such as descriptive phrases and transition words. Essentially, if you get rid of this information, you'll still have a complete sentence.

Take a look at this example:

Greg and Kevin, the co-founders of PrepMaven, emphasize the importance of character when it comes to college applications.

Can you spot the non-essential information in this sentence? If you guessed “the co-founders of PrepMaven,” you’re absolutely right!

“The co-founders of PrepMaven” is a descriptive phrase that provides more information about the sentence’s subject, “Greg and Kevin.” It is not needed to make the sentence complete. In fact, we could get rid of it and still have a complete sentence!

Greg and Kevin emphasize the importance of character when it comes to college applications.

Additional Tip: You can use two long dashes in exactly the same way to separate nonessential information from the rest of the sentence.

Rule #6: Use commas to separate items in a list.

When listing out items, use a comma to separate each item. If you follow British English (and some academic writing styles), leave out the comma before the “and.”

However, if prepping for the SAT/ACT or following American English, incorporate the comma before the “and,” as in this example:

Before I leave for the holidays, I need to find a babysitter, submit that annual report, and RSVP for the Christmas party.


Rule #7: Place a comma after a transition word or introductory phrase.

A “phrase” is simply a group of words. Phrases are different from clauses, which contain a subject-verb pair (and can be complete or incomplete). An introductory phrase begins a sentence, often providing context, time or location cues, or transitions, as in the following examples:

In 1938

On the other hand

Beneath the sofa 

If you start a sentence with an introductory phrase or transition word, you need to place a comma after it. That's all there is to it!

In 1938, historians were only just starting to comprehend the impact of the changing times.

On the other hand, such precautionary measures are ones we should be taking on a daily basis, not merely in times of crisis.

Beneath the sofa, Lucy found a panoply of forgotten items, including a keyring, dog toy, and grocery receipt.


DID YOU KNOW? We cover all of these essential grammar rules and more in our summer workshop. For a limited time, we're offering a $50 discount for one-time enrollment, which you can grab below.


Rule #8: Use apostrophes to show possession with plural and/or singular nouns (and contractions).

We use apostrophes to show possession and contraction. When it comes to possession rules, keep the following in mind:

  • Add an 's to singular nouns showing ownership
  • Add a single apostrophe to plural nouns showing ownership

Check out these examples of singular noun possession:

  • Dmitri's dreams
  • The cat's favorite window sill
  • The Earth's curvature

How can you tell if a noun is singular? There should be only one of that particular noun. For example, there is only one Dmitri, one cat, and one Earth in the sample phrases above.

Here are some examples of plural noun possession:

  • The books' covers
  • The sidewalks' cracks
  • My teachers' curriculum

Besides the fact that these plural nouns end in "s," you can tell that they are plural because there is more than one of each. From the examples, we know that we are discussing more than one book, sidewalk, and teacher.

What about singular nouns that end in "s," including proper nouns like Chris? You still follow the rule of adding an 's to these nouns. Here's what that would look like:

  • Chris's classes
  • The iris's stamens
  • The sea bass's flavor

We know it feels awkward, but that's the rule! The only exception to this is with proper nouns that have historical and/or biblical associations, like "Moses" or "Jesus." In these instances, all you need to do is add an apostrophe to the end:

  • Moses' leadership
  • Jesus' teachings

You can have a plural noun that doesn't end in "s". What happens if you want to show possession with one of these nouns? All you need to do is treat it like a singular noun: add an 's to the end. Check out these examples:

  • The children's games
  • People's voting habits
  • Women's rights

Rule #9: Verbs must match their subjects (and vice versa).

This is the heart of subject-verb agreement: verbs must match their subjects!

But what do we mean by "match"? Verbs must match their subjects in form, which is different from tense.

Here's what that generally breaks down to:

  • A plural noun must have a plural verb
  • A singular noun must have a singular verb

A plural noun is a noun that indicates more than one of some thing, idea, or individual: horses, children, mosses. A singular noun indicates that there is only one of some thing, idea, or individual: horse, child, moss.

Now, even though we don't always think of verbs in terms of their singularity or plurality, a verb will change form depending on whether its noun is plural or singular. Take a look at the following examples to see this in action:

  • The horses run across the field.
  • The horse runs across the field.
  • These mosses are hard to identify.
  • This moss is hard to identify.

In the first two examples, the plural noun (horses) matches the plural verb (run), while the singular noun (horse) matches the singular verb (runs). Run and runs are different verb forms.

In the second two examples, the plural noun (mosses) matches the plural verb (are), while the singular noun (moss) matches the singular verb (is). Are and is are different verb forms.


Rule #10:  A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. 

We use pronouns so that we don't have to say the same noun over and over again in a sentence or paragraph. That's what makes them so useful!

There are several different types of pronouns. We’ve outlined the most common types in the chart below.

Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive Pronoun
I me my mine myself
you you your yours yourself / yourselves
we us our ours ourselves
they them their theirs themselves
she her her hers herself
he him his his himself
it it its n/a itself

A pronoun must match its noun in both type and form. For example, an object pronoun (me, you, us, them, her, him, it) must replace a noun that functions as a direct object. The same goes for subject pronouns, possessive adjectives, possessive pronouns, and reflexive pronouns.

Here's a list of pronouns and their nouns (called antecedents) that demonstrate this correlation:

  • people's voices --> their voices
  • Give the gift to Roger  --> Give the gift to him
  • I don't know anything about trigonometry --> I don't know anything about it
  • Ms. Lutz is teaching the class --> she is teaching the class
  • This book is Susan's --> This book is yours

All of the pronouns in these examples match their nouns (antecedents) in type and form. We wouldn't replace, for example, "people's" with "hers" or "trigonometry" with "them."

One of the most common pronoun mistakes confuses object pronouns for subject pronouns, as in the following incorrect sentences:

  • Her and I plan on traveling to Uruguay soon.
  • Mr. Banks, whom is teaching the class, has a wide range of advanced degrees.

In these sentences, the writer is erroneously using an object pronoun in place of a subject pronoun. If you ever are unsure about the difference, simply replace the pronoun with a noun to test it out:

  • Kate and I plan on traveling to Uruguay soon --> Kate = "she" --> She and I plan on traveling to Uruguay soon.
  • Mr. Banks is teaching the class. --> Mr. Banks = "who" --> Mr. Banks, who is teaching the class, has a wide range of advanced degrees.

Rule #11: Modifiers must be placed correctly.

A "modifier" refers to a word or group of words that provide more information about a certain subject. In most Modifier questions on the SAT or ACT, a modifier is a descriptive phrase that provides additional details about a subject, often appearing at the start of a sentence.

Here are some examples of modifying phrases that might offer further details about a specific subject:

  • walking down the street
  • bespectacled and grimacing
  • associated with ancient tradition

In general, modifiers and modifying phrases must be right next to whatever it is they are modifying! Take a look at these sample sentences that use the modifying phrases above:

  • Walking down the street, my friend and I took in the gorgeous sunset.
  • Bespectacled and grimacing, the professor made his way to the lectern.
  • Associated with ancient tradition, the practice of ancestral worship appears in many cultures.

In all of these examples, the modifying phrases are placed directly next to the subject they are modifying. Misplaced modifiers are called "dangling modifiers," and these incorrectly modify a subject. Here are the same examples written with dangling modifiers:

  • My friend and I took in the gorgeous sunset, walking down the street. 
  • The professor made his way to the lectern, bespectacled and grimacing.
  • The practice of ancestral worship appears in many cultures, associated with ancient tradition.

Technically, due to the misplacement of modifiers, these sentences declare that it is the sunset that is "walking down the street," the lectern that is "bespectacled and grimacing," and the cultures that are "associated with ancient tradition." In reality, the friends are walking down the street, the professor is bespectacled and grimacing, and the practice of ancestral worship is associated with ancient tradition.


Rule #12: Apply parallel structure for comparisons or items in a list.

Parallelism isn't just a concept that appears in math. It also concerns grammatical structure, especially with respect to comparisons or lists.

To apply parallel structure, ensure that items in a comparison or list are in the same form, category, and/or number.

In this next example, the verbs in the list all have the same form (-ing):

Desmond spends his days at the library photocopying, transcribing, and cataloguing articles.

Here, the nouns in the list are all singular, reflecting parallelism in number:

Someday I hope to invest in a car, a retirement account, and a rental property.

Lastly, in this comparison, notice how the sentence compares nouns that are the same "category:" i.e., the "car enthusiasts of this show" and "those" of "past events." This is parallel structure, too, as it's technically grammatically incorrect to compare things that do not follow the same category.

The car enthusiasts at this road show, however, seemed far less interested than those of past events.


Rule #13: Who vs. Whom

A lot of students get hung up on the difference between these two pronouns. Yet thinking about them as the pronouns they are can be helpful for telling them apart.

“Who” is a subject pronoun, while “whom” is an object pronoun. 

This means that “who” can only ever take the place of a noun that acts as the subject of the sentence. “Whom” can only replace the noun that functions as a direct object in the sentence.

  • I made the painting for Cherise, who is in charge of funds allocation.
  • After the lecture, the professor spoke to the student with whom he is conducting collaborative research.

To test to see if you are using the appropriate pronoun, replace “who” with another subject pronoun like “she” or “they;” replace “whom” with an object pronoun like “him” or “them.” This will usually reveal the right choice.


Rule #14: Lay vs. Lie

It can be similarly challenging to distinguish between these two verbs. We encourage students to think about them by their definitions:

  • “Lay:” to place something (or someone) down
  • “Lie:” to actually be in a prone position

If you use “lay” in a sentence, this verb has to be stuck to a direct object, as in this example:

I lay my pens, papers, and note-taking materials on the table.

If you use “lie” in a sentence, the verb does not need a direct object, as in this example:

I think I’ll lie down right here on this patch of grass.

PrepMaven's Essential Grammar Summer Workshop Series

Essential Grammar Rules Workshop

We’ve built the curriculum of our Essential Grammar Summer Workshop series around these 14 essential rules. In this course, students will

  • Boost their proficiency in these essential grammar rules
  • Understand these rules’ relationship to style
  • Improve their overall English mechanics
  • Incorporate what they’ve learned into their academic writing

Learn more about the workshop here.

You can also get $50 off a one-time enrollment fee here.


What is a good SAT Score?

What is a Good SAT Score for 2020? (And 6 Steps to Get One)

What is a Good SAT Score for 2020? (And 6 Steps to Get One)

Bonus Material: Step-by-Step Guide for Establishing Your Target SAT Score

What is a good SAT score? And how do you get one?

Our students ask these 2 questions all the time. But answers to them can vary widely, depending on who you ask.

