Apostrophe Rules on the SAT _ ACT

The 3 Apostrophe Rules You Need to Know for the SAT/ACT (Updated for 2024)

The 3 Apostrophe Rules You Need to Know for the SAT/ACT (Updated for 2024)

Bonus: PrepMaven’s Apostrophe Rules Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

You only need to know 3 apostrophe rules to succeed on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing .

What's more, apostrophe questions are relatively rare on both tests.

Yet your fluency in apostrophe usage can get you that much closer to a competitive score on these sections. Remember: every point matters.

In this post, we walk you through the 3 simple apostrophe rules tested on the ACT/SAT. We also give you access to our Apostrophe Rules Worksheet, which includes guided examples, free practice questions, and explanations.

You can download this worksheet below now.

Here’s what we’ll be covering in this post:


Apostrophe Usage in a Nutshell

We use apostrophes in the English language to show one of 2 things:

  1. Contraction
  2. Possession

Contraction

Most students are fairly comfortable using contractions because they appear frequently in casual speech. Contractions are compressions of two words, as in the following examples:

  • couldn't (contraction of could and not)
  • won't (contraction of will and not)
  • I'd (contraction of and would)
  • there's (contraction of there and is)
  • it's (contraction of it and is)

Why do we use contractions? They can be useful for shortening and simplifying speech, although many high school English teachers encourage their students to avoid using contractions in academic writing.

With contractions, apostrophes serve as a visual indicator of the "bridge" between the two words.

Apostrophe Rules on the SAT _ ACT (1)

Possession

We also use apostrophes as a way of showing ownership or possession. Apostrophes serve as visual indicators of who or what is the "owner" and who or what is the "possession."

Here are a few examples of possession in action:

  • Margot's thesis project --> the owner is "Margot" and the possession is the "project"
  • The children's book section --> the owner is "children" and the possession is "book"
  • The students' questions --> the owners are "students" and the possession is "questions"
  • The Jones' yard --> the owners are "the Jones" and the possession is "yard"

Notice how the possession always appears after the owner in these examples.

It's also possible to show ownership by using possessive pronouns like their, my, or her. We discuss possessive pronouns (and other kinds of pronouns!) in our comprehensive Guide to Pronouns on the ACT and SAT post.


Apostrophes and the SAT/ACT

Students will encounter apostrophe questions on these 2 sections:

  • ACT English
  • Digital SAT Reading and Writing 

As we've mentioned in our other grammar posts, however, knowledge of apostrophe rules can be helpful elsewhere, such as the optional essay section on both tests. Essay graders will be checking for effective use of English conventions in your response, so proper grammar can help you achieve a higher essay score.

Apostrophe questions appear relatively infrequently on both tests, although they are still worth preparing for. Here's a breakdown of what you can expect to see on either test:    

Apostrophe Questions on the ACT Apostrophe Questions on the SAT
1-2 0-2
*Based on analysis of officially released ACT and SAT practice tests

When you do see an apostrophe question on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing, you'll largely have to worry about possession rules. Your knowledge of contraction is only tested in one very specific way, which we discuss in the next section.

How can you tell that you're dealing with an apostrophe question? You will likely see contractions and/or apostrophes in the answer choices!


The 3 Apostrophe Rules You Need to Know

Now it's time to take a deep dive into the 3 apostrophe rules you'll need to know for ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing . 

Rule #1: Its vs. It's

This may sound like an obvious rule to some students, but both the SAT and ACT are very likely to test your knowledge of the difference between "its" and "it's." 

The difference is that "its" is the possessive form of the pronoun "it," while "it's" is a contraction that really means "it is."

its it's

the possessive form of "it"

The dog wagged its tail.

the contraction of "it is"

I think it's going to rain today.

If you see its, it's, and/or both of these in your answer choices, read carefully! We recommend reading "it's" as "it is" to help with your elimination process on these types of questions.

Rule #2: Add 's to singular nouns showing ownership

To show ownership with a singular noun, simply add an 's to the end of that noun. This is likely to be the easiest possession rule for students to remember.

Check out these examples of singular noun possession:

  • Dmitri's dreams
  • The cat's favorite window sill
  • The Earth's curvature
  • My mother's phone calls
  • The podcast's listeners

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, one Earth, etc., in the sample phrases above.

Rule #3: Add a single apostrophe to the end of plural nouns ending in "s"

If you're showing ownership with a plural noun that ends in "s," all you need to do is add an apostrophe to the end of that noun. Here are some examples of plural noun possession:

  • The books' covers
  • The sidewalks' cracks
  • My teachers' curriculum
  • The mountains' peaks
  • The computers' hardware

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, teacher, mountain, and computer.

Not every plural noun ends in "s," however, and it's possible to have a singular noun that ends in "s." We discuss what to do in these scenarios below.

