Ask Yourself These Questions Before Writing Your College Essay

College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start

College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start

Bonus Material: College Essay Brainstorming Questions 

The college essay is an extremely important component of your college application. Yes, college admissions officers do care about standardized test scores, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation.

All of these application components can help officers assess a student's academic and professional potential (and much more).

The college application essay, however, gives students a chance to share their unique voice with an admissions officer. It's like a brief interview, where students can give officers a powerful glimpse of who they are outside of their application in roughly 650 words.

So what do you say in those 650 words? How do you pick the right essay topic?

It's all about the brainstorming process. In general, the more time you can devote to gathering potential essay topics before you start writing, the better. Gathering this material can also be helpful for writing supplemental essays down the road.

In this post, we provide actionable tips for guiding your college essay brainstorming process. After reading this article, students will be well poised to gather topics and eventually select the "right" essay topic.

We also give students access to 30 free college essay brainstorming questions to get started. Grab these below.

Here's what we cover:


The Importance of College Essay Brainstorming

We define the college essay as a "demonstration of character, values, and/or voice." It is an introspective, personal essay that (ideally) adds significant value to a student's overall application.

Many students are not well-versed in writing this kind of essay. Indeed, most students are familiar with the concept of the academic essay, with its neat five paragraphs. Very few have had a lot of time in high school classrooms to write deeply reflective pieces, and concise ones at that. (Remember: you only have 650 words or fewer to craft your response!)

That's why brainstorming is so essential to the college essay writing process. It's your key to pinpointing the right topic, which we define as one with the potential to generate an essay that aligns with these 7 winning qualities.

It can also be valuable for gathering potential topics for supplemental essay responses, which many competitive colleges require.

For these very reasons, we spend a significant amount of time brainstorming in our college essay mentoring programs and summer workshops. Students who are able to gather a lot of material in this time tend to have an easier job down the road choosing the right topic, creating an outline, and eventually writing that first draft.

What's more, they might surprise themselves in what they are able to pull from their many life experiences! It's not uncommon for an essay student to choose a certain topic they never would have considered prior to brainstorming.

The tips outlined in the next section reflect this great value of brainstorming, and are the same we offer our college essay students at the start of their process.


8 College Essay Brainstorming Tips

Don't let that blank page intimidate you! Follow these tips to guide your brainstorming process and remember that this stage should and will take time.

1. Know the standards

Students should feel very comfortable with colleges' general expectations for the essay before they start brainstorming. If you haven't done so already, please check out the following PrepMaven posts:

It can also be helpful to review the Common Application's essay prompts. While students don't necessarily have to respond to a specific prompt, these provide insight into the type of essay colleges are seeking.

2. No topic is "too small" (but some are "too big")

Students only have 650 words (or fewer) to write their essays. That's not a lot of space! For this reason, don't shy away from seemingly "small" topics as you brainstorm.

One student who earned Ivy League acceptance, for example, wrote about her passion for hot sauce in her college essay!

On the same note, if you come up with "big" topics, such as cultural identity, a long-term extracurricular activity, or a religious belief, do your best to highlight specific components of these topics, or one representative experience. The best college essays don't say everything there is to say about such large topics. Rather, they focus skillfully on one smaller component of a potentially bigger picture.

3. Write down all the details for every topic

When you land upon a topic, mine it for details. Write down everything you can think of about that experience, idea, or memory. Many of our students like to use bulleted lists in a Google Doc for doing this.

It's important to squeeze out every possible detail so that you can fully assess a topic's potential! In many cases, such details will become college essay topics themselves.

4. Work by category

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all of the possible topics out there--and don't worry, this is common--gather ideas by category. Here are some sample category examples:

  • Travel experiences
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Family life
  • Culture and heritage
  • Interests and hobbies
  • Challenges (non-academic)

Categories can help you build a general portrait of who you are, at least to start. Once you have a few ideas per category, start diving deeper into those ideas and generating further details about each one.

5. Ask the right questions

It is often easier for students to generate a rich pool of potential topics by answering questions designed to encourage deep reflection and introspection. Of course, this begs the question: what should I be asking myself?

Take a look at these 30 questions we ask our students in our college essay workshops and mentorship programs at the beginning of their process.

Once you've answered these questions fully and to the best of your ability, you'll be poised for essay topic selection.

6. Keep it to yourself, mostly

Many college essay students risk writing about what their parents, friends, or teachers want them to write about. Others risk writing "what colleges want to hear." Yet authenticity is one of the most important qualities of a successful college essay!

That's why we encourage students to brainstorm independently. You are the only one in the world most familiar with your life experiences, after all! Consult family members, friends, or mentors only once you are further along in the essay writing process, or if you need clarification on the details of a specific experience. This will ensure you gather topics that are true to you first and foremost.

7. Maintain orderly notes

Brainstorming can be messy. Establish a system early on for maintaining orderly notes! Some tools that can come in handy:

  • Bulleted or numbered lists
  • Index cards
  • Color-coding (digital or manual)
  • Google Docs
  • Diagrams

8. Consider takeaways for each topic

As you compile topics, save time and start thinking in terms of "takeaways" for each. This will allow you to assess a topic's potential for demonstrating your character, values, and/or voice.

Ask yourself for each topic: What values does this showcase? What does this say about me specifically? What meaningful reflections does it invite? What aspect of my voice is apparent here?

Download 30 College Essay Brainstorming Questions

You can jumpstart your college essay brainstorming process right now by downloading our college essay brainstorming questions.

With this free download, you'll get:

  • 30 of the best brainstorming questions we ask our students
  • Guidance for next steps


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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 Prep Resources (1)

SSAT Prep Resources: Your Guide

SSAT Prep Resources: Your Guide

Most students seeking admissions to a private school will have to take the SSAT.

The Secondary Schools Admissions Test may feel like a daunting part of the application process, and for good reason! The test itself spans a broad range of content, including Math, Verbal, Reading, and Writing.

Like most standardized tests, the SSAT also favors the strategic test-taker who can move quickly through the timed sections.

We encourage all prospective SSAT test-takers to set aside adequate time to prepare for this challenging test. But when it comes to SSAT prep resources, the pickings can be relatively slim and costly!

These include materials released by the Enrollment Management Association, which produces the SSAT.

At PrepMaven, we know the value of solid practice materials, especially when it comes to tests like the SSAT. We're excited to share with you the SSAT prep resources we feel will set students up for success.

Here's what we cover in this post:


What Makes the SSAT Different (from Other Tests)

Much like other standardized tests, the SSAT is really unlike any test students experience in the classroom. It differs from standard elementary and middle school tests in three ways:

  • Duration
  • Content
  • Strategy

Duration

The SSAT is a veritable marathon of an exam! Students must prepare to sit through 3 hours and 5 minutes of intensive material with only 15 minutes of breaks.

They must also become fluent in answering a large number of questions in a short amount of time, a skill very rarely developed in middle school classrooms.

Here's a breakdown of the SSAT format and duration:

SSAT Section # Questions Duration
Writing Sample 1 25 minutes
Break n/a 5 minutes
Quantitative 1 25 30 minutes
Reading 40 40 minutes
Break n/a 10 minutes
Verbal 60 30 minutes
Quantitative 2 25 30 minutes
Experimental Section 16 15 minutes
Total 167 3 hours, 5 minutes

Content

While some content on the SSAT aligns with what students have already learned in school, especially when it comes to SSAT Math, some of it may feel foreign.

For example, the SSAT Verbal section requires students to complete 30 Synonym and 30 Analogies questions, which largely test vocabulary and the ability to identify relationships between ideas. Some middle schools encourage students to build vocabulary through the study of Latin and Greek word parts, for example, but this is not a required component of most curricula.

Even the SSAT Math section might test familiar content in unfamiliar ways, requiring students to rely more on strategy and logic than rote mathematic principles.

In some cases, students may encounter math principles on the SSAT that they have not yet learned in school, such as exponential equations, radical expressions, and scientific notation.

Take a look at this SSAT Math question here as an example of the way the SSAT tests familiar content:

SSAT Prep Resources_Math

This question is essentially testing a student's ability to complete long division using decimals. But notice how the language of the question itself requires a bit of translation to make this clear! Rather than simply saying "Divide 0.5 by 0.02," the SSAT complicates matters, obscuring a basic math principle with tricky wording.

Strategy

As we discuss in our post on SSAT scoring, students earn 1 point for every correct answer on the SSAT and lose 1/4 point for every wrong answer.

However, if a student leaves a question blank, they neither lose nor gain points. This is why we encourage many of our SSAT students to implement a guessing strategy on the SSAT as a whole. A solid guessing strategy means knowing when to guess on a question and when to leave it blank.

Here's an example the demonstrates this.

Guessing Strategy Example

Let’s compare two students: Guessing Gabby and Skipper Sam. 

They both took a Reading section and answered 25 out of 40 questions correctly. Gabby guessed on any questions she was unsure of, whereas Sam skipped them. Sadly for Gabby, it was not her lucky day, and all the questions she guessed were incorrect.

When we look at their scores, here’s what results.

Gabby: 25 questions correct, 15 incorrect -> 25 - 15/4 -> 21.75 raw score -> ~43 percentile

Sam: 25 questions correct, 0 incorrect -> 25 - 0 -> 25 raw score -> ~57 percentile

While both students got the same number of questions right, Sam came away with a 14% higher percentile score, all because she skipped questions she didn’t know! 

But that's not the only strategic component of the SSAT. The test rewards students who are strategic in other ways, too. Successful students may use specific elimination strategies on Verbal questions, for example, or active reading techniques on SSAT Reading.

This is a departure from traditional classroom tests, which often assess students' mastery of content rather than strategy.


3 Components of Effective SSAT Prep

So, the SSAT is unlike any other test you've taken in elementary or middle school. How do you prepare for it effectively?