In this post, we use up-to-date industry data to define a good SAT score for 2020. 

Yet we won’t leave you hanging there.

We also give insight into what makes for a good SAT score for you personally. Plus, we outline 6 actionable steps for getting closer to that target score.

Students who take the time to figure out their personally great SAT scores are more likely to achieve college admissions success.

Before reading, get a head start by downloading our free Step-by-Step Guide to Establishing Your Target SAT Score.

Here’s what we cover:

    1. Our 2 Data-Backed Definitions of a “Good SAT Score” for 2020
    2. How Many Questions You Need to Get Right to Achieve a Good SAT Score
    3. “Bad” SAT Scores -- Do They Exist?
    4. 6 Steps for Getting a Good SAT Score (that you can easily start today)
    5. Bonus: Step-by-Step Guide for Establishing Your Target SAT Score

Your Guide to a Good SAT Score for 2020

Students taking the SAT for the first time often ask these questions, in this order:

  1. How does scoring work on the SAT?
  2. What’s a good SAT score?
  3. What do I need to do to get a good SAT score?

We answer the first question in our easy guide to scoring on the SAT, so we won’t cover that here.

That second question, however, can be harder to answer. After all, “good” is a relative term, right? And isn’t every single SAT technically different?

Yes and yes. 

That’s why it’s so important to define what we actually mean by a “good SAT score.” We have 2 definitions for this.

Our 2 Definitions of A Good SAT Score

  1. “Good” is anything that is “above average” with sectional scores and percentile rankings
  2. “Good” is anything that will look competitive on a college application

Let’s start with the first definition.

Good SAT Score #1: The “Above Average” SAT Score

Average SAT Scores

With this definition, in very basic terms, a good SAT score for 2020 could be anything above 1059. This was the average national composite SAT score for the graduating class of 2019. 

A good SAT Verbal score could be anything above 531 and a good SAT Math score could be above 528, based on the same data released by the CollegeBoard

Percentiles

But we like to be more precise than this.

Remember that an SAT score--composite or section--always comes attached to a percentile ranking. This percentile indicates the percentage of comparison students an individual test-taker out-performed.

There are two comparison groups: "SAT Users" (actual SAT test-takers from the classes of 2018 and 2019) and a "nationally representative sample." SAT Percentiles: Composite Scores

A student who scores 1350 on the SAT, for example, will likely have a composite percentile of 94 (nationally representative sample) and 91 (SAT user percentile). This means that this student out-performed roughly 91-94% of SAT test-takers in these two comparison groups.

SAT scores are also usually normally distributed. This means that the bulk of students’ composite SAT scores hover around the middle of the curve. Far fewer scores appear on the higher or lower end of the SAT score range between 400 and 1600.

Normal Distribution Curve_SAT Scores

The middle-of-the-road (or median) SAT composite percentile is the 50th. Students in this percentile range out-performed 50% of all test-takers and under-performed 50% of all test-takers. Students with a 1080 SAT composite are in this 50th percentile.

What does this mean?

Students who score higher than 1080 on the SAT are above average nationally from a percentile basis. These students also hold a 51% or higher SAT percentile.

Thus, a great SAT score on a national scale is above 1080. 

As a point of reference, in 2018, students in the 75th SAT percentile scored about 1215. This is nearly 400 points away from a perfect score, and yet it is a higher score than 75% of all test-takers achieved! 

Good SAT Score #2: The College Competitive SAT Score

Let’s not forget about one major reason for taking the SAT: college entrance! 

In the context of college entrance, one student’s “good” SAT score could be vastly different than another student’s. It just comes down to where you are applying and the average SAT scores of admitted applicants.

So, we like to say that, under this definition, a ‘good SAT score’ is the one that is right for you given your college aspirations. This will probably be close to the SAT scores of admitted applicants. 

If a student is aspiring to attend a highly selective institution like Princeton University, for example, a “good” SAT score likely surpasses the 90th percentile. 

Plenty of universities specify score ranges and percentiles of successful applicants on their websites (although some are not public with this information).  

Most do so by specifying the ‘Middle 50,’ or the 25th and 75th percentile of accepted students’ SAT scores--this is not to be confused with SAT score report percentiles! 

Here’s a sampling of the Middle 50s from various elite institutions:

College 25th Percentile Verbal Section Score  75th Percentile Verbal Section Score 25th Percentile Math Section Score 75th Percentile Math Section Score
Stanford University 690 760 700 780
Vanderbilt University 710 770 730 800
Amherst College 700 770 700 790
Pomona College 690 760 680 770
Princeton University 710 780 720 790
Brown University 705 780 700 790
Barnard College 660 760 650 740

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS (2017)

Our guide includes 25th/75th percentile data for 499 colleges. Click here to get this comprehensive list.

When researching competitive applicant SAT scores, keep in mind range.

Successful Vanderbilt applicants, for example, often have an SAT Verbal section score of 710-770. Successful Barnard College applicants have an SAT Verbal section score between 660 and 760.

Those ranges are actually significant. Yes, the higher your score in these cases, the better. But, technically, students on the lower end of these ranges still earned acceptance!

Some institutions have test score and/or GPA cut-offs for scholarship considerations. Review these requirements ahead of time to identify score ranges for eligible applicants.

What is a Good SAT Score_ (2) (1)

What about schools that don’t explicitly state the average SAT scores of admitted applicants on their websites? 

There’s a workaround. 

Many colleges also release what is called a Common Data Set, which presents data related to admitted applicants' test scores and more.

Princeton University's CDS, for example, includes the 25th and 75th percentiles of SAT scores as well as the percentage of 2019 freshman students with specific SAT score ranges.

Based off of this data, we can conclude that a competitive SAT score for a Princeton applicant would fall within these ranges:

  • Reading and Writing: 710-770
  • Math: 730-800
  • Composite: 1440 - 1570

What This Means In Terms of Questions

How many questions do you have to get correct on the SAT to earn a score that is above average (as per our first definition of a good SAT score)?

Every SAT exam is scaled for difficulty in a process the College Board calls “equating.” We discuss this more in our guide to scoring on the SAT

Because no two SATs are alike, it’s difficult to translate the 2019 average SAT scores into total correct questions.

It is possible to generalize, however, which we have done in the following table.

Section Average 2019 Score Average Questions Right
Verbal (Evidence-Based Reading + Writing & Language) 531 ~48-54 questions right (out of 96)
Math (Calculator + No Calculator) 528 ~24-30 (out of 58)
Total 1059 ~74-85 questions (out of 155)
Data based on raw score conversion tables for College Board Official Practice Tests 1-8.

Notice that average SAT performance boils down to getting just over 50% of all questions correct. 

What is a Bad SAT Score? (Does it Exist?)

Is there such a thing as a bad SAT score? Kind of. 

A “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what the College Board has called college and career readiness. These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean.

They may also not meet the benchmark scores the College Board has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas. These benchmark scores vary according to grade (from 8th grade to 11th grade).

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the benchmark scores for college and career readiness. 

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 480
  • Math: 530

Students who meet these benchmarks will see their scores represented in the green range when they receive their SAT score reports. Scores below these benchmark scores will appear as either red or yellow, depending on how far below the scale they are.

College Board SAT Benchmark Scores

Source: The College Board

So, if you score below 480 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and 530 on Math, you’re technically earning a “bad” SAT score.  But remember 3 things:

  1. Every college will have different standards when it comes to SAT scores of admitted applicants 
  2. 530 on SAT Math is actually above average (on sectional scores) compared to 2019 scores
  3. You can take the right steps for increasing your SAT score (with the tips we’re about to talk about)

6 Steps for Getting a Good SAT Score (that you can easily start today)

Now we get to answer that third question mentioned in the intro to this post: What do I need to do to get a good SAT score?

1. Take a diagnostic SAT.

It’s hard to figure out your destination if you don’t know where you are starting in the first place!

Take a diagnostic SAT practice test to pinpoint where your skills currently lie. In fact, this is the first thing we have our students do when they sign up for any PrepMaven SAT test prep program. 

A benchmark set of SAT scores is essential for creating reasonable goals. And reasonable goals are critical for reaching your target SAT score.

You can find 10 FREE Official SAT Practice Tests here

We also recommend checking out our guide to self-proctoring your first SAT practice test--it’s important to replicate Test Day conditions as much as possible in order to generate accurate results.

2. Make sure the SAT is actually the right test for you.

You heard that right.

The SAT might not be the test for you, depending on the results of your diagnostic SAT. Some students are better suited for the ACT, the other standardized test used in college admissions.

Colleges accept both tests equally, but it’s important to prep for the test guaranteed to give you the highest score. 

The ACT and SAT are similar in some ways. But they are also vastly different in others. To see which test is right for you, ask these 5 questions now.

If you’re simply curious about the ACT, our post on the ACT’s general format will give you a good overview of what to expect with this test. 

We can also help students figure out which test to pursue in a free test prep consultation.

3. Build a general college list.

You might not be certain exactly where you’d like to apply to college.

That’s okay!

Most high school students solidify their college lists the summer or fall of their senior years.

However, to truly know what a good SAT score looks like for you, a general college list is essential. This list can help you identify ballpark SAT score ranges for competitive entry, which we talk about in the next step.

If you aren’t able to pinpoint exact colleges, think in terms of tier:

  • Tier 1: Ivy League Schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.)
  • Tier 2: Extremely Selective Schools
  • Tier 3: Highly Selective Schools
  • Tier 4: Selective Schools
  • Tier 5: Moderately Selective Schools
  • Tier 6: Somewhat Selective Schools….. etc.

We recommend choosing 3 tiers of schools, arranged as follows, and at least 2 schools for each of these tiers (total of 6):

  1. Safety schools (you know you’ll probably get in)
  2. Competitive schools (odds are neutral)
  3. Reach schools (a “reach” to earn acceptance)

Of course, students will want to keep building this college list as they progress with their SAT test prep. For now, however, a general list of at least 6 schools will be sufficient to get to the next step.

4. Investigate college score ranges.

Once you’ve assembled your general college list (with at least 6 schools), it’s time to check out the average SAT scores of admitted applicants to these institutions. You have a few resources for this:

  • The college’s website itself
  • The most recent Common Data Set for that college (if possible)
  • National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS
  • PrepMaven’s Step-by-Step Guide to Determining Your Target SAT score

Remember to keep in mind score ranges of admitted applicants and 25th / 75th percentiles (if applicable) as you do this research.

Let’s say that you want to research the SAT score ranges for applicants accepted to Fordham University.