Singular Nouns Ending in "S"

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
  • James's preferences
  • Nicholas's parents

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

However, don't worry about this exception--it won't be tested on the ACT or the SAT.

Plural Nouns That Don't End in "S"

Yes, 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
  • Sheep's wool
  • The phenomena's relevance

In the next section, we'll discuss how to apply these 3 apostrophe rules to SAT Reading and Writing and ACT English punctuation questions.

You can apply this 4-step strategy easily to the practice questions included in our free Apostrophes Worksheet.


Apostrophe Rules: Our 4-Step Strategy for Applying Them

When you encounter an apostrophes question on ACT English or SAT Reading and Writing, follow these strategic steps:

  1. Read the full context
  2. Identify if you're dealing with a case of contraction or possession
  3. If possession, identify who/what is owning who/what & apply apostrophe rules
  4. If contraction, eliminate rule-breakers and plug in your final choice

We'll apply these steps to two sample apostrophe question from an SAT official practice test and an ACT practice test.

Example #1: SAT Apostrophe Question

Source: CollegeBoard SAT Official Practice Test #1

SAT Punctuation_Apostrophes Question

1. Read the full context

The answer choices indicate that we might have to apply our knowledge of apostrophe rules, as two of the answers include apostrophes. The word "major" also appears in different forms, so we might have to apply additional grammar rules (a common case on both ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing).

Context tells us that this sentence describes philosophy majors and their professional pursuits.

2. Identify if you're dealing with a case of contraction or possession

This is a bit of a trick question, as close analysis of the sentence in question tells us that we are dealing with neither contraction nor possession! That's because students is simply a plural noun and does not "own" anything. The phrase majoring in philosophy is describing these particular students.

We can immediately cross off answers A and D, as these both have apostrophes in them. The appropriate form of major is majoring, as majoring in philosophy is describing the students. Our correct answer is B.

Some of you might be thinking, Hold up--why is this an apostrophes question? It's an apostrophes question because it does require knowledge of apostrophe usage, even if we didn't end up choosing an answer choice with an apostrophe! In fact, this is very typical of ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing questions.

Example #2: ACT Apostrophe Question

sample ACT English, conventions
example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

1. Read the full context

For question #14, the answer choices indicate that we might have to apply our knowledge of apostrophe rules, as two of the answers include apostrophes. The word "parent" also appears in different forms, so we might have to apply additional grammar rules (a common case on both ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing).

Context tells us that this sentence describes how rarely the narrator has eaten Pakistani mangoes while in the US.

2. Identify if you're dealing with a case of contraction or possession

This may seem tricky, but close analysis of the answer choices and underlined portion indicate that we’re dealing with possession.

3. If possession, identify who/what is owning who/what & apply apostrophe rules

We're talking about the "home country" of the narrator's parents — in other words, the country "belongs" to the parents. In this context, either singular or plural "parent" would make sense (depending on how many parents the narrator has, and how many of them were originally from Pakistan).

However, we can immediately eliminate choice D, since this is not the correct possessive form of the plural word "parents."

Since we know that this sentence should communicate that the "home country" belongs to the parents, we can also eliminate choices A and B, which do not use an apostrophe to indicate possession.

That leaves us with choice C, a plural possessive form.


Download PrepMaven’s Apostrophes Worksheet

If you want test-like practice with apostrophe rules, we've got you covered. 

Our free Apostrophe Rules worksheet has everything you need to solidify the apostrophe rules and 4-step strategy discussed in this post.

Apostrophes_SAT and ACT Grammar

Here’s what you’ll get:

    • A recap of the apostrophe rules and 4-step strategy discussed in this post
    • Guided examples of apostrophes questions from official practice tests
    • 10 FREE test-like 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.


Comma Rules on the SAT_ACT

The 3 Comma Rules You Need to Know for the SAT/ACT

The 3 Comma Rules You Need to Know for the SAT/ACT

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Comma Rules Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

Punctuation is one of the biggest English grammar categories tested on both the ACT and the SAT.

In this post, we take a deep dive into one of the most common types of punctuation that appear on ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing: commas.

We’ve already discussed the rules for using commas when it comes down to combining incomplete and/or complete sentences.

But there are 3 more comma rules to cover, which we discuss in this post.

We also give you a chance to apply these rules in practice with our free Comma Rules Worksheet, which includes practice questions, guided examples from official practice tests, and answers/explanations.

Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


ACT/SAT Comma Questions in a Nutshell

Students will encounter punctuation questions on the following sections of both tests:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Reading and Writing

Remember: punctuation is one of the most heavily tested English grammar concepts on either test. Students can encounter as many as 18 punctuation questions on ACT English (out of 75 questions) or 7 on the SAT (out of 44 questions).