Effective SSAT prep boils down to the three following components:

  • Time
  • Goals
  • Practice

These three things all help students master the three aspects of the SSAT that set it apart from other tests: duration, content, and strategy.

Time

We'll discuss the timeline and goal-setting aspect of SSAT prep in more detail in a forthcoming post. In general, however, students should establish a generous timeline for their SSAT prep to give themselves the time they need to master the "language" of the SSAT.

What does this look like?

We recommend that students allocate at least three months of dedicated SSAT prep prior to an official SSAT exam. We also encourage students to sit for at least two official SSATs to maximize their potential for a score increase.

SSAT Prep Resources

Goals

Usually, these months of prep begin with taking a diagnostic SSAT practice test, which can be valuable for establishing target scores, initial goals, and test prep trajectory. As we discuss in our post about SAT Goal Setting, test prep goals should be related to:

  • Average SSAT scores of admitted applicants to your school(s) of choice
  • Your diagnostic SSAT scores (your starting point)

Many students ask us what a "good" SSAT score is. We always answer this question by directing families to their schools of choice. Many secondary schools post information about competitive SSAT scores on their websites.

Otherwise, a quick call to an admissions office can clarify what goal SSAT scores your student should be working towards.

Additionally, we encourage students to think about maximizing their current raw SSAT scores as a means of obtaining a realistic target score. We discuss this in detail in our Scoring on the SSAT guide and What's a Good SSAT Score? post.

Practice

Consistent practice is the key to mastering strategy, content, and timing on the SSAT. The most successful SSAT students are those who regularly apply their learning through practice tests, homework, and timed drills.

When it comes to these practice materials, it's important to choose authoritative SSAT prep resources. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of these resources out there, but some do exist. We discuss these in the next section of this post.


The Best SSAT Prep Resources Out There

What are the best SSAT prep resources available to test-takers? Here are our recommendations.

1) Official SSAT Practice Online*

When it comes to test preparation of any kind, we always encourage students to practice as close to the source as possible. This means working through materials released by the test-writers themselves, if these are available.

The Enrollment Management Association doesn't release a ton of materials, but their Official SSAT Online Practice is ideal for students preparing for the Middle and/or Upper-Level SSAT.

Here's what comes with an SSAT Practice Online account:

  • A mini SSAT practice test (free)
  • 3 full-length practice tests
  • 15 section tests
  • 4th full-length test (additional purchase)
  • Quizzes
  • Access to on-demand content
  • Other free resources

You do have to pay for the Practice Online. Currently, a one-year subscription (without the fourth practice test) is $69.95. That fourth practice test is an additional $19.99.

2) Official SSAT Guide Books*

If you'd rather work from a physical book, we recommend that students purchase an Official SSAT Guide Book (Middle or Upper Level).

Each book includes:

One of these texts is $59.95. The practice tests included in these books are exactly the same as those offered online through the SSAT Practice Online package.

So, which should you choose?

As the SSAT is administered on paper, we always encourage students to have a physical SSAT resource on-hand. However, the SSAT Practice Online can be useful for students who enroll in remote tutoring and/or wish for extra practice via quizzes.

3) Tutorverse Upper-Level SSAT Practice Questions

Tutorverse is a third-party test prep company, but that being said, we do find the practice questions in this text to be more reflective of SSAT questions than other materials.

Plus, there are a lot of them! This book comes with more practice questions than 10 official SSAT tests, spanning all content areas on the SSAT (Verbal, Reading, Quantitative, and Writing). This is the text we recommend our students purchase to complement their work with one of our SSAT experts.

This Tutorverse text does not include any strategies or instructional material. It contains only practice SSAT questions.

4) Success on the Upper-Level SSAT Course Book

Students seeking a supplementary text to official SSAT or Tutorverse content should consider this text by Test Prep Works. It includes content instruction, suggested strategies, drills, practice questions, and one full-length practice test.

While not comprehensive, this book will give SSAT students a great resource for building fundamentals, especially when it comes to basic strategies and content review.

5) IvyGlobal

IvyGlobal provides educational services to a wide range of students, including those preparing to take the SSAT. We find IvyGlobal's practice SSAT content to be quite reliable and reflective of official content, especially in comparison to content released by other third-party education companies.

Students can purchase workbooks in SSAT English and Math as well as a book of IvyGlobal SSAT practice tests. It is also possible to download free SSAT practice content on IvyGlobal's website.

6) The Princeton Review

For students seeking a more self-guided approach to preparing for the SSAT, the Princeton Review's Cracking the SSAT and ISEE workbook may be a great supplement. This text includes targeted strategies, quizzes, and practice exams, all delivered in an upbeat tone.

Be sure to select the most recent edition (i.e., the 2020 Edition) as the Princeton Review releases new SSAT workbooks every year.


Other Valuable SSAT Prep Resources

Remember: the SSAT tests specific content in addition to strategy and comprehension. The SSAT Math section, for example, is the most content-heavy of all the test's sections, so it's wise to supplement your SSAT prep with some straight-up content work!

Here are some great online resources for math content:

Success on the SSAT Verbal section requires a solid working vocabulary. Expand your word bank by making use of these Verbal resources:

  • Merriam Webster's Vocabulary Builder ($)
  • Membean ($)

Next Steps

The most effective SSAT test prep keeps in mind what makes this test unique: duration, content, and strategy. It also makes use of authoritative resources, including practice tests and content instruction.

We do recommend that students make use of official SSAT content when prepping for the test, but it is also possible to supplement preparation with other tools, especially when it comes to content review.

Of course, the best way to set your SSAT prep up for success is to work with professionals! We are always excited to match SSAT students with experts as they navigate this component of secondary school admissions.

Book your free SSAT consultation today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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.


Creating an SSAT Study Plan - PrepMaven

Creating an Effective SSAT Study Plan

Creating an Effective SSAT Study Plan

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s FREE SSAT Guidebook

The Secondary School Admissions Test is a standard component of private school admissions. 

Students now have even more options to take the SSAT now that the Enrollment Management Association is offering at-home testing.

If your student is a prospective SSAT test-taker, you’ve come to the right place! Now is the time to start thinking about your student's SSAT prep.

We encourage students to allocate at least three months for effective SSAT prep. In many cases, students begin their SSAT prep at least a year prior to an official test date.

We also encourage students to create an SSAT study plan that aligns with their goals and timeline.

In this post, we give our best advice for creating an effective and actionable SSAT study plan. You’ll also get access to our free SSAT guidebook, which covers study plans, strategies, administrative tips, and more. Download this now below.

Here’s what we cover:


4 Components of Effective SSAT Prep

Studying for the SSAT can be a lot like studying for a normal middle school exam. Effective study for the SSAT can rely on flashcards, for example, note-taking, strategic study sessions, and regular practice. 

The difference, of course, lies in the fact that the SSAT itself is an entirely different beast than the tests students encounter in a standard middle school classroom.

In general, there are three huge differences between the SSAT and middle school tests:

  • Strategy
  • Content
  • Duration

Strategy plays a larger role on the SSAT than most students realize. In fact, the SSAT Reading section requires very little outside content knowledge. Success on this section depends significantly on strategy–and a student’s capacity to move quickly through extensive and complex reading material.

Specific strategies can also aid the savvy test-taker on the other sections of the SSAT, including Quantitative 1 and 2 and the SSAT Verbal Section.

SSAT test-takers will be tested on their knowledge of advanced vocabulary and math content. However, this familiar content often appears in unfamiliar ways on the SSAT.

Lastly, the SSAT itself is over three hours long. Students must apply their brainpower to this exam for a marathon of a sitting. For this reason, effective SSAT study often involves building the physical and mental stamina for taking the test.

Every student’s process is different, but studying for the SSAT generally involves the following 4 characteristics:

  1. Timed practice (to build stamina and assess progress)
  2. Content review and application
  3. Strategy learning and application
  4. Regular review of progress through drills and practice exams

The study plan tips below are designed to integrate these characteristics into an actionable timeline for your SSAT Prep.

6 Tips for Creating an SSAT Study Plan

1) Identify Your Testing Date & Type

Begin by identifying the first official SSAT testing date and type. EMA now offers multiple testing options and dates, as we discuss in our SSAT Testing Options post:

  • Computer-based SSAT At Home
  • Computer-based Prometric testing
  • Paper-based SSAT  

Parents can register their student for an SSAT test date up to 90 days in advance, and EMA has a relatively flexible cancellation & rescheduling policy. 

Be mindful of private school application deadlines! Many schools have a strict cut-off date for SSAT score submission, especially for traditional fall admission. 

If you are within the 90-day testing window, we recommend that parents register their student for an SSAT as soon as possible.

2) Take a Diagnostic Exam & Establish a Target Score

Taking a diagnostic SSAT effectively introduces students to those components that make this standardized test so different from standard exams: duration, content, and strategy.

It also establishes a baseline score for all sections, giving students a clearer sense of what stands between them and their target score. Diagnostic score reports can additionally highlight content areas for further work, essential strategies, and timing issues.

To identify a target score, we encourage families to check out scores likely to ensure a competitive application with specific schools. 

We talk about this more in our post about the emphasis that private schools place on SSAT scores in the admissions process.

3) Determine Your Resources & Study Tools

Effective SSAT studying requires effective resources. Take the time prior to jumping into your prep to assemble the study tools guaranteed to give you success!

We outline SSAT prep resources available to students in our SSAT Prep Resources post. For example, we strongly encourage students to prep as close to the source as possible, which means taking advantage of Official SSAT.org practice materials.

Students can also benefit from these vocabulary-building tips in preparation for SSAT Verbal.

Tutors or test prep experts can also be helpful, specifically to aid in strategy development.

4) Set Aside Weekly Time

Effective SSAT prep requires consistent time and effort. Treat your prep as you would any high school class, and devote weekly time to homework and practice. 

Determine which times per week suit your SSAT prep the best. Starting your prep on Wednesday evenings at 10 P.M., for example, may not be as beneficial in the long-run.