Fordham does specify test score ranges on its website (not all colleges do this):

We can also back this up with information from Fordham’s Common Data Set from 2018-2019:

If using our Target Score Guide, students would then enter these ranges (620-700 on Reading/Writing and 630-730 on Math) in the appropriate column. 

Do this for all 6 schools on your general list.

5. Identify your target SAT score

SAT test prep without a target score is like a ship without a rudder. A target SAT score is essential for 2 things:

  1. Setting goals
  2. Figuring out your test prep timeline

You can identify your target SAT score right now with our free guide. This guide is most helpful for students who have:

  • Already taken a diagnostic SAT practice test
  • Have assembled a general college list 

6. Take your time

The SAT is vastly different from traditional high school tests. Much like a second language, it requires dedication, immersion, and time to understand and eventually master. 

Thus, it’s important to give your test preparation time. The SAT is not a test that students can cram, and nor should it take a side-burner in a student’s college application process. 

Allocate a generous timeline for sufficient SAT test prep, and stick to it!  How much time will you need to set aside for SAT prep?

Our Target SAT Score guide will help you figure this out.


Download Our Step-by-Step Guide for Establishing Your Target SAT Score

A concrete target SAT score can mean the difference between a mediocre score and a good score. Why? You are more likely to reach your goals in life if they are:

  • Specific
  • Time-oriented and
  • Realistic

In fact, students who don’t choose a target SAT score at the start of their test prep are less likely to be successful in their journey. That’s why we crafted a guide to establishing a target score that aligns with a student's current strengths and college aspirations. 

With this guide, you’ll be able to:

  • Compare the results of your first SAT practice test to national averages
  • Identify score ranges of competitive applicants to your schools of choice
  • Establish a realistic target score (composite, Reading/Writing, Math) that is your personal good SAT score
  • Understand how many questions you have to get right per section to achieve this score
  • Create an actionable timeline for getting your target SAT score (and beyond!)

Once you’ve completed the guide, you’ll be set for launching your SAT test prep, either solo or with additional guidance from the experts.

Our guide also includes data on SAT score ranges of competitive applicants to 499 U.S. colleges and universities!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.


5 Sample College Essay Formats_PrepMaven

5 Ways to Structure Your College Essay

5 Ways to Structure Your College Essay

A common characteristic of a successful college essay is its capacity to tell a story in a descriptive, engaging way.

Yet even if you've reviewed those essay prompts and chosen the right college essay topic, how can you make sure that your essay has this quality?

The secret lies in your essay's structure. We encourage all of our college essay students to create an outline of their essays prior to writing a first draft, and we do this for a reason: the right structure can ensure you're telling your story in a compelling fashion.

Great structure can also ensure that your essay is well-written, authentic, and introspective, all qualities of successful personal statements.

It can be tough to nail down a college essay structure after you've chosen your topic, especially if you just don't know where to start. That's why we wrote this post!

We reviewed a wide range of successful essays and boiled them down to 5 sample structures. While it's possible to choose any structure out there to suit your essay topic, these are the most common and a great starting place for first-time essay writers.

Here's what we cover:


The College Essay Structure: 5 Sample Structures

This list of sample college essay structures is by no means comprehensive. But the majority of the essays we see do fit these molds, and often successfully. The sample essays we reference can all be found in 11 College Essays That Worked.

1. The Setback

This is one of the most straightforward and traditional college essay structures. It is ideal for students who wish to discuss

  • a challenge they've overcome
  • an experience that didn't go as expected
  • and/or their response to a specific obstacle.

While Setback essays can take a number of approaches, their structure generally boils down to the following:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Setback (1)

What's great about the Setback structure is its capacity to encourage introspection. This is what admissions officers are looking for--your ability to deeply reflect on whatever it is you're discussing, and in a way that adds value to your overall application.

With this structure, students should focus less on the setback itself and more on what they learned or took away from this experience.

In her essay that utilizes the Setback structure, Destiny describes her twelve-year-old ambition to write and publish a novel. When her manuscript comes back from her father's office covered in red, she is heartbroken at first. Yet this precipitates valuable realizations about what it actually means to achieve your dreams, which she describes in her conclusion:

Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

Amanda also follows the Setback structure in her essay, which describes an unexpected encounter during a volunteering experience. Accustomed to working with Joey, a well-mannered special needs child, Amanda struggles to work with Robyn, a child prone to anger and aggression.

Yet, over time, Amanda makes some important realizations about her relationship to compassion and her capacity for empathy, as described in her conclusion:

Was I sincerely an empathetic person if I could only be so when it was easy? Was I truly compassionate because others thought I was? Complacency does not equate with compassion; true empathy is not an ephemeral trait that one possesses only when it suits him or her – when it doesn’t require him or her to try.

Both of these essays--Destiny's and Amanda's--describe a setback and the writer's specific response to this setback, often in the context of values, perspective, and/or beliefs. We finish the essays with a nuanced understanding of that writer's character as a result of this setback and their response to it.

2. The Thesis

Many high school students are familiar with thesis statements and their value in the context of academic writing. While college essays differ significantly from academic essays, students can use the Thesis structure to great success to structure their ideas.

This is an ideal structure to use if your essay describes

  • a specific belief or characteristic not necessarily framed through an experience
  • your stance on an issue
  • and/or a frank viewpoint on something that's important to you.

Essays that adhere to the Thesis format generally follow this structure:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Thesis

As we've mentioned before, students who use this structure should focus less on the issue at hand and more about what this says about them as a person (the "why" of the thesis statement).

In her essay that utilizes the Thesis structure, Emma begins with a declarative thesis about a specific characteristic and spends the rest of the essay elaborating upon this characteristic and its meaning in her life:

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. 

Harry's essay begins with his succinct perspective on the notion of "common values," which he elaborates in a structured fashion throughout the next few paragraphs:

Establishing a cohesive society where common values are shared is increasingly difficult in multi-faith, globalised societies such as the one I’m part of in the UK. My studies in politics and philosophy have made me more sensitive to this problem and as I have a much larger number of friends from different ethnic backgrounds than my parents and the previous generation, I realise that the friction created by the presence of different ethnic and social groups is not going to disappear anytime soon.

James describes his relationship to rowing in an essay that follows the Thesis structure, beginning with a clear statement about this relationship and elaborating upon this throughout the essay's body:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race. This is the one situation in which I find myself to be completely comfortable; the one environment in which I feel most empowered, at home, and content, despite it being quite at odds with the conventional definition of the word “comfortable”.  

Notice how these three essays are very distinct, despite following the same structure! This proves the Thesis format's versatility.

3. Compare & Contrast

A more niche college essay structure, the Compare & Contrast structure is ideal for students who choose to write about something in comparison with something else. Students can use this structure to:

  • contrast their perspective(s) with another's
  • or compare two meaningful experiences, individuals, actions, and/or values

Typically, Compare & Contrast essays incorporate the following general structure, although this can be quite flexible:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_Compare and Contrast

Shanaz uses this structure in her essay's application of the quote "You know nothing, Jon Snow" to her own life. Her comparisons operate at the sentence level, elucidating her understanding of what it means to be "ignorant":

Like Jon Snow, I’ve never lived a day in another person’s shoes. Fewer than three meals a day. No extra blanket during record-breaking winter cold. No clean water. I may be parched after an intense practice, but I know nothing of poverty. Losing a loved one overseas. Being forced to leave your home. Coups d’état and dictatorial governments. I battle with my peers during class discussions, but I know nothing of war. Denial of education. Denial of religion. Denial of speech. I have an endless list of freedoms, and I know nothing of oppression.

These comparisons are powerful in their ability to magnify the extent of Shanaz's self-professed ignorance, which also lends the essay a distinct tone of authenticity. 

4. The Discovery Structure

Essays that follow the Discovery structure generally track a specific moment of self-discovery. They are ideal for students writing an essay that focuses largely on:

  • an important, self-shaping experience
  • identity (cultural, social, etc.)
  • a valuable moment of self-reflection or understanding

The Discovery structure differs from the Setback structure in that it doesn't necessarily involve a concrete challenge or setback. These essays tend to work with broader themes and incorporate a lot of self-reflection. That's why they can be so successful from an admissions officer's perspective.

Here's what the Discovery structure generally looks like:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Discovery Format

In her essay, Aja describes a time when she deeply questions her religious faith, testing her beliefs as she performs lab experiments during a science summer program:

My experiment eventually went beyond the scientific approach, as I questioned in my thoughts. I had to determine what my beliefs meant to me, to find my own answer. I could not simply interpret results of an experiment, but needed to find my own interpretations.

Aja eventually concludes that "the questions themselves proved my practices were valuable to me, and left me with a stronger commitment to my religious faith than I had before." In sharing with the reader an important moment of self-reflection, she conveys an intimate portrait of how she engages with truth, both as a scientist and a follower of a specific faith.

5. The Evolution Essay

The Evolution essay structure is ideal for students writing about an experience, belief, or characteristic that isn't necessarily isolated to a concrete moment in time (like the Setback structure, for example). It is very similar to the Discovery structure, but differs in that it often presents the writer's evolution in relation to

  • a community
  • an ongoing experience
  • a deeply embedded belief

Here's what the Evolution structure generally looks like, although it is very flexible:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Evolution Format

Jonah utilizes the Evolution structure in describing how he evolves and grows by participating in a specific community: a small group of friends tackling challenging problem sets in the corner of an AP Calculus classroom. Jonah essentially traverses four years in his essay, describing how this community has inspired him to progress as a scholar and instructor:

Yet on every occasion, whether I’m facing the board or with my back to it, whether I’m in the ranks of my peers or addressing my teachers, I feel the same elation. In my friends I see Socrates, Newton, and Steinhardt. There’s no place I would rather be than in their company.

Martin also follows the Evolution structure in his essay that describes the various factors and experiences that have shaped his present identity:

I am who I am today as a result of these experiences and personal challenges. In my short life so far, I have developed my soft-hearted and quiet personality to become more open, creative, and self-assured while preserving my identity. I know more challenges lie ahead, but I am open to those opportunities.


Your College Essay Structure: Next Steps

The 5 college essay structures discussed in this post are not the only ones out there. Students have a lot of options when it comes to structuring their pieces, and many times the ideal structure will emerge once you've chosen the right topic.

We have multiple tutors ready to help you arrive at that winning topic and, most importantly, craft an essay that "works"!

Learn more about our one-on-one college essay coaching programs now. Or reach out for details about our new summer college essay workshop, a four-week intensive designed for rising 12th graders working on their personal statements.


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 


How to Choose That Winning College Essay Topic_PrepMaven

6 Tips for Choosing That Winning College Essay Topic

6 Tips for Choosing That Winning College Essay Topic

You've pored over examples of college essays that worked. You've asked yourself essential questions to guide your brainstorming process. Now how do you choose that winning college essay topic?