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

In general, ACT and SAT punctuation questions boil down to two things: combining sentences and comma rules. 

So if you haven’t done so already, please check out our foundational posts on Identifying Complete and Incomplete Sentences and Combining Sentences

Comma rules won’t necessarily be tested in every SAT or ACT punctuation question. Yet knowledge of comma rules can be vital for nearly all punctuation questions, as the ACT and SAT both love to include commas in incorrect (as well as correct!) answer choices. 

How can you tell that you’re dealing with an ACT or SAT punctuation question?

The answer choices hold the key. A typical punctuation question will have different types of punctuation in the answer choices, including any of the following:

  • Semicolons
  • Colons
  • Periods
  • Commas
  • Long Dashes
  • Parentheses (rare)
  • Apostrophes

Take a look at this sample ACT English question to see this in action:

example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Our answer choices here include a comma, semicolon, and colon, which indicates that this is a classic punctuation question!

More overt comma rules questions on the SAT or ACT are likely to just have commas in the answer choices, as in this question here:

SAT and ACT Comma Rules Example Question
Source: CollegeBoard Official SAT Practice Test #1

Notice how the key difference in the answer choices here lies in the placement and quantity of the commas. This is a clue that we’re dealing with a straight-up comma rules question.


Review: Comma Rules and Combining Sentences

When it comes to combining sentences, commas can be used in 2 specific ways:

  1. With a FANBOYS conjunction to join 2 complete sentences
  2. By itself to join 1 incomplete and 1 complete sentence

FANBOYS conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

If you’re a bit foggy on the differences between complete and incomplete sentences, here’s a brief recap.

Complete Sentences Incomplete Sentences

Have:

  • subject
  • verb
  • full expression of an idea

Don't have:

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

We strongly recommend that you hone your ability to identify sentences before you spend serious time digesting comma rules.

For now, here are some examples of 2 complete sentences joined by a comma + FANBOYS conjunction:

Mina wanted to go to Hawaii for spring break, yet she knew she would need the extra time to complete her research project.

The majority of members supported the new law, so it passed quickly.

Please leave your shoes by the door, for my father is very particular when it comes to clean floors.

And here are examples of 1 incomplete sentence and 1 complete sentence linked by just a single comma. 

On the way to the hospital, the taxi driver regaled us with tales of his own mother’s longstanding battle with ovarian cancer.

Although she longed for some time alone, she ended up having to participate in most of the group activities organized for the conference.

Walking near the harbor, Daniel glimpsed white buoys bobbing far out near the horizon line.

The 3 comma rules we’ll be discussing next are in addition to these 2 rules associated with combining sentences. (Yes, that means that, in total, there are only 5 essential comma rules you’ll need to know for the purposes of the ACT or SAT!)


The 3 Comma Rules You Need to Know for the ACT/SAT

There are 3 additional comma rules you’ll need to know for ACT English and SAT Reading and Writing. The good news is that most students are already familiar with these rules, even if they might feel a bit rusty.

In addition to combining sentences, commas:

  1. Separate items in a list (including before the “and”)
  2. Appear after introductory phrases or transition words
  3. Offset non-essential or additional information from the rest of the sentence

We’ll walk through each rule below.

Comma Rule #1: Separate Items in a List

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.” 

Comma Rule #2: After Introductory Phrases

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. 

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.

Comma Rule #3: Offset Non-Essential Information

This is often the more challenging of these 3 comma rules, as it can be tough for students to identify ‘non-essential’ information in a given sentence.

What do we mean by non-essential or additional information in a sentence? Isn’t everything in a sentence technically essential and necessary?

From a grammatical perspective, sentences can contain non-essential information. Yet we define non-essential here as anything not needed to make a sentence complete

Such information often comes in the form of descriptive phrases, which offer additional information or details about the subject. You can think about these phrases as words you could easily separate from the sentence using a pair of parentheses.

Example

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 actually one way you can test if two commas are actually separating a descriptive phrase or non-essential information from the rest of the sentence. Simply cross off that phrase and see if you still have a complete sentence. If yes, you can safely use those 2 commas; if no, you likely don’t need those commas (or they are being used incorrectly).

So, in sum, you can use 2 commas (like tiny parentheses) to separate non-essential information from the rest of the sentence. Here are 3 more example sentences that show this rule in action:

This rule, while valuable, does not seem to get to the heart of the issue.

Many beginning medical practitioners, most of whom work an astounding number of hours each week, aren’t aware of the fact that they may be offering subpar care later on in the day.

My first real mentor, a fly-shop technician in Denver, taught me what it actually meant to wade into a river and wait for a fish to bite.

Ready to apply these 3 comma rules to sample questions? You can find practice questions, guided examples from official tests, and more in this free Comma Rules worksheet.