Practicing on Saturday mornings, however, when you’ll likely be taking the official exam, may be more productive. Students who work with a private tutor are at an advantage here, as such a partnership often involves scheduled homework and weekly meeting times.

5) Take Regular SSAT Practice Tests

Regular practice tests give students the surest means of enforcing the strategies they’ve been developing on their own. It can also build physical and mental stamina – not to be underestimated on Test Day! 

We recommend taking a practice test every 3-4 weeks prior to your official test date.

Where can you find practice tests? SSAT.org has official practice tests available to students for a fee. You can learn more about practice materials in our SSAT Prep Resources post.

6) Establish Consistent Goals

Your SSAT study plan should include realistic, specific, and actionable goals. Begin by setting a goal SSAT score after you’ve taken your first diagnostic exam for each section.

Then set smaller, individual goals throughout your practice to help you reach this goal score. Here are some examples:

  • Scoring 80% accuracy on all geometry questions on Quantitative 1 & 2
  • Getting Synonym questions 1-10 100% correct
  • Working through 80% of the Reading passages with high accuracy
  • Creating an effective outline for an SSAT Writing Sample prompt

We recommend that students familiarize themselves with how scoring on the SSAT works before setting these goals, as it can be confusing at first.

Frequently Asked Questions: Your SSAT Study Plan

When should I start preparing for the SSAT?

We encourage students to start preparing for the SSAT as soon as possible, yet in general, we suggest allocating at least three months prior to an official test date for adequate preparation. 

Yet a percentage of our students choose to start preparing 1+ years beforehand. Doing so can enable students to more effectively build vocabulary, prepare for tested material not covered in school, and develop skills specific to standardized testing.

When should I take the SSAT for the first time?

According to SSAT.org, most SSAT test-takers will take the SSAT for the first time in September, several months before they submit applications to secondary schools. The September administration is the first in the academic year testing cycle.

However, students who wish to have more opportunities to take the SSAT may take their first official exam in June. 

Note: Students now have many more testing options available to them. Learn more by visiting our SSAT Testing Options post.

How many times should I take the SSAT?

While the vast majority of students take the test only once (according to SSAT.org), most of the students we work with will sit for the SSAT at least twice to maximize the potential for score increases. 

Some private schools also “superscore,” meaning that they review a student’s highest scores across multiple test dates.

Download Our Free SSAT Guidebook

We discuss creating an SSAT study plan, which SSAT testing option you should pursue, and much more in our free SSAT Guidebook.

Here's what you'll find in this Guidebook:

  • 90+ pages of valuable SSAT guidance
  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven's SSAT strategies for all 5 sections of the test
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools
  • and much more! 


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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 Reading Strategies _ PrepMaven

6 SSAT Reading Strategies From the Experts

6 SSAT Reading Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: SSAT Reading Practice Questions

SSAT Reading is the third section of the Secondary School Admissions Test. 

In this section, students have only 40 minutes to work through 8 reading passages and 40 questions.

For this reason, it’s very common for students to feel up against the clock on this section. SSAT Reading passages can also be fairly dense, especially if they are selections from older texts.

Success on the SSAT Reading section often depends on a student’s ability to apply specific strategies, given that it requires almost no outside knowledge.

We’ve outlined the strategies most likely to boost your score on SSAT Reading in this post. Plus, readers get access to our sample SSAT Reading practice questions, which you can grab below.

Here’s what we cover:


The 3 Things You Need to Succeed on SSAT Reading

Let’s do a quick recap of what this section entails.

SSAT Reading is the third timed section of the SSAT. It appears right after Quantitative 1 and right before a brief break:

Section Number of Questions Duration
Writing Sample (unscored) 1 25 minutes
Break -- 5 minutes
Quantitative 1 25 30 minutes
Reading 40 40 minutes
Break -- 10 minutes
Verbal 60 30 minutes
Quantitative 25 30 minutes
Experimental (unscored) 16 15 minutes

There are 8 SSAT reading passages. Each is about 250-350 words in length, and there are generally 4-6 questions per passage. About half of the passages are narrative and half are argument-based. 

SSAT Reading questions test your reading comprehension on both a general and specific level. You can find out more about question types in our Introduction to SSAT Reading post.

Given this format of the SSAT Reading section, success boils down to the following three things: 

  1. Strategy, strategy, strategy
  2. Versatile active reading skills 
  3. Familiarity with the question types

We cover all three of these things throughout the strategies outlined in the next section. 

6 SSAT Reading Strategies from the Experts

1. Know the test

The SSAT Reading section is fundamentally unlike any test students encounter in middle school. For this reason, a key strategy lies in simply knowing the test’s format inside and out.

Remember: this is a standardized test. For this reason, it is predictable. Students should thus make sure they are very familiar with 2 things:

  1. The passage types
  2. The question types

SSAT Reading passage types include: 

  • Literary fiction 
  • Humanities (biography, art, poetry) 
  • Science (anthropology, astronomy, medicine) 
  • Social studies (history, sociology, economics)

Some passages may also be harder than others. Older texts, for example, or poetry passages may be more difficult to comprehend. 

As you practice, pay attention to what is more difficult for you, and what is easier--this will be helpful with respect to another strategy we outline later.

Question types include:

  • Main ideas
  • Details
  • Inference
  • Words in context
  • Author’s purpose
  • Author’s tone and attitude
  • Evaluation of author’s attitude and opinions
  • Evidence-based predictions

Much like individual passages, certain question types might be more challenging for students than others. At the end of the day, however, every question is worth the same amount of points on SSAT Reading, regardless of its difficulty level.

2. Play to your strengths

This is a great strategy to embrace on any SSAT section, but it’s particularly important on SSAT Reading. The SSAT test-makers don’t necessarily have students’ personal strengths in mind when they create the Reading section.

What does this mean?

It might mean that a difficult passage for you (say, poetry) comes at the very beginning of the section as opposed to the end. It could mean that the easiest passage for you comes at the very end of the section.

The same goes for questions!

For this reason, we encourage students to tackle what is easiest for them first. This might mean taking passages out of order. It could further mean taking questions for those specific passages out of order, prioritizing the easiest ones over the more challenging ones.

Students also don’t have to complete all 40 questions to earn a competitive score on this section. Prioritize accuracy over quantity here.

3. Boost your fluency in wrong answers

It is often easier to pinpoint a wrong answer choice than it is to find a correct one! This is a key part of the process of elimination, which is a vital strategy on any standardized test.

That's why we recommend that students learn what constitutes a standard wrong answer choice on a typical SSAT Reading question. While these wrong answers can vary, in general, students should be very wary of the following:

  • Extreme answer choices (i.e., answers that include words like "never" or "always")
  • Half-right answers (i.e., ones that might be partially but not entirely true)
  • Distorted details (i.e., answers that have keywords from the passage but are misleading)
  • Outside the text answers (i.e., those that take it too far beyond the passage)

4. Have an active reading plan

Most students won't benefit from reading every SSAT Reading passage from start to finish. These passages are often dense, detailed, and simply boring!

That's why it's important to have what we like to call an active reading plan. This means productively engaging with every passage so that you come away with the most valuable information.

What does that mean?

Because many SSAT Reading questions focus on main ideas, it means reading for the following in each passage:

  • Main ideas!
  • Statements of opinion or argument
  • Transition words
  • Keywords from the questions
  • Concluding statements

Try and visualize a map of the passage as you read through it. Where is the thesis sentence stating the main idea? Underline it so you can refer back as you’re answering questions. What is the structure of the passage as a whole? 

We also strongly recommend annotating the passage as you read for main ideas and keywords. This means doing more than just underlining -- try to paraphrase main ideas in your own words in the margin of each paragraph. This will help with passage engagement and recall.

5. Preview questions and predict answers

SSAT Reading questions aren't designed to be your friend. They'll be full of tempting trap answers. For this reason, a great strategy is to handle the questions in a 2-step approach:

  1. Preview the questions before you actively read the passage (so you know what to look for)
  2. Cover up the answer choices and predict your own answer for each question (so you don't get trapped)

If you actively read a passage and annotate for main ideas, you're well on your way to accurately predicting answers to these questions. Once you've made your prediction, simply cross off any answers that don't match.

6. Read, read, read

We encourage students to follow a regular independent reading schedule while preparing for the SSAT Reading section. This will ensure fluency in a wide range of literature.

Here are some of our recommendations for what you could be reading while you prep:

  • Editorials and opinion pieces
  • Journal articles
  • "Older" texts, such as literary classics and primary documents
  • Poetry
  • Creative nonfiction

Download Our SSAT Reading Practice Questions

Ready to apply these strategies? Download our free SSAT Reading practice questions.

With this worksheet, you'll get:

  • 5 test-like SSAT Reading passages
  • 20 total questions
  • Answers and explanations


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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 At Home 2020-2021

The SSAT At Home 2020-2021: What You Need to Know

The SSAT At Home 2020-2021: What You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

Students applying to private schools now have three SSAT testing options for 2020 and 2021:

  • The Computer-Based SSAT At Home
  • The Computer-Based SSAT At a Prometric Testing Center
  • The Paper-Based SSAT

We walk families through the ins and outs of these testing options in a separate post. 

We’ve had many of our parents and students ask, however, about what to expect if taking the SSAT At Home. 

The most available of the testing options--it will be administered every Saturday beginning September 26, 2020--the SSAT At Home gives students the ability to test remotely in the comfort of their own homes!

What does this mean and what can you expect? We answer these questions and more in this detailed post.

You'll also get access to our SSAT Guidebook, a comprehensive guide for families approaching this test for the first time. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover:

What is the SSAT At Home?

Students in the U.S. and Canada only will be able to take a computer-based SSAT At Home beginning September 26, 2020. 

This is a digital (non paper-based) SSAT students can take remotely, at home, within a specific testing window.