The "right" essay topic is the one most likely to result in a piece that will add significant value to your application, among other things.

Many students, however, also have to contend with supplemental essays. A lot of colleges are now requiring students to submit responses on top of the personal statement. How do you know which topics to reserve for supplementals, and which one to choose for your personal statement?

That's what this post is all about. In this article, we define a "winning" college essay topic and provide specific tips for choosing one out of your brainstorming material.

After you've chosen your topic, you'll be well on your way to the next steps of the college essay writing process: outlining and drafting.

Here's what we cover:


A Winning College Essay Topic Defined

How do you know if you've chosen the "right" topic for your essay? In general, a solid essay topic will be

  • lucrative
  • exciting to you personally
  • and most likely to generate a "successful" essay

What do we mean by "lucrative"? A good essay topic must have the potential to generate a significant amount of self-reflection, introspection, and meaning.

Basically, students should feel that they have a lot to say about the topic they choose! If you feel as if you are grasping for material with a certain topic, it may not be the best for your personal statement.

The right topic might also be exciting to you personally. Richer topics are more likely to inspire this sense of excitement or interest, which can, in turn, ease the writing process and result in a more authentic piece aligned with your voice.

Lastly, the best college essay topic for you will put you in the position to write a "successful" piece. We define a successful college essay as

  1. Introspective and reflective
  2. Descriptive and engaging
  3. Honest
  4. Unconventional and distinct
  5. Full of a student's voice
  6. Well-written
  7. Meaningful

Ask yourself: Will this topic allow me to be introspective and reflective? Will it result in an engaging, descriptive piece? Is it honest? Will it enable me to be unconventional, even in a small way? Is it in line with my voice? Does it have the potential to add substantial meaning to my application? Does it say more about who I am apart from my resume, test scores, and transcripts?

The following tips are designed to guide you further through the topic selection process.


6 Tips for Choosing the Right Topic

Once you've gathered a wide range of potential topics, use these tips to narrow down that list until you've landed on the "winning" one.

1. Identify supplemental essay prompts (if applicable)

Many colleges and universities now require students to submit additional essays as part of their application. For example, in 2019, Boston College required applicants to submit a 400-word response to one of the following 4 prompts:

Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?
When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?
Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?

Some universities, like Stanford, might require a series of shorter-response supplemental essays with specific prompts. These prompts can range widely in subject, as you can see in the above Boston College prompts.

As more and more institutions add supplemental essays to their requirements, students should be mindful of these as they choose their personal statement topic. We strongly discourage students from writing about the same thing in their personal statements and supplementals!

If you can, find out which of the colleges on your list require supplemental essays. Create a spreadsheet of these prompts (with word lengths) and refer to these as you choose your college essay topic. You might even be able to select topics for those supplementals in the same process.

2. Put a star next to lucrative topics

Remember: a lucrative essay topic is one with the potential to generate a significant amount of self-reflection, introspection, and meaning.

Take a look at the topics you've assembled. Which ones do you have a lot to say about? Put a star next to these. If you find yourself unsure about a certain topic, ask yourself:

  • how much does this matter to me personally?
  • does it relate somehow to my perspective(s) of the world? If so, how?
  • what else could I say about this topic?
  • is it related to any other topics?
  • does it relate to my character, value(s), and/or voice?

Prioritize those topics that earn a lot of "yes"s and additional thoughts from these questions. The "lucrative" topics you don't end up choosing can be excellent material for supplemental responses.

3. Consider the rest of your application

We encourage students to view their essays as an opportunity to add value to the rest of their application. This means choosing a topic that brings the admissions officer outside of your resume, transcripts, recommendation letters, and test scores.

As you narrow down topics, eliminate any that do not add significant dimension to your application, particularly from a character perspective.

Ask yourself: Does this topic say something that the rest of my application does not say? Does it give admissions officers deeper insight into who I am as a person? Is it just a reiteration of my resume or does it add meaning to my full application?

4. Identify what excites you

"Excite" might be a strong word. But time and again, our essay students have expressed some level of interest in the topic they choose to write about. Some even find an element of fun or enjoyment in a specific topic, especially if it allows them to express their individual voice.

Keep this in mind as you work through those topics you've already identified as "lucrative." What interests you? What might you be eager to delve into further? What are you excited to share with admissions officers?

Some students like to "try out" certain topics before choosing them. This might involve short free-writes on competitive topics. If you do this, notice when the words start to flow. This can be a good indication that you're inching closer to the winning topic.

5. Think about storytelling

Successful college essays tell some kind of story in an engaging fashion. We like to remind our students of this throughout the college essay writing process: they are storytellers first and foremost.

We can define a story as a narrative that engages a specific reader and works toward a certain point. Some stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Successful stories give the reader an opportunity to become invested in what they are reading somehow.

Think about this as you narrow down your list of topics. A winning topic will allow you to tell a story completely and succinctly. It will also fit a clear, comfortable structure.

Some topics may be compelling, lucrative, and fascinating to you personally. However, they might not be suited for the college essay in terms of their storytelling potential. 

How can you tell if this is the case? A topic might be too "big," for example, such as all of the international travel experiences you've had in five years. For these larger topics, it might be better to focus on one specific aspect, moment, or perspective of that broader situation, such as the story behind the blue suitcase you took with you on those travel experiences.

A topic could also be too linear, leaving little room for a student to discuss anything outside of facts and details. We've also seen students land on topics that might be interesting in and of themselves but aren't actually stories!

Ask yourself: Will this topic allow me to tell a descriptive, engaging story? Will this story showcase my authentic voice and my honesty? Will I be able to follow a compelling structure in telling this story? Does it have the potential for rich detail?

6. Consider unconventionality

We classify many successful college essays as "unconventional." This can be a relative term, but it's worth mentioning here. 

Remember: many competitive colleges and universities receive thousands of applications for admission every year. For this reason, it's essential to choose a topic that gives you every possibility to stand out from the crowd. That's what the tips in this post are designed to help you do.

But if you've narrowed down your list of topics to a handful, scrutinize what's left through the lens of convention.

Ask yourself: Which topic is more unexpected? Which encapsulates you (and only you)? How might a certain topic surprise admissions officers (in a good way)? Which is more honest?


You've Chosen Your College Essay Topic...What's Next?

Once you've selected that winning college essay topic, it's time to create an outline and a first draft. It's also essential to set aside an appropriate amount of time for the drafting and revision process. Successful college essays take time, and it's never too early to begin!

In the interim, we are excited to offer college essay writers a summer workshop and one-on-one mentoring programs. For more information, start a conversation with us today.


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 


Qualities of a Successful College Essay

7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

What does it mean to write a successful college essay?

The college essay is one of the most important aspects of a student's application. It gives applicants an opportunity to articulate their personal values, character traits, and perspectives. It's also a chance to add more value to your application, simply by demonstrating who you are outside of your resume and transcript.

A "successful" college essay is one that makes the most of these opportunities and, in many cases, earns an acceptance.

We've demystified what most admissions officers look for in college applications. But what are these officers looking for in the college essay itself? What are the top qualities of a successful application essay?

In analyzing various essays of admitted applicants, we've come up with a list of the characteristics that most of these pieces have in common. We'll be referring to some of these pieces throughout the post.

(If you'd like to read a selection of these essays, visit 11 College Essays That Worked.)

Here's what we cover:


The College Application Essay In a Nutshell

Most students applying to a college or university in the U.S. must submit an application essay (or "personal statement") with their application.

Depending on the application platform the college uses (typically either Coalition or the Common App), students have 500-650 words to craft a response. While each of these platforms has college essay prompts, it's helpful to view these prompts as general guidelines as to what colleges are looking for in a response.

Based on these prompts and our own experience coaching college essay students, the application essay is:

  • the chance to say what the rest of your application doesn't say
  • a demonstration of your character, values, and/or voice
  • the platform to show who you are outside of a resume/transcript
  • an introspective personal essay

The college essay is NOT:

  • a rehashing of your resume
  • an excuse or explanation of other components of your application
  • a formal, five-paragraph essay
  • what you think "colleges want to hear"

A standard college application includes an academic transcript, recommendation letters, extracurricular / activities section, an optional resume, and standardized test scores. The essay is an addition to these 4 general components, so it makes sense that it should complement them by saying something new.

That's why we like to define the essay as a "demonstration of character, values, and/or voice." True, these elements can be inferred from other components of the application. But the essay is your opportunity to clearly and personally demonstrate what matters to you, who you are at the core, and/or your essential perspectives of the world.

For this reason, the college essay is introspective and personal. Colleges want to hear that "I" voice in the application essay, loud and clear, and they want active, intelligent reflection.

You can see this in action in the pieces we've included in our 11 College Essays That Worked article.

(Note: Some colleges might require applicants to submit supplemental essays in addition to their personal statement. These often have very specific prompts and different word lengths. We'll discuss how to approach supplemental essays in a future post--stay tuned.)


 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

We've assessed several college essays of applicants admitted to a wide range of schools, including Ivy League institutions. While extremely diverse, these pieces generally had the following characteristics in common.

1. Introspective and reflective

Many English teachers tell their students not to use the first-person "I" in their essays. While this might be the standard for some academic essays, the college essay should include that "I." What's more, it should include a lot of that "I"!

This can be understandably uncomfortable for students, many of whom may simply not be used to talking about themselves openly and declaratively on a page. It can also feel awkward from a stylistic point of view for students who are not used to writing in the first-person.

Yet colleges want to hear your words in your own voice, and they are especially interested in learning more about your perspectives on the world and insights gleaned from your various life experiences. That's why many successful college essays are highly introspective, full of the writer's active reflections on what they've learned, how they view the world, and who they are.

We typically see the bulk of such introspection at the end of an essay, where the writer summarizes these reflections (although this is by no means standard), as we can see in the conclusion to Destiny's essay here, which describes her earlier attempt to write and publish a novel:

Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

In her personal statement, Aja reflects deeply on what she specifically learned from an experience described earlier on in the piece:

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. 

Notice how both of these selections contain a lot of that first-person voice, which is critical to elaborating perspectives, learning points, and introspective thoughts. And did we mention that admissions officers are looking for those specific perspectives, learning points, and thoughts that compose who you are?

2. Full of a student's voice

An academic transcript can be revealing to admissions officers. The same goes for recommendation letters and resumes. But it's hard to convey an individual voice in these application components. The college essay is your prime vehicle for speaking directly to colleges in your own words about what matters to you.