The SSAT At Home requires, in general, the following:

  • A typed writing sample (as opposed to handwritten)
  • Internet access
  • Appropriate testing environment / equipment
  • The capacity to navigate between a digital interface and scratch paper (for figuring)

The SSAT at Home will be available every Saturday from 9 AM to 3 PM EST and the first Sunday of each month, and parents can register their student for an SSAT At Home between 24 hours and 90 days in advance. If you need to reschedule an SSAT At Home, you can do so up to 7 days in advance of the testing date.

Students with approved testing accommodations are also eligible for the SSAT At Home. This means that you’ll have to have these accommodations approved before registering for your exam.

The SSAT At Home is delivered by EMA’s partner, PSI, and administered through a secure web application “with continuous AI monitoring, data forensics, and live remote proctoring.”

What does this mean? Live proctors administer each SSAT At Home and monitor test-takers via webcam. Students must also select their answer choices to questions digitally, although they are permitted to use scratch paper for figuring.

At the time of publishing this post, EMA has outlined At Home testing dates through the end of January 2021

What You’ll Need to Take the SSAT At Home

EMA has strict requirements for At Home test-takers, especially when it comes to technical and room requirements.

Students will need the following to take the SSAT At Home:

Technology

  • A laptop or desktop computer (not a Chromebook) 
  • An internal or external webcam
  • A speaker to hear the proctor (headphones aren’t permitted)
  • A microphone to speak with the proctor (headphones aren’t permitted)
  • Stable, consistent internet connection
  • A system check 
  • The Secure Browser provided by PSI, EMA’s remote proctoring partner (this can be installed before Test Day)

Room/Environment

  • A quiet room where you can be alone during testing (i.e., a bedroom, library study room, classroom, etc.) 
  • A clear work surface, with your keyboard and mouse in front of you
  • A regular chair for sitting (not a sofa, for example)
  • No visible signs or posters that could be helpful on Test Day

EMA also specifies on its website that students must be “dressed appropriately,” as the system might ask for an ID photo in the form of a selfie during virtual check-in. It does not define what this should look like, but we encourage students to dress as if they were attending school (i.e., no sweatpants!).

What Test Day Will Look Like

It’s very important for test-takers to be punctual, given EMA’s late policy! For this reason, be sure to install the Secure Browser needed to launch the exam before Test Day. 

(EMA does not specify how soon you’ll be able to install this browser after registering for an SSAT At Home.)

Once you’ve launched your test, you’ll have to go through a security check on your computer. Then you’ll be asked by the remote proctor to give a scan of your testing room with your webcam.

**Parents and guardians can be present for this set-up part of the SSAT At Home, but they have to leave the room once testing begins.**

EMA says that students can talk to their proctors at any time during this process if they have questions. (It does not say, however, if students can do so while testing.)

Note: There is a late policy for SSAT At Home testing--if you haven’t launched your test 15 minutes after the test’s start time, it will no longer be active. Students can launch their test up to 30 minutes before their scheduled testing time.

Other Resources

Some students may not have the technology or testing environment needed to take the SSAT At Home. We thus encourage parents to take a look at the following as they explore this SSAT testing option: 

Should My Student Take the SSAT At Home?

Many of our families are asking us this question right now. In general, the answer to this question depends on the following: 

  1. Access (i.e., internet connection and equipment)
  2. Application deadlines / testing timeline
  3. Testing accommodations
  4. Health & safety

Many families feel that the SSAT At Home is the best option from a healthy and safety perspective right now, given that it allows students to take the test remotely. 

It also is the one SSAT testing option with the highest number of testing dates, with a relatively flexible rescheduling policy. This can be beneficial for students applying to private schools this fall & early winter, especially as scores arrive within four days of testing.

Yet some students might not be able to meet EMA’s At Home testing requirements, even if “tech waivers” are permitted for these students. Test-takers with accommodations might be limited by the format of the exam (i.e., some students might need to take a paper exam as opposed to a digital exam).

We want to emphasize that, according to EMA, there is no difference between the three testing options with respect to the following:

  • Registration cost
  • Content
  • Length
  • Format

In the meantime, we invite our SSAT families to check out the other SSAT testing options to see which will be a best fit for their student.

Download Our Free SSAT Guidebook

We discuss SSAT testing options, including the new SSAT At Home, and much more in our free SSAT Guidebook.

SSAT Resources_Guidebook

Here's what you'll find in this Guidebook:

  • 90+ pages of valuable SSAT guidance
  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven's SSAT strategies for all 5 sections of the test
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools
  • and much more!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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 Testing Options for 2020 - 2021

SSAT Testing Options 2020-2021

SSAT Testing Options 2020-2021

Bonus Material: SSAT Guidebook 2020-2021

The Enrollment Management Association, which produces the SSAT, has announced new SSAT testing options for the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021.

Historically, students could only take a paper-based SSAT. They could do so for three kinds of administrations:

  • Standard
  • Flex Testing
  • Benchmark

Now, students have three SSAT testing options and many more SSAT test dates!

We understand that this can be a bit confusing for families navigating the secondary school admissions process this 2020. In this post, we outline these latest SSAT testing options so that you can feel confident selecting a testing option and date.

We also give you access to our SSAT Guidebook, which includes 85+ pages of information related to preparing for and taking the SSAT. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:

The 3 SSAT Testing Options for 2020-2021

Historically, the standard SSAT has been offered as a paper-based exam eight times at testing centers per academic year (August 1 - July 31) in the following months:

  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December
  • January
  • February
  • April
  • June

Students have also had the option of Flex Testing, which allows test-takers to sit for the exam on a non-standard testing date.

As of August 2020, there are now three current SSAT testing options. 

  • Computer-Based SSAT at Home (new)
  • Computer-Based SSAT at a Prometric Testing Center (new)
  • Paper-Based SSAT (includes Flex and Benchmark testing)

With three testing options, students now have the opportunity to take the SSAT nearly every weekend, beginning in late September 2020! 

**The exam’s format, content, and length are consistent across these testing options. Registration fees are also identical.**

We’ll walk through each of these testing options now.

Computer-Based SSAT at Home

Students in the U.S. and Canada only will be able to take a computer-based SSAT At Home beginning September 26, 2020. 

This is a digital (non paper-based) SSAT students can take in the comfort of their own homes.

The SSAT At Home requires, in general, the following:

  • A typed writing sample (as opposed to handwritten)
  • Internet access
  • Appropriate testing environment / equipment
  • The capacity to navigate between a digital interface and scratch paper (for figuring)

The SSAT at Home will be available every Saturday from 9 AM to 3 PM EST and the first Sunday of each month, and parents can register their student for an SSAT At Home up to 90 days in advance. If you need to reschedule an SSAT At Home, you can do so up to a week in advance of the testing date.

Students with approved testing accommodations are also eligible for the SSAT At Home.

The SSAT At Home is delivered by EMA’s partner, PSI, and administered through a secure web application “with continuous AI monitoring, data forensics, and live remote proctoring.”

What does this mean? Live proctors administer each SSAT At Home and monitor test-takers via webcam. Students must also select their answer choices to questions digitally.

At the time of publishing this post, EMA has outlined At Home testing dates through the end of January 2021. 

EMA has strict requirements for At Home test-takers, especially when it comes to technical and room requirements. We thus encourage parents to review the following resources when preparing for an SSAT At Home:

We discuss SSAT testing options and much more in our comprehensive SSAT Guidebook, which you can download for free below.

Computer-Based SSAT at a Prometric Testing Center

SSAT test-takers in the U.S., Canada, and select countries abroad have the option of taking a computer-based SSAT at a Prometric Testing Center

If you choose this testing option, your student will be taking the digital version of the paper-based SSAT at a designated Prometric Testing Center.  

What can students expect when taking the computer-based SSAT at a Prometric Testing Center? 

The test itself is no different from a paper-based SSAT, other than the fact that it is entirely computer-based. This involves:

  • A typed writing sample (as opposed to handwritten) and
  • The capacity to navigate between a digital interface and scratch paper (for figuring)

EMA emphasizes that

The types of questions, the sections, and related parts of the computer-based SSAT are the same. Your student will simply use a computer for all test sections instead of a book and an answer sheet.

Proctors will give students a brief tutorial at the start of an SSAT administration so that they can get comfortable with the interface. However, students can practice utilizing the Prometric interface here before Test Day.

Parents/guardians can wait in the waiting room of the testing center as their student completes the exam. Parents will have to sign a waiver form if they wish to leave the center and return only to pick up their student.

If your student has testing accommodations, they are eligible to take the computer-based Prometric SSAT. However, they should have accommodations approved before registering.

If you need support with a Prometric registration, you can contact either Prometric customer support or EMA customer support. Parents needing to reschedule a Prometric registration will have to do so through Prometric (not EMA).

Students are able to take the computer-based SSAT at a Prometric Testng Center up to two times.

Families can expect scores within four business days of testing at a Prometric test center, which is a much faster turnaround than that of the paper-based SSAT.

Paper-Based SSAT 

Students can also take the paper-based SSAT, when available at specific testing centers. These test dates are very limited, however, for 2020. 

EMA will still administer Flex and Benchmark SSAT exams this testing season, which are paper-based. Learn more about SSAT Flex Testing here.

The expectations for taking the paper-based SSAT are similar for taking the computer-based exam at a Prometric Center. We encourage parents to check out EMA’s Guide to the Paper-Based SSAT here.

Want more information about what to expect on an SSAT Test Day, no matter which test you choose? Download our free SSAT Guidebook below.

Which Testing Option is Best for My Student?

Of these three options, which should your student choose? The answer to that question depends on many factors, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Access (i.e., internet connection and equipment for the SSAT At Home)
  2. Application deadlines / testing timeline
  3. Testing accommodations
  4. Location
  5. Availability 
  6. Health & safety

We want to emphasize that, according to EMA, there is no difference between the three testing options with respect to the following:

  • Registration cost
  • Content
  • Length
  • Format

For now, here’s a helpful visual that compares the distinctions between the three SSAT testing options for 2020-2021:

SSAT Testing Option Format Testing Dates Registration Testing Accomm-odations Score Release Locations
Paper-Based SSAT Paper 2020: 
Sept. 26, Oct. 31, Nov. 21, Dec. 19
Open for select locations Yes 2 weeks after testing U.S., Canada, select intnl.
locations
SSAT At Home Digital Every Saturday starting Sept. 26, 2020 (and the first Sunday of every month) Open; can register up to 90 days in advance Yes 4 days after testing U.S. and Canada only
SSAT At Prometric Testing Center Digital Variable* Open for Upper-Level SSAT; can only take up to two times Yes, 4 days after testing U.S., Canada, select intnl.
locations

*Depends on availability of Prometric Testing Centers in your geographic area.

Download PrepMaven's 2020-2021 SSAT Guidebook

At PrepMaven, we’re here to help you navigate your student’s SSAT test prep journey with as much ease as possible. 

A great place to start is our SSAT Guidebook!

SSAT Resources_Guidebook

Here’s what you’ll get with this guidebook:

  • Over 85 pages of comprehensive, user-friendly details about the SSAT
  • Information about the SSAT and private school informations
  • Guidance for preparing for and taking the SSAT
  • Introductory strategies and content for all 5 sections of the SSAT
  • A list of test prep resources available to SSAT test-takers
  • And so much more!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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.


9 Ways to Improve Your College Essay

9 Ways to (Quickly) Improve Your College Essay

9 WAYS TO (QUICKLY) IMPROVE YOUR COLLEGE ESSAY

Bonus Material: Essay Polish Worksheet

The college essay is one of the most important components of your application. It carries even more weight this fall as schools drop or modify their standardized testing requirements. 

One of the most common questions we receive from our essay students this time of year is the following:

How can I improve my college essay?”

Perhaps you’ve written a first rough draft of your college essay. Or maybe you have already begun the difficult process of revising. 

In either case, we have 9 great tips for quickly bettering your essay. We also give readers access to our Essay Polish Worksheet, which asks all the questions you need to make your college essay shine.

Grab this free worksheet below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:

9 Ways to Improve Your College Essay

1. Be specific

This is by far the one tip we consistently offer our college essay students. The more specific you can be in your essay, the better!

The college essay is your opportunity to showcase your distinct voice outside the other elements of your application. Your distinct voice is more likely to emerge if you write specifically.

How can you be more specific? Focus on the following:

  • Description
  • Anecdotal details
  • “I” statements
  • Sensory details & imagery

Here is a selection from one of 11 college essays that worked that showcases excellent specificity:

It started small: just myself, Avery, and Sam and a problem set that didn’t take us long enough. Appropriately enough, we were working on one of Newton’s problems: differential equations describing cooling curves. His solution is fairly simple, perhaps overly simple, which prompted me to ask Avery what he thought. We had both taken Chemistry the year before, and Newton’s equation didn’t take into account thermal equilibrium; (to be fair to Newton, adding thermal equilibrium doesn’t appreciably change the solution at normal conditions). Since we were slightly bored and faced with an empty hour ahead of us, we started to modify the equation. We had learned in Chemistry that both the surroundings and the actual cooling object both change temperature, which Newton had ignored. We wrote up a first attempt on the infamous whiteboard, paused a second, and then started laughing as we realized that our inchoate equation meant a hot cup of coffee could plummet Earth into another Ice Age. This disturbance in an otherwise fairly quiet classroom drew the attention of Sam. He too was amused with our attempt and together we began to fix the poor thing. Huddled around the back of the classroom, we all pondered. It wasn’t an important problem, it wasn’t due the next day, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. But we loved it.

2. Lose the formality

Many students feel pressured to adopt a formal tone when writing their college essays. Yet this can actually obscure a student’s voice and personality on the page.

The college essay is not an academic essay. While students should write with eloquence and professionalism, they should prioritize clear and authoritative writing that gives space for creativity and voice.

Notice how this excerpt from a successful college essay is authoritative (using higher level words like “tome” and “cultivating”) but still clear:

She handed me my magnum opus when I got home from school that day. I ran my fingers across the shiny laminate over the cover page, caressed the paper as if it were some sacred tome. After more than fourteen months fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies, I was ready to publish. With the copy in hand I ran to my dad. “Read it and tell me what you think!” I said, imagining the line of publishing companies that would soon be knocking down my door.

3. But don’t be too casual!

Yes, you can write a relatively conversational college essay to great success! Yet be careful of sounding too casual in your writing. 

Your college essay should be free of slang, cliches, and grammatical errors. When possible, opt for higher-level word choice and avoid “throwaway words” like stuff, get, good, bad, and thing

Remember: college admissions officers are looking for potential in your application--and that means they are also likely on the lookout for strong writing.

We ask in-depth questions in our Essay Polish Worksheet to guide you closer towards a successful final draft. Download this worksheet below.

4. Be concise

Students have only 650 words to tell their story, so concision is vital. Try to convey your ideas using as few words as possible, no matter where you are at in the revision process.

Trust that your reader can make intelligent inferences. This means spending less time on backstory or context and “getting to the point” sooner. It doesn't mean taking away meaning, but it does mean making sure that every word is essential.

Notice how this college essay plunges right in, without wasting any time:

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. 

5. Prioritize your takeaways

College admissions officers are most interested in what a specific story says about you as an individual.

For this reason, make sure your essay spends most of its time discussing the following:

  • What you’ve learned from an experience
  • Your beliefs and/or specific opinions
  • Your aspirations and dreams and/or
  • What this all says about YOU

Many students find that their first college essay draft contains mostly backstory as opposed to these vital takeaways. That’s fine! Just make sure that future revisions involve reducing this backstory.

Here’s an example of a “takeaway” paragraph from an essay that worked:

I’m still questioning, and I think the process does not end, which is part of what makes my religious practice important to me – it urges me to constantly reflect on my values and the moral quality of my actions. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish that “experiment,” but by experiencing and valuing the practices and lifestyles of other people, I also got to reflect on my own. That summer showed me 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.

6. Be precise

Because of the college essay’s word limit, every word really does matter. Make sure that you are using the right words by writing precisely.

We love this excerpt from a successful college essay for this reason:

Despite the current lack of certification offered for the profession which I am seeking, I am unquestionably qualified. I can tell you that a cayenne pepper sauce infused with hints of lime and passion fruit is the perfect pairing to bring out the subtle earthy undertones of your microwave ramen. I can also tell you that a drizzle of full-bodied Louisiana habanero on my homemade vanilla bean ice cream serves as an appetizing complement. For the truly brave connoisseur, I suggest sprinkling a few generous drops of Bhut Jolokia sauce atop a bowl of chili. Be warned, though; one drop too many and you might find yourself like I did, crying over a heaping bowl of kidney beans at the dining room table.

7. Use transition words/phrases

Many students struggle with organization when first writing their essays. An easy way to make your essay more coherent immediately is to utilize transition words or phrases.

This is especially important if you are telling a story that spans several weeks, months, or years.

Here are a few of our favorite college essay transition words:

  • For example / instance
  • Over the years
  • Thus
  • Yet / but
  • At first
  • Simply put
  • In the end
  • Ultimately
  • Initially
  • Finally
  • However
  • In addition
  • Similarly
  • While / despite / although

8. Ask: Could anyone else have written this?

If your answer to this question is “yes,” it’s time to bring the following into your essay:

  • Specificity
  • More “I” statements

Your goal should be authenticity and originality, and you guessed it--more specifics and “I” statements can help you accomplish this goal.

9. Bring in more “I”

Many English teachers tell their students not to use “I” in their academic essays. When it comes to the college essay, however, it is critical to use “I” all the time!

Doing so will ensure that your essay contains active reflection and productive sentences.

Notice how many times this applicant uses “I” in the following paragraph:

But not only did I learn linguistics, Python, and philosophy with Avery and Sam, I learned a little more about myself. I never want to lose what we had in that corner. Our interplay of guessing and discovering and laughing seemed like paradise to me. I looked for other opportunities in my life to meet brilliant and vivacious people, to learn from them, and to teach them what I loved. I co-founded a tutoring program, participated in original research, and taught lessons in Physics and Chemistry as a substitute.

Download Our Essay Polish Worksheet

Need help editing your college essay? Start by downloading our free College Essay Polish worksheet.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A checklist for the 9 tips discussed in this post
  • Targeted, in-depth questions that will help you improve your college essay
  • Examples of actionable revisions


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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.


Complete Guide to ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_PrepMaven

Your Complete Guide to the 13 ACT and SAT Grammar Rules

The 13 ACT and SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT and SAT Grammar Workbook ( 100+ Practice Questions )  

Both the ACT and the SAT are interested in your ability to apply certain English grammar rules.

The good news, however, is that these exams only test 13 foundational rules. 

In this post, you'll find these 13 grammar rules tested regularly on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. We explain these rules as simply as possible, and without grammar jargon.

Plus, we include links to other detailed posts that elaborate on individual concepts, provide strategies for approaching certain questions, and walk you through guided examples from official practice tests.

You’ll also be able to download free practice worksheets for every single grammar rule, which include practice questions, additional guided examples, and answers and explanations.

If you want all of these worksheets in one place, simply grab our ACT and SAT Grammar Workbook below.

Here's what we cover in this post:


ACT and SAT Grammar in a Nutshell

First things first: let's talk about what you can expect from the ACT and the SAT in terms of grammar questions.

Where Will I See Grammar Questions on the ACT/SAT?

Students can expect to directly apply their knowledge of English grammar on the following 2 sections:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Reading and Writing

ACT English is the first section of the ACT exam and contains 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes. The new Digital SAT's Reading and Writing section is split into two 32-minute "modules," each with 27 questions. Roughly one-quarter of all the questions on these modules are specifically on the rules of English grammar.