Successful college essays thus veer away from the formal voice many students employ when writing academic essays. Rather, they showcase a student's unique way of expressing themselves on a page, which can be, for example, humorous, informal, intimate, lyrical, and/or speculative.

Voice is at the forefront of Emma's essay about her love for "all that is spicy:"

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I’m not referring to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Notice how Emma's descriptions of her passion for spice are rich with her voice: playful, intelligent, and humorous. This also gives us insight into a specific aspect of her character--that's the power of voice when it comes to personal essay writing, and college admissions officers are very interested in applicants' characters.

3. Descriptive and engaging

You don't have to be a natural creative writer to compose a successful college essay. Yet competitive essays aren't afraid to dive deeply into a subject and describe it, whether that description relates to imagery, emotions, perspectives, or insights. A college essay shouldn't leave the reader guessing in any way--it should be highly specific and it should tell your story in an engaging fashion.

Harry's more intellectual essay presents his views on common values in society. He is careful to be very specific and descriptive in these views, incorporating both a relevant incident from history and his own direct relationship to the issue:

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

In her essay, Amanda is extremely detailed in describing her experience as a caretaker for a difficult child. The result is a clear portrait of the challenge itself and Amanda's relationship to this challenge, told from the perspective of an engaging storyteller:

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was. Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

4. Honest

The successful college essays we see always emerge from a place of honesty. Writing with honesty also is more likely to accurately convey a student's unique voice, inspire reflection and introspection, and result in a descriptive, meaningful piece (all of the qualities listed in this post!).

Sometimes this means adopting a candid or direct voice on the page. James starts his essay frankly in this singular statement:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race.

Or it might mean describing a challenge, vulnerability, or perspective truthfully, as Martin does in his essay about the experiences that have molded his character over the years:

Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

Given that many universities value "truth" in their own mission statements and mottos, admissions officers will prioritize those essays that ring with a student's honest voice.

5. Unconventional & distinct

This is by no means a requirement of a successful college essay. But many of the essays that earn students acceptance at their dream schools veer away from the predictable or expected, as we saw in Emma's essay above ("I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier"). They are, in a nutshell, 100% unique.

We've seen some essays, for example, that follow more radical structures, such as list formats or experimental narratives. Others focus on unexpected subjects, like Shanaz's piece on the relevance of Game of Thrones in her life and trajectory of learning.

And, time and again, successful college essays step away from what admissions officers already see in applications--academics, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and classes. They may focus on something very specific (hot sauce or Game of Thrones), seemingly ordinary (eating a kosher meal in public or working on a problem set), or personally interesting (a historic murder or wrestling game).

Regardless, the essays that "work" emphasize the unexpected, as opposed to the expected. Distinct essays will also feel as if they could not have been written by anyone else.

6. Well-written

This might also sound like an obvious quality of a successful essay, but it's still worth mentioning. The most competitive application essays showcase strong writing skills, providing evidence of a student's ability to tell a specific story artfully and well. 

Essays should also be error-free, grammatically precise, and stylistically on point. Successful pieces also might demonstrate versatility through varied sentence structure, word choice, and rhetorical or literary devices. Lastly, well-written essays typically adhere to a specific storytelling structure.

This excerpt from Justin's essay about his experience in the California Cadet Corps, for example, displays a high command of language, word choice, and sentence structure:

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. 

7. Meaningful

Above all, a successful college essay adds value to a student's holistic college application. It is full of meaning, in that it

  • showcases a student's unique voice
  • elucidates an applicant's particular perspective(s), character trait(s), and/or belief(s) and
  • honestly conveys a significant component of who a student is

It might be difficult to compress the entirety of who you are into 650 words. Yet it is most certainly possible to craft 650 words that add significant meaning to an overall application in terms of a student's personal potential for the future. This is exactly what admissions officers are looking for


Next Steps

What can you do to ensure that your college essay aligns with these successful qualities? First, if you haven't yet done so, please read through these 11 College Essays That Worked.

Next, we encourage students to consider signing up for one of our college essay mentorship programs. These include our online summer workshop and one-on-one coaching.

To learn more, reach out to us today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 


SSAT Score Release Dates and Information

SSAT Score Release Dates - When You'll Get That Score Report

SSAT Score Release Dates - When You'll Get That Score Report

You've studied hard for the Secondary Schools Admissions Test (SSAT). You've taken the test, and maybe more than once. Perhaps you've even finalized your list of private schools and prepared most of your application.

Now what?

Students have to wait a little while after sitting for an official SSAT before they can receive their results.

According to the Enrollment Management Association, the company that produces the SSAT, it can take up to 2 weeks after test materials have been received for a student to get their online score report. In some cases, however, students can receive scores earlier.

Our students and families frequently ask us about SSAT scores--when students will get them, how to send them to schools, etc.

This post is designed to answer a lot of those questions and give parents guidance as they navigate the ins and outs of SSAT score reports and submission.

Here's what we cover:


SSAT Score Release Dates 2020

Note: Due to COVID-19, several 2020 official SSAT administrations have been canceled and/or modified. This might also impact SSAT score release dates for 2020. We discuss the SSAT and COVID-19 further in this regularly updated post on the pandemic.

All SSAT test-takers will be able to review the official results of a recent SSAT online approximately 2 weeks after EMA has received testing materials. This timeline also applies to students who take the SSAT at international testing centers and SSAT Flex Test administrations.

This does not necessarily equate to 2 weeks after Test Day itself, however, and there are exceptions.

For example, students should be aware that sometimes they'll receive scores earlier or later than anticipated, depending on the testing season. In general, if you test during the busiest SSAT testing season, November through January, you can expect to wait those full 2 weeks. If you test earlier, on the other hand, you may expect scores sooner.

Regardless, we've approximated score arrival dates for the remaining standard 2020 SSAT test dates in the following, regularly updated table. These are estimates only.

SSAT Administration (2020) Estimated Score Release By Date
June 13, 2020 June 27, 2020
September 12, 2020 September 26, 2020
October 17, 2020 October 31, 2020
November 14, 2020 November 28, 2020
December 12, 2020 December 26, 2020

Accessing Your SSAT Scores Online

SSAT Score Release Dates 2020

You can view SSAT scores via a student or parent online SSAT account. However, you can only use a parent account to send SSAT scores to private schools.

Once scores are available, login to your SSAT account (either parent or student). Click on the "Check Scores" button. This will populate a page that will list out scores for every date you've taken the SSAT.

To view more information about scores from a given test date, click the red plus sign next to that row. You'll then see a link for "View Score Report," which opens a PDF of the student's full SSAT score report that can be saved and printed if desired.


SSAT Score Release Services

It's free to access your SSAT score report online via a parent account. However, families can purchase additional score release services, including text and email alerts, for an added fee.

Text or Email Score Alert

For $15, parents can sign up to receive a text or email SSAT score alert. This simply involves receiving a text or email notifying parents the instant scores are available online. The text / email won't include the full score report, however, which must still be accessed via an online parent account.

Mail Delivery of Paper Score Report

If you prefer to receive a paper copy of your student's SSAT score report, you can request U.S. mail delivery of one for a fee of $25. These can only be mailed to a home address, not to private schools.

FedEx deliveries of SSAT score reports are $35 (U.S. & Canada) and $65 (international). Again, these deliveries can only be made to home addresses.

Copy of Student's SSAT Writing Sample

Some parents wish to view a copy of their student's writing sample response, which is sent to SSAT score recipients. For $20, you can get a digital copy of this response, available online via a parent SSAT account.

To access the writing sample response, login to your SSAT account, click "Check Scores," and select the red plus sign next to the test date listed. You'll see a link here next to "View Score Report" that says "View Writing Sample."

Should you invest in one of these score release services? It depends on your needs.

For example, some families prefer to have an official paper copy of an SSAT score report or a digital snapshot of their student's SSAT writing sample for record-keeping or test prep purposes. Others may wish to be notified as soon as possible about score availability due to upcoming application deadlines, and thus might choose the text alert option.

Keep in mind that, regardless, your choice of these services won't impact your student's SSAT score submission to schools.

SSAT Scoring Options

You can request a rescoring of an SSAT exam if you suspect that your student accidentally took the wrong level of SSAT (i.e., they were scored at the wrong grade level for some reason). This is rare, but available to Middle and Upper-Level SSAT test-takers for a $25 fee.

Lastly, parents can request a hand scoring of their student's SSAT. This is an option for parents who feel that, for any reason, the computerized grading system might be inaccurate. This service is available for $60 but the EMA cautions that "few, if any, hand scores result in a score change."

If either of these scoring options results in a score change, this change will update in the online portal (for both parents and students) as soon as possible.

Note: It is possible to cancel your SSAT scores, but you can only do so by 5 PM EST of the Tuesday following your Test Day. Unfortunately, you won't be able to view your scores if you'd like to cancel.


Sending SSAT Scores to Schools

Parents can specify SSAT score recipients before or after a student takes an SSAT. Keep in mind that if you identify score recipients before the test, these schools will receive your student's scores before you receive them.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with private schools' application deadlines so that you know how much time you have to submit scores. This is especially important if your student is testing during the fall or winter of an application season.

Regardless of when you choose score recipients, here's how you send SSAT scores to schools:

  1. Log in to your parent/guardian SSAT online account (you can only send scores via a parent's account!)
  2. Click on "SSAT Scores"
  3. Click the red plus sign corresponding with the row of test scores you want to send (if your student has tested more than once)
  4. Use the search function to find the school of choice
  5. Click "Add" to add this school to your score recipient list
  6. Select "Yes, Share Scores" in the confirmation window that appears

If your student has already received their SSAT scores, they will be sent immediately to an added school. If you're still awaiting test results, added schools will receive score reports once your student's test is graded.

It's free to add or remove schools from your list--if you do remove a school, however, you have to be sure to do so before scores are released! Simply follow the steps above but select "Remove" to the right of the school you want to remove.

You might notice an "Advisor" portion of this score submission process. Only "Add an Advisor" if you are working with an educational consultant or organization and wish to add this licensed professional so that they can review your school list. SSAT.org walks you through how to do this on its website.


Other Tips

Many of our students and parents ask us about other components of SSAT scoring, including what counts as a "good" SSAT score, how SSAT scoring actually works, and whether or not private schools allow "superscoring."

We answer a number of these questions in the following posts, which we encourage our families to read:

With respect to superscoring, the Enrollment Management Association does not allow SSAT test-takers to superscore. This process refers to sending schools your highest scores only across all tests taken, an option that is available for SAT test-takers.

However, many private schools will essentially superscore a student's SSAT scores on their own. If you are unsure whether or not a school of choice does this, reach out to that school's admissions office to inquire.