How Many Grammar Questions Will I Encounter?

Not all questions on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing concern grammar.

Both tests include questions that we like to call Expression of Ideas questions, which test students' understanding of context, vocabulary, logical connection of ideas, and the expression of an author's purpose.

These can take a little more time than basic grammar questions and can be more challenging.

We've analyzed officially released ACT and SAT practice tests to come up with an approximation of how many rote grammar questions you'll see on each test.

Grammar Questions on the ACT Grammar Questions on the SAT
~36-40 (out of 75 total questions) ~11-15 (out of 54 total questions)

Notice how grammar questions account for approximately 50% of the questions on ACT English and 25% of SAT Reading and Writing (give or take a few percentage points).

What does this mean? Students need more than proficiency in English grammar to earn a competitive score on both sections.

How Will I Know If It's a Grammar Question?

One of the most important things SAT and ACT test-takers can do on any section of the test is to identify the type of question in front of them. This can be vital for applying strategies and sidestepping typical SAT and ACT tricks.

On ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing, you know you're navigating a grammar question if you see any of the following changing in the answer choices:

  • Punctuation (including type and placement)
  • Verb tense and form
  • Pronouns
  • Prepositions
  • Idiomatic phrases and words

For example, check out this excerpt from a Writing and Language passage on the old, paper SAT:

SAT Writing & Language example
from SAT Official Practice Test #1

Question #36 presents us with four different forms of the verb "to teach." This is definitely a grammar question!

Next, take a look at question #37.

Did you notice that this has a full question in front of it? And that this question is asking students to consider the choice that most effectively sets up the information that follows?

The differences in the answer choices don’t boil down to mere grammar rules. They boil down to ideas, and a student’s capacity to figure out which is “relevant” in context, given the author’s ideas. This is an Expression of Ideas question.

Finally, consider question #38. This one doesn't start with a full question like #37 — but when we look at it more closely, we notice that we're comparing four different transition words or phrases. We have to think about how to connect the ideas present in this paragraph. This is also an Expression of Ideas question, not a grammar question! 

Note: even though the CollegeBoard describes the SAT Reading and Writing section as a test that assesses your ability to fix mistakes, plenty of grammar questions are correct as they appear in the passage! The same goes for ACT English. That "NO CHANGE" option is just as viable an answer choice as all the others.

We discuss the 13 ACT and SAT grammar rules you'll need to know to succeed on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing next.


The 13 ACT and SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know

As we mentioned earlier, students don't need to memorize every single English grammar rule to feel confident on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing.

These tests are only interested in a finite list of grammar concepts. What's more, these grammar concepts are tested in very predictable, limited ways.

That's why we won't elaborate everything there is to know about Verbs, for example, or the nuanced difference between a colon and a semicolon in this guide. While interesting and useful, such details aren't necessarily relevant for the purposes of the ACT and SAT.

The rules as we present them here are simplified and efficient, designed to give you the information you need to know to answer an ACT or SAT grammar question correctly. We discuss each concept in-depth in individual blog posts, linked throughout.

Complete Guide to ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_PrepMaven (1)

So, without further ado, let's get started. We begin with the most heavily tested grammar concepts and work our way down from there.


ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: Punctuation

Punctuation is by far the most common English grammar concept that appears on both the ACT and the SAT.

Based on our analysis of officially released ACT and SAT practice tests, we've crafted a breakdown of the number of punctuation questions students can expect on either test:

Punctuation Questions on the ACT Punctuation Questions on the SAT
12-16 5-7

Most punctuation questions on SAT Reading and Writing and ACT English actually test something more foundational than your knowledge of punctuation rules: your capacity to correctly identify incomplete and complete sentences. We've written an entire post on this--that's how important this skill is for SAT and ACT test-takers!

You can also download this free worksheet for additional practice in identifying incomplete/complete sentences. We'll reference complete and incomplete ideas often in the following 7 punctuation rules.

For now, here's a general breakdown of the difference between the 2 sentences:

Complete Sentences Incomplete Sentences

Have:

  • subject
  • verb
  • full expression of an idea

Don't have:

  • subject
  • verb
  • and/or full expression of an idea

Your knowledge of this difference will be vital for the majority of the following rules. Let's dive into those 7 punctuation rules you need to know for the SAT and ACT now.

Rule #1: You can only join 2 complete sentences with a period, a semicolon, or a comma + FANBOYS conjunction.

Let's say that you've identified two complete sentences in an ACT or SAT punctuation question, as in this example here:

It’s not that people are disinterested

in climate 12 change, many would

argue that citizens are very interested in

the planet’s gradual warming.

A) NO CHANGE

B) change; many

C) change many

D) change

"It's not that people are disinterested in climate change" is a complete sentence (it has a subject, a verb, and the full expression of an idea); the same goes for "many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet's gradual warming," for the same reasons.

At this point, it's time to choose the punctuation that is appropriate for combining 2 complete sentences: a semicolon, period, or a comma + FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

On the SAT or ACT, you will never have to choose between one of these three options (i.e., a semicolon versus a period). In fact, if you see a semicolon and a period in the answer choices--and nothing else differs between those options--you can automatically cross those choices off, as you can't have two right answers.

In the example above, the only permissible answer choice is B, which uses a semicolon to join 2 complete ideas. With this choice, this is how the new sentence would read:

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

You could also write this sentence using a period or a comma + FANBOYS conjunction, as in these two examples:

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.

Rule #2: Use a single comma to join 1 complete sentence with 1 incomplete sentence.

There is only one option for combining a complete sentence and incomplete sentence: a single comma.

Now, if the incomplete sentence is in fact just a phrase (as opposed to a clause, which has a subject and a verb), this could mean we're in the territory of either comma rules or colon rules, which we discuss later on in this post. For example, if your incomplete sentence is a transition phrase, like "on the other hand," chances are, it's time to apply some comma rules! 

The following example asks us to combine an incomplete sentence with a complete one:

In light of the fact that women are still

earning less than men in the workplace, 

31 for example: equity consulting

companies are likely to prove their value in

years to come.

A) NO CHANGE

B) for example; equity

C) for example, equity

D) for example. Equity

"In light of the fact that women are still earning less than men in the workplace, for example" is an incomplete sentence."Equity consulting companies are likely to prove their value in years to come" is a complete sentence.

We can only use a single comma to join 1 incomplete sentence to 1 complete sentence. The only answer choice that has a single comma as a solution is C.

The corrected sentence would thus read as follows:

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

For more practice with combining sentences on the SAT or ACT, check out our Combining Sentences blog post or download this free Combining Sentences worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

Rule #3: Use 2 commas or 2 long dashes to separate non-essential, additional information from the rest of a sentence.

Just as we use parentheses to separate additional information from the rest of a sentence, we can use 2 commas or 2 long dashes 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.

That's why we can separate "the co-founders of PrepMaven" with either 2 commas or 2 long dashes:

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

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

Rule #4: 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.

Rule #5: Separate items in a list with commas.

This tends to be the simplest comma rule for students to remember. 

When listing out items, use a comma to separate each item. On the SAT and ACT, you’ll also need a comma before the and that finishes the list, as in this example here:

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

In this example sentence, the “items in a list” are actually phrases: find a babysitter, submit that annual report, and RSVP for the Christmas party. We use commas to separate them, including before the “and.” 

For more practice with comma rules on the SAT or ACT, check out our Comma Rules blog post or download this free Comma Rules worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

Rule #6: A complete sentence must precede a single long dash or colon.

When it comes to using a colon or single long dash properly, it's particularly important to know what makes up a complete sentence.

That's because of this one important rule: the sentence that precedes a colon or single long dash must be complete.

It doesn't matter what comes after a colon or single long dash, really--incomplete sentence, complete sentence, a phrase, a single word. All that matters is that the sentence that comes before the colon or single long dash is complete. That's it!

Here's an example sentence, written with a colon and a single long dash respectively, that shows this rule in action:

Eighteenth-century female painters were, to no one's surprise, forbidden from painting many "scandalous subjects:" chief among these subjects was the male figure.

Eighteenth-century female painters were, to no one's surprise, forbidden from painting many "scandalous subjects"--chief among these subjects was the male figure.

"Eighteen-century female painters were, to no one's surprise, forbidden from painting many "scandalous objects"" is a complete sentence. Remember: it doesn't matter what comes after the colon or single long dash, as long as that first sentence is complete.

You will never have to choose between a semicolon, period, colon, or single long dash if all are used correctly.

For more practice with colon and long dashes on the SAT or ACT, check out our Colons and Long Dashes blog post or download this free Colons and Long Dashes worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

Rule #7: Use apostrophes to show possession with plural and/or singular nouns, and be careful with 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

Finally, although contractions appear relatively infrequently on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing, it's important to know the difference between the following pronouns and similar contractions:

  • its vs. it's
  • their vs. they're
  • your vs. you're
  • whose vs. who's
For more practice with apostrophe rules on the SAT or ACT, check out our Apostrophes blog post or download this free Apostrophes worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: Verbs

Verbs are the second most prominent English grammar concept on the ACT and SAT. It always surprises students when they find out that they will only have to apply 2 verbs rules to the SAT and ACT. Verbs are essential components of the English language, and we use them all the time!

However, ACT English and SAT Reading and writing are only interested in your knowledge of two things:

  1. Verb tense
  2. Subject-verb agreement

That's all! In general, students can expect to encounter the following number of Verbs questions per test:

Verbs Questions on the ACT Verbs Questions on the SAT
5-11 2-6

Let's dive into the 2 verbs usage rules you need to know now.

Rule #1: Verb tense must remain consistent

Verb tense refers to the 'time zone' of a verb, indicating when this action, occurrence, or state of being is happening.

In general, the tense of the verb in question must match the tense of the surrounding context.

The surrounding context might mean the sentence itself. It could also mean a part of a sentence or the paragraph as a whole. This is why it is so important to read carefully for context when encountering any Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing!

So, if a sentence begins with the phrase "In 1989," we can assume that the tense of that sentence will be in the past, given that 1989 is a year that has already occurred. If a paragraph is discussing an ongoing condition, such as "modern businesses' efforts to maximize workplace efficiency," we can assume that the tense of this paragraph will be, for the most part, in the present.

The key is to mine your context for clues that indicate what the tense standard is, and then ensure that your answer choice matches that tense. Here are some examples of common verb tense "clues" on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing:

  • Another verb in that tense in context (i.e., "studied," "will walk," or "breathes")
  • A time clue (i.e., "In 1989," "last year," or "in the coming decade")
  • A transition word or phrase (i.e., "meanwhile," "lastly," or "at first")

Rule #2: Verbs must match their subjects

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.

Now, our ears are pretty good at "hearing" when subject-verb agreement is off. Notice, for example, how "wrong" these phrases sound when you read them out loud or in your head:

  • Horses runs across the field.
  • The moss stick to the tree.
  • Mary deliver the book to her friend.
  • Cross-contamination are common.

These all sound "wrong" to our ears because the agreement is incorrect. You can apply the same test to verb and subject combinations on the ACT or SAT, and eliminate those that clearly don't sound "right."

Note: The SAT and ACT both love to cram in a bunch of words between a subject and its verb to confuse students. That's why it's so essential to practice identifying a sentence's subject and its associated verb correctly, which we discuss in our Verbs blog post and worksheet.

For more practice with verbs on the SAT or ACT, check out our Verbs blog post or download this free Verbs worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: Pronouns

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!

Of course, there are several different types of pronouns, and for the purposes of ACT and SAT grammar, it will be important to know the basic difference between the most common types, outlined 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

Pronoun questions do not appear as frequently as, say, punctuation questions on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing. Take a look at the following estimate of Pronoun questions that appear on each test, based on our analysis of officially released practice tests:

Pronoun Questions on the ACT Pronoun Questions on the SAT
2-5 1-5

Yet knowledge of pronouns is still vital! Luckily, for the purposes of the ACT and SAT, pronoun usage essentially boils down to just one rule, which we discuss below.

Rule #1: A pronoun must match its noun and stay consistent in context.

This might sound fairly obvious, but it holds a lot of meaning on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. 

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.

We talk further about the difference between subject and object pronouns, especially who vs. whom, in our Pronouns blog post.

What do we mean by a pronoun staying "consistent"? In general, if you start out with one pronoun in a sentence, you have to stick with it. This is especially important when using the pronouns you and one.

For example, this is an example of pronoun inconsistency (which would be incorrect on the SAT or ACT):

If you keep walking for about five blocks, one will spy a curious sight.

Both "you" and "one" in this sentence technically refer to the same general individual, but we need to use one or the other (not both). Here is a correct version of this sentence that shows pronoun consistency:

If you keep walking for about five blocks, you will spy a curious sight.

One More Pronouns Tip

ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing love testing students' knowledge of the difference between contractions and possessive pronouns. Make sure you know these differences!

Here are some commonly confused contractions and possessive pronouns:

  • they're vs. their vs. there
  • its vs. it's
  • whose vs. who's
  • your vs. you’re
For more practice with pronouns on the SAT or ACT, check out our Pronouns blog post or download this free Pronouns worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

3 Rarely Tested ACT and SAT Grammar Rules

We do see some miscellaneous grammar topics tested on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. While these are rarely tested, sometimes appearing in just one question per exam, they are still worth reviewing.

These topics come down to just 3 grammar rules, outlined below.

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 Reading and Writing, and generally with higher frequency on the ACT. 

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 Reading and Writing, 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 tests. Notice how some of these have already appeared in our discussion of apostrophes and pronouns:

  • 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

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.

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 cateogry.

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

For more practice with these 3 miscellaneous grammar rules on the SAT or ACT, check out our 3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the SAT and ACT blog post or download this free Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the SAT and ACT worksheet for practice questions, guided examples, and more. 

Now You Know These 13 ACT and SAT Grammar Rules...What Next?

We've covered the 13 ACT and SAT grammar rules you need to know to succeed on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. What happens now?

We strongly encourage students to spend time working through our individual blog posts for each grammar concept discussed here, as these delve even deeper into the nuances of these rules, especially as they appear on the SAT/ACT:

Students can also download free worksheets for these topics, which include guided examples of official test questions, practice questions, explanations, and more. Find download links in this post.

Otherwise, grab a copy of our ACT and SAT Grammar Workbook that includes all of these worksheets in one single PDF.

SAT and ACT Grammar Workbook

With this workbook, you’ll be able to:

    • Keep these 13 grammar rules all in one place
    • Work through additional guided examples for each question type
    • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept (that’s 100+ total questions, all free!)
    • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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. 


ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_ Transition Words

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: Transition Words

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: Transition Words

Bonus Material:PrepMaven’s Transition Words Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions 

Both the ACT and the SAT test your ability to identify and use transition words correctly.

The good news about transition words is that most students are actually already familiar with them. 

Most high school English teachers encourage their students to use transition words like however or furthermore in classroom essays.

We're here to demystify transition words as they are tested on both the SAT and the ACT. 

We walk you through sample questions and a key strategy for approaching these. Plus, we give you access to our free Transition Words worksheet, which includes guided examples, free practice questions, and more.

Grab a copy of this below.


Where You'll See Transition Words on Each Test

As we've discussed in other posts, the ACT and the SAT are very different tests. That's why we encourage students to devote their studying time to the one most likely to give them their highest score.

If you're not sure which test is right for you, you can ask yourself these five questions to find out right now.

Because the ACT and SAT are different exams, they each test English grammar rules in different ways. This is reflected quite simply in the names of the sections that test grammar on these two tests.

ACT test-takers will apply their knowledge of English grammar rules and writing strategy to the ACT English test. SAT test-takers, however, will do so on the SAT Reading and Writing test.

Regardless, both sections care about transition words. ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing both directly assess a student's ability to identify and use transition words effectively.

Yet knowledge of transition words can be helpful on other sections of these tests.

Both the SAT and ACT include an optional essay, for example. Using effective transition words in your essay response can help you organize ideas and produce a logical, coherent response.

Identifying transition words in reading passages on ACT Reading or SAT Evidence-Based Reading can also be helpful in quickly comprehending the structure and reasoning of an author's argument.

So, in sum, your knowledge of transition words will help you on these sections:

ACT

  • English*
  • Reading
  • Essay

SAT

  • Reading and Writing*

*These sections most overtly test a student's knowledge of transition words and their appropriate usage.


ACT and SAT Grammar Rules: What Are Transition Words?

So what exactly are transition words anyways?

Transition words do exactly what they sound like they do: they create transitions between ideas in writing. With transition words and phrases, we can show relationships between ideas quickly and easily.

You likely already use transition words in the academic writing you do for your high school English, composition, and/or language courses.

As a refresher, though, here is a table of the transition words and phrases high school students are most familiar with:

for this reason regardless nonetheless also/too in addition on the other hand
in fact therefore so furthermore finally hence
however for example last whereas and eventually
moreover thus indeed next previously in conclusion
first/second/third despite consequently nevertheless yet as a result

Now, it's important to note that each transition word will show a specific relationship between ideas. The word "however," for example, will show a contrast of some kind, while the word "furthermore" shows similarity.

Identifying the relationship a transition word shows can be essential when it comes time to answering transition word questions on the ACT and SAT.

Take a look at this table, which groups the words and phrases from the previous table into general relationship categories:

Contrast Similarity / Addition Cause-and-Effect Sequence
however furthermore for this reason first
regardless in fact therefore second
on the other hand moreover consequently third
despite for example as a result finally
nonetheless indeed so previously
whereas and in conclusion next
nevertheless also/too thus eventually
yet in addition hence last

Viewing transition words in terms of the relationship they are trying to show can be helpful when preparing for these questions on the SAT or ACT.


How Transition Words Are Tested on the ACT and SAT

When you encounter a transition words question on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing, chances are you'll have to demonstrate the following:

  1. Your knowledge of the transition words in question
  2. Your ability to identify the relationship between the ideas in question
  3. Your capacity to choose the right transition word to reflect this relationship

Yes, this sounds like a lot, but our strategy for approaching transition words questions simplifies things significantly.

How do you know you're dealing with a transition word/phrase question?

Easy!

You'll see standard transition words in the answers, as you can see in this sample question:

SAT Writing transition question
from SAT Official Practice Test #1      

Most students are likely familiar with the transition phrases that appear in this question: for example, in contrast, nevertheless, and in broad terms (the "no change" option). In fact, most of them appear in the tables above! The tricky part (which we discuss in the next section) lies in choosing the right one based on the relationship shown in context.

Transition words tend to appear slightly more frequently on the ACT English section than they do on SAT Reading and Writing, but numbers can fluctuate. Here's a general comparison of frequency based on our analysis of officially released ACT and SAT practice tests:

Transition Words Questions on the ACT Transition Words Questions on the SAT
3-7 1-5

Remember: transition words are tested directly on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. Knowledge of them is useful (but not directly tested) on the Reading and Essay sections of both tests.


Our Strategy for Transition Words

Transition words questions may seem complicated, especially because they require a fair bit of textual analysis. This strategy, however, is designed to simplify the process and help you arrive at the right answer every time.

When you see a transition words question, follow these steps:

  1. Categorize the transition words in the answers
  2. Read for full context
  3. Identify the relationship between the ideas presented
  4. Eliminate accordingly

We'll apply this strategy to the sample SAT question mentioned in the prior section:

SAT Writing transition question
from SAT Official Practice Test #1

1. Categorize the transition words

The four transition words in the answer choices here are for example, in contrast, nevertheless, and in broad terms (the "no change" option). Let's categorize them based on the relationships they show.