If you have any further questions about interpreting your student's score report, you can utilize these EMA resources or, of course, give us a shout.


Next Steps

At PrepMaven, we understand that the process of taking the SSAT and applying to private school can be a daunting process. We're here to help with a significant portion of that journey: SSAT test prep.

Our SSAT prep tutors have years of experience helping students develop strategies for success on this challenging standardized test. What's more, all have a proven track record of helping SSAT test-takers maximize their scoring potential.

Learn more about PrepMaven SSAT test prep now!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.


SSAT Verbal Strategies

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) tests reading, writing, quantitative, and verbal skills.

One of the most challenging sections for SSAT test-takers is the Verbal section, and for good reason! With 30 Synonym and 30 Analogy questions, the Verbal section requires a strong vocabulary and solid reasoning skills.

It also rewards the efficient test-taker. The SSAT Verbal section gives students only 30 minutes to answer all 60 questions.

However, like all standardized tests, the SSAT can (and should) be approached strategically. In this post, we discuss the SSAT verbal strategies you need to succeed on this section.

Here's what we cover:

Note: for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to the Upper-Level SSAT Verbal section.

The SSAT Verbal Section in a Nutshell

On the Upper-Level SSAT, the Verbal section is the 4th section of the test. Here's a quick visual of the entire SSAT format:

SSAT Test Format
Source: SSAT.org

Remember that the SSAT is a virtual marathon of a test. Students are likely to be fairly fatigued by the time they get to the Verbal section! That's why it's doubly important to have some solid strategies in place before getting there.

The SSAT Verbal Section

  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Format: 60 multiple choice questions, divided into Synonyms and Analogies sections of 30 questions each

Synonyms

Students will encounter Synonyms questions first on the SSAT Verbal section. In general, these questions will be arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

What does this mean? The first 10 questions will be generally easier than questions 11-20. Questions 21-30 will likely be the most difficult of the entire set.

For each question, students must choose the answer that has the closest meaning to the word provided. Here is an example SSAT Synonyms question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

Analogies 

The 30 Analogy questions will come after the 30 Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section. Just like the Synonym questions, Analogy questions are generally arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

An analogy is a comparison of two things.

On an SSAT Analogy question, these two things will have a very specific relationship. Students must determine what this relationship is and select the answer choice that most closely features that same relationship.

Vocabulary is still essential for Analogy questions: students will not necessarily know all of the words in the analogy described and/or the answer choices, especially on higher-difficulty questions.

Here is a sample SSAT Analogy question:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies
Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

General SSAT Verbal Strategies

Before we dive into specific tips for Synonym and Analogy questions, we'll cover some general SSAT Verbal strategies that apply to the section as a whole.

1. Prioritize low-difficulty questions first.

This may sound obvious, but it's a great strategy to use on SSAT Verbal because of the way the section is structured.

Remember that those 30 Synonym questions and 30 Analogy questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty. What's more, students do not get more points for correct high-difficulty questions. Every SSAT Verbal question is essentially worth the same number of points.

What does this mean? SSAT students should spend more time on those easier questions to ensure they are getting those easy points before they navigate harder ones. This can also give them a chance to get their vocabulary brains warmed up for those medium- and high-difficulty questions.

This can be especially important for higher-achieving students who might be more prone to moving too quickly on those initial, easy questions and making careless errors.

We understand that "easy" is a relative term, so be sure to cater to your own personal order of difficulty, tackling those questions that are easiest for you first.

2. Know your guessing strategy.

On the SSAT, students lose 1/4 point for every question they answer incorrectly. They do not lose points for leaving questions blank. That's why we don't necessarily encourage all SSAT test-takers to answer every question on the test, as doing so could hurt rather than help their score!

Because of this, we encourage students to have a solid guessing strategy in place for each SSAT section. You can read more about guessing on the SSAT in our guide to SSAT scores.

When would you want to guess on an SSAT Verbal question? It depends. If you're able to eliminate at least 2 answer choices on an SSAT Verbal question, generally this is a good time to guess. If you can't eliminate any answer, it's safer to leave that question blank.

3. Use context and connotation.

If you don’t know a word in an answer choice or question, use context (where you may have heard the word before) or connotation (a word's positive or negative charge).

If you see the word jubilation, for example, you might remember that you have seen it in the context of the name of a celebratory Fortnite dance. You may also reason that it has something to do with feeling happy and triumphant, a positive connotation.

Or if you see the word miserly, it might remind you of something miserable, leading you to pick an answer choice with a negative connotation or charge (miserly means a person who is ungenerous with his/her money).

4. Watch out for homonyms.

Homonyms are words with the same spelling but different meanings. If you see foil in an SSAT Verbal question, for example, it could mean a “thin sheet of metal” or “to prevent." Be on the lookout for homonyms in both questions and answer choices.

If you do identify a homonym situation, ask yourself which meaning makes the most sense based on the answer choices. You can and should use SSAT Verbal answer choices to your advantage, which we discuss at greater length in the next 2 sections of this post.

5. Sometimes, you have to pick the best of the “bad” options. 

The correct answer choice might not reflect the direct way you would define the word, which can confuse some students. In these situations, imagine your task is to pick the best of the “bad” options.

Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

THWART
A) approve
B) facilitate
C) confuse
D) conceal
E) forgive

Correct Answer: C

You may feel pretty confident that “thwart” means preventing something from happening, but that choice doesn’t seem to be listed here.

However, if you go with the word that most closely expresses this idea – “confuse” – you would choose the correct answer.

6. Think like the test-maker, not a test-taker.

This is a tenet we encourage all of our standardized test-takers to embrace. Test-makers write standardized tests with predictable test-makers in mind. In other words, each question will contain traps designed to trick the average test-taker.

Once you can start learning about these specific traps and tricks, you'll start to think like the test-makers themselves. Doing so gives you the upper hand (and often a lot of points!). We'll be discussing ways to think like the SSAT test-makers in the next 2 sections as we cover strategies for Synonym and Analogy questions.


Approaching SSAT Synonym Questions

Synonym questions appear first on SSAT Verbal (questions 1-30). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Analogies are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 31 (the first of the Analogy questions set) and completing the Synonyms set second. Remember: play to your strengths on SSAT Verbal, and prioritize the questions that are easiest for you first.

The key to approaching SSAT Synonym questions successfully lies in remembering that they are just that: Synonym questions.

What do we mean by this?

With Synonym questions, your task is to find the answer choice that is most similar in meaning to the question word.

It's important to remind yourself of this simple fact on each question, as the test-makers love trapping students with answer choices that may be associated with the question word but, in fact, do not share a similar meaning. What's more, a "synonym" is not the same as a straight-up "definition" of a word!

We'll apply these thoughts to the sample Synonym question we mentioned above:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms

With this question, students must choose the answer that is most similar in meaning to the word "incognito." This doesn't mean that we're looking for the definition of "incognito," merely a term that most closely matches that definition.

The word "incognito" might suggest someone going undercover, like a ninja in a crowd. Be careful, though: answer choice (D) at first glance looks a lot like "undercover," when, in fact, it means the opposite (uncovered). But the idea of being undercover has a connotation of being hidden from sight, which leads us to answer (C): concealed.

Be careful with answer choice (A), which might be tempting for some students. "Lost" is a good example of an answer that is an association but not necessarily a synonym of a question word. Something that is incognito may not be very visible, but this doesn't mean it is lost.

Here are some other tips for approaching SSAT Synonym questions.

1. Put the question word into a sentence of your own.

This is an excellent, tried-and-true way to situate a question word in its context, especially if you don't know the full meaning of a term. Put that word into a sentence, even if it's the most basic sentence you've ever written.

Using the sample question above, that sentence might look like this:

The ninja chose to go incognito, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

In this sentence, we can gather that "incognito" is a behavior or attitude of some kind that the ninja adopts in this crowd. Would it make sense for someone to choose to be "lost"? No! "Lost" is not a behavior or attitude, and the same goes for "replaced" or "distinguished."

Context tells us that the ninja is choosing to be somewhat invisible, so (C) is the best answer yet again.

2. Apply your knowledge of word parts.

Remember all those word parts and roots your teacher taught last year? Those will definitely prove valuable on SSAT Verbal, particularly with those Synonym questions.

Identifying word parts in answer choices and question words can be vital. It can be a straight-up life-saver on those questions full of vocabulary students may not know.

Be on the hunt for specific prefixes, roots, and suffixes that can give at least partial meaning for a term.

For example, if you see the word "benevolent" in a Synonyms question, you might recognize the prefix ben / bene, which means well or good. This has a positive connotation or charge, which can be useful for elimination purposes.

3. "Plug in" your final choice.

Much like plugging the answer to a math question into the original problem to check your work, "plug in" your final choice on a Synonyms question to the sentence you've created.

This serves as a double-check mechanism and a means of catching careless errors. Using the example sentence and question above, this would look like the following:

The ninja chose to go concealed, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

Yes, "chose to go concealed" sounds a bit awkward, but it still fits in meaning and context.

4. On higher-difficulty questions, the weirder the better.

Remember: the SSAT test-makers will create specific traps on each Verbal question designed to trick the predictable test-taker.

What are predictable test-takers likely to do on harder Synonym questions? They are probably not likely to choose an answer they don't know. They will likely avoid those really weird, foreign-looking terms. However, on really tough Synonym questions, these answers can be correct.

Here's an example of this in action, modeled after a sample SSAT.org practice question:

ZEALOUS
A) heartfelt
B) fervent
C) irritating
D) praiseworthy
E) interested

The "weirdest" answer choice here, the one many students are not likely to know, is fervent. This happens to be the correct answer choice.

We do want to offer this tip with a caveat, however: students should still adhere to their established guessing strategy, regardless of the difficulty level of the question. It may still be worth your while to leave a question blank if you generally have no clue about the question word and the answer choices.


Approaching SSAT Analogy Questions

Analogy questions appear second on SSAT Verbal (questions 31-60). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Synonyms are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 1 (the first of the Synonym questions set) and completing the Analogy set second.

The key to succeeding on Analogy questions lies in your capacity to identify specific relationships. Each question will provide students with two words that demonstrate a certain relationship. Students must then select the choice that best reflects that relationship, thus completing the meaning of the sentence.

Here's our strategy for approaching an Analogy question on SSAT Verbal:

  1. Identify the specific relationship between the two question words
  2. Search for the answer that shows the same relationship
  3. Eliminate accordingly

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. It can be really tough to identify a specific relationship, particularly between words you don't know (or only have partial meanings for). Those answer choices will also be chock-full of associative words, terms or pairs that might have a similar connotation but not necessarily similar relationship.