For example demonstrates similar or additional ideas. The phrase in contrast indicates something that's the opposite (contrast). The phrase nevertheless is a bit similar — we use it to indicate something despite something contrasting. Finally, the phrase in broad terms introduces a definition or summary.

2. Read for full context

It's essential to read for full context so that we understand the ideas the writer is linking.

The first sentence of this passage describes how studying philosophy can be a useful background to one's career. The second sentence offers a definition or explanation of what philosophy is.

3. Identify the relationship between the ideas presented

The second sentence explains a specific word, "philosophy," used in the previous sentence.

The relationship here is one of explanation or definition.

4. Eliminate accordingly

The only answer choice that introduces a definition is choice A, in broad terms. We can confidently choose this transition phrase.

Note: There are some cases where a transition word is not necessary. This is a common trap on the ACT, which sometimes includes an answer choice that doesn't have a transition word in it. For these questions, it's vital to first read for full context and determine if a transition word is necessary before working through the other answers.


Download Our Transition Words Worksheet

Ready to apply what you know about transition words to test-like questions? Download our free Transition Words worksheet for additional practice!

Transition Words Worksheet

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the 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

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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.


SAT and ACT Punctuation_ Colons and Long Dashes

SAT and ACT Punctuation: Colons and Long Dashes

SAT and ACT Punctuation: Colons and Long Dashes

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Colons and Long Dashes Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language test punctuation rules more than any other grammar concept. These rules include colons and long dashes. 

While colons appear relatively frequently on both tests, long dashes are a bit rare. 

However, both colons and long dashes share some common ground, which is why we're discussing them in one post.

Before you keep reading, we recommend that you check out these posts first (if you haven't done so already), as we reference their concepts quite a bit in this article:

We also encourage you to download our free Colons and Long Dashes worksheet so you’ll have practice questions on hand before diving in. Grab it below.

Here is what we'll cover in this post on colons and long dashes:


SAT and ACT Punctuation: Colons and Long Dashes

Where can you expect to apply your knowledge of colons and long dashes on the SAT or ACT?

As a reminder, both exams directly test students' proficiency in English grammar concepts on the following 2 sections:

  • SAT Writing & Language
  • ACT English

Punctuation is, by far, the most commonly tested English grammar concept on both of these sections. Here's what you can expect to see in terms of the number of SAT and ACT punctuation questions on either test, based on our analysis of officially released practice tests:

Punctuation Questions on the ACT Punctuation Questions on the SAT
12-16 5-7

Remember that the ACT English section is longer than SAT Writing & Language, with 75 questions (as opposed to 44 questions). Get insight into the way these tests are structured in our ACT Format and The 5 SAT Sections: What You Need to Know posts.

We do want to stress that your knowledge of English conventions can be helpful on one other section of both tests: the Essay portion.

While the SAT/ACT Essay is optional, if you do decide to take it, essay graders will be giving a general assessment of your grammar skills on the page. Demonstrating proper usage of colons, long dashes, apostrophes, semicolons, and commas can only help you get closer to a competitive essay score!

If you're reading this post, you've likely already settled on one of these two college entrance exams.

However, if you're still on the fence about whether or not to take the SAT or the ACT, ask yourself these 5 questions. Remember that all U.S. colleges and universities accept either ACT or SAT scores from applicants, and have no "preference" for one standardized test over another. (There are a few test-optional schools, though.)


Colons in a Nutshell

As we mentioned in the introduction to this post, we encourage our students to read these articles first before proceeding with this section about colon rules:

Why do we recommend this? Well, colon usage on the SAT and ACT basically boils down to your ability to identify complete and incomplete sentences.

For a quick recap, here's a visual that breaks down the difference between an incomplete sentence and a complete one:

Complete Sentences Incomplete Sentences

Have:

  • subject
  • verb
  • full expression of an idea

Don't have:

  • subject
  • verb
  • and/or full expression of an idea

The #1 Colon Rule You MUST Know

When it comes to using a colon properly, it's particularly important to know what makes up a complete sentence. That's because of this one important colon rule:

The sentence that precedes a colon must be complete.

It doesn't matter what comes after a colon, really--incomplete sentence, complete sentence, a phrase, a single word. All that matters is that the sentence that comes before the colon is complete. That's it!

Other Colon Considerations

There are 2 other things to keep in mind when it comes to colon rules.

We want to point out that most students are likely familiar with this definition of a colon, as per their English classes:

A colon comes before a list, explanation, or elaboration.

This is definitely true. But when it comes to SAT and ACT punctuation questions, students only have to be on the lookout for a complete sentence to the left of that colon.

What's more, some students wonder if they'll have to choose between a colon, a semicolon, or a period on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language. But here's the deal:

You'll never have to choose between a colon, semicolon, or period on SAT Writing & Language or ACT English if all are used correctly in the answer choices.

(If used properly, these differ only in terms of style and/or emphasis, which is not tested on the SAT or ACT.)

That means that there are essentially 3 things to keep in mind when it comes to colons. (Hint: we recommend writing these down on flashcards!)

  1. A colon must come after a complete sentence.
  2. It typically precedes a list, explanation, or elaboration (but this isn't directly tested).
  3. You won't ever have to choose between a colon, semicolon, or period if all are used correctly.

Examples

Here are 3 example sentences that demonstrate proper colon usage:

The treasure trove contained a startling array of both riches and detritus: old bank receipts, rare gems, crumbling seashells, a stack of manuscripts, pendants and bracelets, and even a gold coin.

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 plagiarist.

Eighteenth-century female painters were, to no one's surprise, forbidden from painting many "scandalous subjects:" chief among these subjects was the male figure.

Notice how all three of these have a complete sentence before the colon, which contains a subject, a verb, and the full expression of an idea.


Colons: Guided Example

We'll apply these colon rules now to a sample SAT punctuation question from an officially released SAT practice test (#3).

Guided Example: SAT Punctuation Question

SAT/ACT Punctuation: Colons Example

It's always important to read the full context of any question you encounter on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language. The full sentence that contains the underlined portion for question #29 is as follows:

Take Bartlett pears, for instance, unless they are treated with exactly the right amount of 1-MCP at exactly the right time, they will remain hard and green until they rot...

This is a long sentence! However, by skimming our answer choices, we can see that the question wants us to focus on only one portion of this sentence: namely, the punctuation surrounding "for instance."

Critical thinkers might notice here that "for instance" is a transition phrase. We know from our discussion of comma rules that transition phrases require 1-2 commas, depending on where they appear in the sentence. At the very least, we'll want a comma before the "for." This helps us eliminate answers C and D.

How do we decide between A and B? Let's apply our knowledge of complete and incomplete sentences. "Take Bartlett pears, for instance" is a complete sentence. So is "unless they are treated...them again." We know from the rules of Combining Sentences that we can't combine 2 complete sentences with just a comma, so B is our answer.

Notice how this question required knowledge of all of the following rules:

  • Using a comma with transition phrases/words
  • Comma splices (you can't combine 2 complete sentences with just a comma)
  • You must have a complete sentence before a colon

This is very typical of SAT and ACT punctuation questions, which often test more than one rule in a single question!

Your can apply your knowledge of colons right now by working through the practice questions in our free Colons and Long Dashes worksheet.


Long Dashes in a Nutshell

The first thing to know about long dashes is that they are not the same as hyphens! We use hyphens to join two words together, as in the following examples:

  • star-crossed lovers
  • bad-tempered instructor
  • a custom-built home

Long dashes have a very different purpose. We use long dashes (--) on only 2 occasions:

  1. To indicate a change in tone, an elaboration, or new thought (single long dash)
  2. Offset additional, explanatory, and/or descriptive information (two long dashes)

Let's talk about Rule #1 first, as it can be the most challenging for students to grasp.

Long Dashes: Rule #1

It is possible (and yes, we've seen this rule tested on both exams) to use a single long dash to indicate a change in tone or new thought. In this way, a single long dash functions exactly like a colon.

And the rule with colons? A complete sentence must come before a colon. The same applies to the single long dash: it must be preceded by a complete sentence!

Here's an example of a single long dash functioning much like a colon. Notice how the sentence that comes before the long dash is a complete sentence and that what comes after the long dash is a new thought or elaboration.

That's just it--we don't know all of the answers to the questions of the universe.

To test for proper use of the single long dash, see if you can replace it with a colon. If you can (i.e., if that sentence on the left of the punctuation is complete), then the single long dash is permissible. This is the similarity between long dashes and colons that we referenced earlier on in this post!

Long Dashes: Rule #2

You can use two long dashes to separate additional information from the rest of the sentence, much like a set of parentheses or a pair of commas.

This is why knowledge of comma rules can be helpful for comprehending long dash usage: one of the essential comma rules tested on the SAT and ACT involves using two commas to separate descriptive, non-essential information from the rest of the sentence.

Two long dashes function in exactly the same way! Take a look at the following sentence, written once with long dashes and a second time with commas:

The pier to the left of the canoe house--reputed to be haunted by a restless ghost--is a popular destination for tourists.

The pier to the left of the canoe house, reputed to be haunted by a restless ghost, is a popular destination for tourists.

There is no grammatical difference between these two sentences! However, on the SAT and ACT, you will never have to choose between two long dashes and two commas if both options utilize correct punctuation.

Pro tip: Always hunt for a long dash in the non-underlined portion of a passage if you see a long dash in one of your answer choices. This could be a good sign that you're dealing with this second rule.


Download Our Colons and Long Dashes Worksheet

Remember: colons and long dashes are often tested in combination with other punctuation rules on the SAT and ACT.

It’s thus critical to feel confident in applying these rules in practice. You can do this right now with our free Colons and Long Dashes worksheet.

Colons and Long Dashes on the SAT/ACT

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the 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

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. 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.