That's where the following tips come into play.

1. Start noticing Analogy categories.

Every SSAT Analogy question presents a specific relationship between the two ideas presented. As you continue to work with these questions, start noticing the various "categories" of these relationships, such as size (one word is smaller than another), time (one thing happens before another), or cause and effect (one thing causes another).

Take a look at this sample Analogy question and see if you can identify the "category" of the relationship presented:

Gargantuan is to big as:
A) hot is to steamy
B) thirsty is to dry
C) pleasant is to melody
D) clumsy is to coordinated
E) ecstatic is to happy

If you guessed a relationship of degree or size, you're correct! Gargantuan is a larger or more extreme version of big. Their relationship is one of degree, making the correct answer (ecstatic is a more extreme version of happy).

"Degree" is an example of just one “category” of relationships you will start to see in the Analogy section. Just as there isn’t a finite list of words on the Synonyms section, there is no complete list of categories for the Analogy section. However, the list below gives some common relationship categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Size
  • Material
  • Part and Whole
  • Example and General Category
  • Cause and Effect
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Degrees
  • Actor and Action
  • Product and Producer
  • Tool and User
  • Tool and Use

This can be essential as an elimination strategy, too. Once you've identified the category of the relationship, you can eliminate any answer choices that fit other relationship categories.

2. Create a specific relationship sentence for the question words.

Much as we encourage students to put Synonym words into their own sentences, we also recommend crafting a "relationship sentence" for SSAT Analogy question words. You can then eliminate answer choices that don't "fit" the sentence.

When creating this sentence, try to be as specific as possible.

Using the above sample question, for example, a relationship sentence like “If you’re gargantuan, you’re big” is too broad – if you plug in the answer choices, they might all sound right! “Gargantuan is a stronger version of big” is more specific and will lead you to the correct answer.

3. Eliminate answer choices that have no relationship or are "conditional."

The right answer to an Analogy question will demonstrate the specific relationship of the question words. If you can’t establish a relationship between two words, that answer choice is automatically wrong! The same goes for any answer choices that may show a conditional relationship, one that is only true some of the time.

Here’s a sample question that proves this point:

Insult is to offense as:
A) laugh is to joy
B) fabricate is to falsehood
C) injure is to prepare
D) innocent is to child
E) forge is to creation

In choice C, “injure” and “prepare” have no relationship, so you can eliminate C immediately. Similarly, a "child" may be "innocent," but not necessarily 100% of the time (it depends on the child, the definition of innocent, etc.). You can eliminate D as well.

4. Focus on relationships, not synonyms.

It can be really easy, especially if you tackle SSAT Synonym questions first, to start identifying synonyms for the Analogy words rather than relationships. As best you can, remind yourself that your task on this set is to classify the relationship between the words presented and select an answer choice that reflects a similar relationship.

On the plus side, those answer choices that contain synonyms to words in the question are most likely incorrect. So if you do spot some synonyms in the answers, be very skeptical.

5. Think of all possible relationships.

You may find that some questions have multiple reasonable answers. If this is the case, try to think of additional possible relationships between the question words. Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

Carousel is to horse as:
A) hospital is to waiting room
B) anthology is to story
C) sun is to planet
D) bike is to wheel
E) fleet is to ship

Correct Answer: C

At first glance, you might feel stuck with this question. A “horse” is a “part” of a “carousel.” With this relationship in mind, don’t multiple answer choices here fit the “whole and part” category?

However, if you think of additional ways to specify the relationship, you could reach the correct answer by reasoning that the horses revolve around a carousel just as a planet orbits the sun.

With these tips in mind, let's work through the sample Analogy question mentioned in the first section of this post:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies

It will be easiest to craft a relationship sentence with these words. We might say that "an epidemic is the spread of disease." Plugging in the answer choices, we can see that only (A) fits this sentence: "a famine is the spread of hunger." Our answer is (A).


SSAT Verbal Strategies: Study Tips

Now that you have some great SSAT Verbal strategies in place, it's time to talk study tips. What's the best way to prepare for success on the SSAT Verbal section? Here are our top recommendations.

1. Prioritize learning word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

We've already highlighted the value of applying your knowledge of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes to words you don't know on Synonym and Analogy questions.

Knowing word parts can also make your SSAT study plan so much more efficient and robust: in many cases, learning just one word part can help you identify 10+ new vocabulary terms!

You can find many lists (some SSAT-focused) of these word roots, prefixes, and suffixes online or in books that focus on vocabulary building. Searching Quizlet for online SSAT vocabulary lists or investing in a Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder book are good places to start.

2. Make flashcards.

Flashcards can be an excellent tool for solidifying new vocabulary and word parts. Quizlet is a favorite online flashcard site for many students. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned notecards.

Review these flashcards regularly. If you are a visual learner, try integrating colors or images into your flashcards for improved memorization. For an extra challenge, come up with a unique sentence for every word you review or identify synonyms (using other vocabulary terms!) for the word in question.

3. Don’t try and memorize 500 words at once

You won’t remember them! It is better to focus on 5-10 words at a time (ideally, per week), and keep coming back to vocab sets for review.

More importantly, be sure you are also using those words that you’re learning. Integrate new words into school assignments and personal practice to make them a concrete part of your vocabulary. (Hint: you can also use these words when practicing your SSAT Writing Sample response.)

4. Read widely

Reading can introduce you to a wide variety of new words to supplement your vocabulary building. Aim to digest advanced reading materials, such as higher-level nonfiction texts, editorials and articles, and journal pieces.

More than any other section, the SSAT Verbal section depends on you slowly but surely improving your vocabulary in a consistent fashion.

In this way, studying for the SSAT Verbal section is like putting money in a piggy bank: it might feel like you’re getting nowhere with the little contributions you make each day, but as long as you keep putting in time, you’ll see a big reward in your score going up after a few months.


SSAT Verbal Strategies: Next Steps

There you have it -- the SSAT Verbal strategies designed to give you the greatest success on this challenging section. However, the power of these strategies lies in practice, so be sure to apply them regularly to practice SSAT content.

We also encourage students in need of extra support to consider working with one of our SSAT Test Prep Experts. Book your free SSAT prep consultation today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.


Best Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students

Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students

Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Summer 2020 Calendar

Many colleges--including Princeton University--ask their applicants to answer the following question:

How did you spend your last two summers?

For most high school students, especially upperclassmen, summertime is a chance to unwind, catch up on sleep, and spend time with friends.

Relaxation is vital and frequently well-earned! 

Yet filling your summers with other meaningful activities, including volunteering, research opportunities, and college programs, can be doubly vital. Rich summer experiences can help you solidify and jumpstart your classroom learning while connecting you with like-minded peers.

Plus, they can make it easier to answer that college application question--when that time comes!

Whether you’re a Princeton local or a student keen to spend time in proximity to Princeton University, this post is for you. Keep reading for insight into the best Princeton summer programs for high school students.

You'll also get access to our Summer Calendar, which can help students organize the programs and activities they'll be pursuing this summer. This calendar also includes information about virtual activities and online programs.

Grab this below.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students
  2. Princeton-Based Summer Programs
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's Summer 2020 Calendar

Note: In light of changing circumstances, many of the programs discussed in this post might now be virtual and/or canceled. Visit our 20 Online Summer Options for High School Students post for more information.


Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students

There are only two Princeton summer programs for high school students directly affiliated with Princeton University. These include the Laboratory Learning Program and the Summer Journalism Program.

If you’re eager to learn more about academic year opportunities at Princeton University, check out our post on Princeton courses for high school students

Princeton University’s Laboratory Learning Program

This “full-time, free research experience in the sciences or engineering” is available to students 16 and older at the time of applying. 

If accepted to this program, high school students participate in a research project with faculty members and fellow researchers for 7-10 weeks in the summer. Research opportunities vary every year.

Here’s a glimpse of summer 2019’s research projects, available in natural sciences and engineering:

  • Denitrification in biological reactors and wetlands
  • Machine learning on combustion
  • Yielding in semicrystalline polymers
  • The genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of social behavior
  • Fluidics and optics in biophysics
  • Cognitive and neural mechanisms of human sociality

Students can specify up to two projects they’re interested in when applying in the spring prior to the Laboratory Learning program’s start.

**Note: High school students do not receive any kind of academic credit for participating in this program. Nor does the Laboratory Learning program give Princeton University applicants a greater advantage in admissions.

Princeton Summer Journalism Program

Princeton’s Summer Journalism Program is a free residential summer opportunity for eligible high school juniors. 

Every summer, forty participants spend ten days on Princeton’s campus, learning from professors, journalists, and alumni and collaborating together to produce the Princeton Summer Journal (published at program culmination).

The best part about this program? Its impact extends beyond the summer intensive. Following the program, each student is matched with a college advisor, who helps them navigate the college admissions process their senior fall. 

**Note: Preference is given to high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds.


Princeton-Based Summer Programs

There are numerous Princeton summer programs for high school students hosted on Princeton University’s campus. 

While these are not directly organized by the university, they offer high school students a chance to experience the campus and various facilities firsthand. Many of these programs are geared towards gifted learning, making them ideal for precocious learners eager to dive deep into subjects like coding, debate, journalism, and more. 

Summer Institute for the Gifted

Best Princeton Summer Programs for High School Students

SIG participants have the chance to live on campus and utilize Princeton’s amazing facilities during this summertime intensive.

The Summer Institute for the Gifted at Princeton brings together talented students from all over the world for three weeks. As a SIG camper, you’ll have a chance to explore multidisciplinary curriculum spanning Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, Humanities, and Fitness and Recreation on Princeton’s campus. 

When not taking such courses, students can explore the Princeton Art Museum, Frist Campus Center, Prospect Garden, and more. Students age 13-17 are welcome to apply to this program.

JSA Summer School at Princeton University

Best Princeton Summer Programs for High School StudentsThis “pre-college academic experience” with the Junior State of America (JSA) gives students a chance to build leadership skills, debate with their peers, and participate in civic engagement activities.

JSA offers three-week programs at a variety of college campuses each summer, including Princeton. Princeton participants engage in weekly debate workshops and JSA’s speaker program, which brings students in close proximity to the nation’s best thinkers, lobbyists, analysts, and political leaders.

JSA also has a Freshman Scholars Program at Princeton, designed for rising 9th graders.

If JSA program cost is prohibitive, don’t worry! JSA does offer scholarships to eligible participants.

iDTech

Best Princeton Summer Programs for High School StudentsFor over ten years, iDTech has been giving students a chance to explore tech in its many forms through a summer intensive at Princeton. At this STEM summer camp, students explore machine learning, coding, artificial intelligence, robotics, and beyond.

iDTech prides itself on its stellar instructors (often industry experts), intimate class sizes, and accelerated, fun style of learning.

Classes are held at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Quadrangle Club, and Cloister Inn. iD tech camps, for students ages 7-17, are each one week long; iD coding and AI academy camps, for students ages 13-18, are two weeks.

John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Princeton

Best Princeton Summer Programs for High School StudentsCTY has long been lauded for its rigorous (and simply fun!) summer programs, hosted at a variety of college campuses in the U.S. High-achieving students experience intensive academics, team-building activities, and much more at CTY.

In 2019, 10th - 12th graders participated in Global Issues at Princeton, a three-week, residential summer program focused on some of the most pressing global issues in the 21st century. Courses change every year, so we recommend checking out CTY’s course catalog for updates.

Program in Algorithmic and Combinational Thinking (PACT)

Aspiring computer scientists and mathematicians won’t want to overlook PACT, a unique summer program that gives students a chance to dive deep into the world of theoretical computer science.

This five-week educational program emphasizes the math and algorithms students need to know to succeed in the computer science field. It’s funded in part by Rutgers University and the National Science Foundation. 

The only requirements for this program? “High school algebra, the willingness to work hard and be challenged, and, above all, the desire to learn.”

Some summer program students may be eligible to continue studying on Saturdays throughout the academic year.

Princeton Tutoring/PrepMaven Courses

PrepMaven and its sister site, Princeton Tutoring, have been providing academic tutoring, test, prep, and college counseling services since 2005.

The co-founders of the company are Princeton University graduates, and their team of 150+ tutors/instructors are comprised mostly of Princeton University undergraduates and graduates.

While their office is located within the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub, they work with students across the country through live & online courses:

Private tutoring is also available if preferred or if students can't make the courses.

We want to reiterate that attendance of any of these programs does not advantage Princeton University applicants in any way. It’s important to apply to these programs for the experiences they offer, first and foremost.

Download PrepMaven's 2020 Summer Calendar

Eligible students have a lot to choose from when it comes to competitive Princeton summer programs for high schoolers. That's why we've created PrepMaven's 2020 Summer Calendar, a helpful tool for organizing this summer's activities, particularly those that are now virtual / online.

With this calendar, you'll be able to:

  1. Identify your experiences of interest and start / end dates (if applicable)
  2. Narrow down this list of experiences to your top 3-5
  3. Block out these experiences on a digital calendar for an easy birds-eye view of your summer
  4. Find extra details and links to all of the summer programs mentioned in this list (we’ve done the work for you!)
  5. Document your time so you can feel confident filling out your college application resume down the road


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.


A Good ACT Score

What's a Good ACT Score? Insight From the Experts

Your Guide to a Good ACT Score

All U.S. colleges and universities accept either ACT or SAT scores from applicants.

But what scores will make you the most competitive? What is a good ACT score? Is there such a thing as a bad ACT score?

We hear these questions all the time from our students and families, and for good reason. While there are some test-optional schools out there, most colleges place significant weight on each application's standardized test scores.

If you've decided that the ACT is the test for you, the first step in your ACT test prep journey should be to identify a goal score.

Understanding the components of a "good" ACT score can be helpful for choosing a target score and making your application that much more competitive!

Here's what we cover in this post:


ACT Test Scores: The Basics

The ACT has five sections:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Essay (optional)

Each ACT section has a different number of questions and time limit, which we discuss at greater length in our post on the ACT format.

However, every section (except the essay) is scored on a scale of 1-36. 1 is the lowest score you can achieve on an individual section, while 36 is the highest score possible.

ACT Section Score Range
English 1-36
Math 1-36
Reading 1-36
Science 1-36

Students will also receive an ACT total score, also called the composite score. This is the average of the scores received on the four required ACT sections.

Take a look at this sample student ACT score report to see this scoring system in action:

Sample ACT Score Report
Source: ACT.org

Notice how the student's composite score of 21 is the average of the student's individual ACT section scores (19, 18, 24, and 23).

The student's ACT essay (also referred to as Writing) scores do not impact this composite score and fall on a range of 2-12.

Naturally, most students assume that because 36 is the highest possible ACT score (both composite and individual), it's a "good" ACT score. While a 36 will definitely add a competitive edge to an application, anything less than a 36 isn't necessarily a bad ACT score.

We'll talk about average ACT scores now to clarify what we mean by this.


Let's Talk Averages

Let's take a look at the 2019-2020 average ACT scores to get a sense of how students are generally doing on this standardized test.

ACT.org regularly releases a "National Norms" report for ACT scores. This includes data from all ACT test scores reported between 2019 and 2020 (although these scores could be from 2017, 2018, and 2019 class graduates).

The most recent National Norms ACT Report includes the average section and composite scores of those reported between 2019 and 2020.

Here's what they are:

Section 2019-2020 Average Score
English 20.2
Math 20.5
Reading 21.3
Science 20.8
Composite 20.8

One definition of a "good" ACT score is one that is nationally above-average. In this sense, a composite score of 21 or higher on the ACT could be considered a competitive score!

At the very least, we encourage students who are new to the ACT to aim for a target score that is above national averages, on individual sections and the whole test itself.

This would mean establishing a goal score of the following on each section:

Section Goal Above-Average Score 
English 21
Math 21
Reading 22
Science 21
Composite 21

Of course, your starting score may be higher than a composite of 21, so we also recommend that students start with a diagnostic practice exam to see where they currently stand.

A Word About ACT "Ranks"

ACT score reports also include information about a student's "ranking" in the U.S. and that student's home state. These are approximate percentages of recent grads who have taken the ACT in the U.S. and your state and achieved the same score as you or lower.

The ACT offers these rankings for your composite score, individual section scores, and STEM/ELA scores. 

Naturally, the higher your "rankings," the better. Yet we recommend that students prioritize target ACT scores as opposed to rankings, as these are a lot more straightforward (and less likely to fluctuate dramatically in any given year).


What is a Good ACT Score?

Of course, scoring above-average on the ACT is just one interpretation of what it means to do well on the test. There are two other things to keep in mind when defining what counts as a good ACT score:

  • Average scores of admitted applicants to your school(s) of choice
  • Your current scores

It can be challenging to pinpoint the precise average scores of admitted applicants to your school(s) of choice. Some colleges make such information public, while others are a bit reluctant to release this information.

Luckily, there are two tools at your disposal to figure out the average ACT scores of admitted applicants:

  1. The College Board's BigFuture Tool
  2. The Common Data Set

BigFuture

The College Board, which releases the SAT, has a bunch of tools outside of SAT practice designed to help prospective college students build an appropriate college list.

BigFuture allows students to search for schools and assess their eligibility for admission based on institutional standards, application requirements, and test scores.

Here's what comes up, for example, when you search for Princeton University:  

Big Future_Princeton University

To view information about average test scores of admitted applicants, click "Applying" on the left-hand side and then "SAT & ACT Scores." BigFuture will then detail the percent of freshmen in each ACT score range. Here's what that range looks like for Princeton:

Princeton University _ Average ACT Scores

As you can see, according to BigFuture, 90% of Princeton freshmen have an ACT composite score of 30 - 36, while 10% have a composite of 24 - 29.

BigFuture is quick to reiterate that "most colleges admit students with a very wide range of scores, so published scores should be used as a general guide, and never a cutoff."

For this reason, we encourage students to also check out the Common Data Set for a given school.

Note: BigFuture often pulls from Common Data Sets to create its score ranges.

Common Data Set

The Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is an effort to give clear, relevant information to everyone involved in the college admissions process about universities' "institutional priorities."

What are institutional priorities? These refer to what a college cares about when it's admitting an incoming class.

The Common Data Set for Princeton University, for example, contains information about the university's enrollment, admissions, financial aid, and more for a given year. A school's CDS should also include details about test scores of admitted applicants, as Princeton's shows here:  

Princeton University Common Data Set

Princeton University Common Data Set

Notice how Princeton's CDS also breaks down ACT scores into 25th and 75th percentiles. You can use these percentiles to understand competitive scores of admitted applicants.

For example, one can safely conclude based on this CDS that 50% of admitted applicants to Princeton in 2019 had ACT composite scores ranging from 32 to 35.

Here's a sample spread of 25th and 75th percentiles for ACT scores of admitted applicants to various elite U.S. schools:

College 25th Percentile: ACT Composite  75th Percentile: ACT Composite 
Brown University  32 35
Fordham University 28 32
Middlebury College 31 34
Vanderbilt University 33 35
Wesleyan University 30 34

Source: 2018-2019 Common Data Sets

Once you've done some sleuthing using BigFuture and Common Data Sets, compare these ranges of competitive scores to your current ACT score, preferably one from a diagnostic exam. This can help you establish a goal score for your test prep and more definitively answer that question: what is a good ACT score?

Remember: your "good" ACT score is the score that is right for you given your college aspirations!


Bad ACT Scores: Do They Exist?

We've discussed the good. What about the bad? Is there such thing as a bad ACT score?

Once again, the answer to these questions really depends on your definition of "bad."

Yet from a general perspective, a “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what ACT.org has called college readiness. 

These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean. They may also not meet the benchmark scores ACT.org has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas like English and Math.

Here's what ACT.org says specifically about benchmark scores on its website:

Students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses. 

Here are the benchmark ACT scores for college readiness as of 2020:

  • English: 18
  • Math: 22
  • Reading: 22
  • Science: 23

First-time ACT students should prioritize meeting and surpassing these benchmark scores!


Next Steps: How to Get a Good ACT Score

We've discussed the good and the bad. Now what can you do to get a good ACT score? 

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

The ACT is entirely different from traditional high school tests. Much like a second language, it requires dedication, immersion, and time to understand and eventually master. 

To launch your ACT test prep journey, begin by establishing your initial goal score. It’s also important to set aside a decent amount of time for your ACT prep.

The ACT is not a test that students can cram, and nor should it take a side-burner in a student’s college application process. Allocate a generous timeline for sufficient ACT test prep, and stick to it! 

Build that college list.

Crafting a list of colleges of interest can help students identify ballpark ACT score ranges for competitive entry.

It can also inform other aspects of the college application, such as supplemental essay topics, scholarship opportunities, and optional application components.

Take a diagnostic ACT.

Taking a diagnostic practice ACT can give students a greater understanding of their personal great score. 

Plus, it’s an essential starting point for effective test prep! Students have the opportunity to take a diagnostic ACT and establish their benchmark scores through PrepMaven’s highly-rated ACT tutoring program.

Book your free ACT strategy consultation today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.