Strategy for Applying Comma Rules on the ACT/SAT

Once you’ve identified an ACT or SAT punctuation question, follow these steps to efficiently arrive at the correct answer:

  1. Scan the answers and read for full context
  2. Check for incomplete/complete sentences and eliminate accordingly
  3. Apply other comma rules to remaining answers, if applicable
  4. Eliminate rule-breakers

Remember: it’s not uncommon for the SAT or ACT to test all of the comma rules that we’ve discussed in this post in one single question. 

That’s why it’s important to first apply your knowledge of combining sentences to a punctuation question (i.e., identify if the question is asking you to link two ideas together) before you check for comma rules. 

Let’s apply these steps to one of the sample questions from above.

Example 1

SAT and ACT Comma Rules Example Question
Source: CollegeBoard Official SAT Practice Test #1

1. Scan the answers and read for full context

In the answer choices, we see a semicolon, colon, and commas. Context tells us that the underlined portion is part of a list describing the types of individuals collaborating to find a solution to an issue.

2. Check for incomplete/complete sentences and eliminate answers accordingly.

As we’ve identified that this underlined portion is part of a list, we know that we’re dealing with an incomplete sentence, technically. 

Yet that word “list” should trigger an alarm in your brain--remember comma rule #1? Commas separate items in a list!

We can thus cross off anything that doesn’t have a comma in it, which include A and B. (Remember: semicolons can only join 2 complete sentences, and colons must come after a complete sentence.)

3. Apply comma rules and eliminate rule-breakers

No comma rule tells us that we must have a comma after “and,” only before it. We can cross off D. Our correct answer must be C.


Download Our Comma Rules Worksheet

It’s time to apply your knowledge of comma rules to actual test-like practice questions so you can be extra prepared for Test Day. 

You can do this right now by downloading PrepMaven’s Comma Rules Worksheet.

Comma Rules_SAT and ACT Grammar

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the comma rules and strategy discussed in this post
  • Guided examples of comma rules questions from official practice tests
  • 10 FREE test-like 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.


ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_ Pronouns

ACT and SAT Grammar: Pronouns

ACT and SAT Grammar: Pronouns

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Pronouns Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

Pronouns appear with relative frequency on both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language.

We use pronouns all the time in everyday speech and writing. 

These helpful words help reduce redundancy in sentences. However, as straightforward as pronouns may seem, they can be tested in unfamiliar ways on the SAT and the ACT!

In this article, we'll take a deep dive into the pronoun rules that will prove essential for your SAT Writing & Language or ACT English success.

You’ll find 2 guided examples using official practice test questions. 

Plus, we give you access to our free Pronouns worksheet, which includes additional practice questions, guided examples, and answers/explanations. Grab this below.

Here's what we cover:


ACT and SAT Grammar: Where You'll See Pronouns

Both the SAT and the ACT are interested in your ability to use basic English conventions.

You'll encounter specific pronoun questions on the following 2 sections of each test:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Writing & Language

It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many pronoun questions will appear within each of these sections, as standardized as these tests are. However, we've analyzed all of the officially released ACT and SAT practice tests out there and derived an estimate of how many of these questions you can expect per exam:

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

In general, we tend to see more pronoun questions on the ACT than on the SAT.

Keep in mind that each test is likely to test your knowledge of pronoun questions in different ways (because they are, at the end of the day, different tests). Yet the strategy for Pronoun Questions we discuss in this post will still apply to either exam.

It's important to note that your knowledge of pronoun rules can be helpful on one other section of the test: the optional essay portion. Essay readers will be assessing your English conventions usage, so fluent handling of pronouns can only help you achieve a higher essay score on the SAT or ACT.

How do you know if you're dealing with a Pronouns question? You'll likely see different pronouns in the answer choices, as in this question here:

ACT and SAT Grammar_Pronoun Questions

We'll walk you through how to approach this question and solve it correctly later on in this post.


Pronouns in a Nutshell

What exactly is a pronoun?

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! Their primary goal is to reduce redundancy and add a touch of versatility to the English language.

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_ Pronouns (1)

Most students are familiar with the following subject pronouns, for example:

  • you
  • she
  • he
  • it
  • they
  • we

When addressing a friend, instead of saying that friend's name repeatedly, you might use "you" to refer to your friend and "I/me" to refer to yourself:

Hey, Darian, could you please fill me in on what I missed in lecture today?

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

Remember: you'll never be tested on the proper English grammar name for a given rule or part of speech. But you will most definitely be tested on your ability to apply those rules and/or identify those parts of speech.

There are 2 other pronoun categories that will be useful to understand for the SAT and the ACT:

  • who versus whom
  • that versus which

We'll discuss the usage rules for these categories in the next section.


The Pronoun Rules You Need to Know

As we've mentioned in our ACT and SAT grammar posts, you don't need to know every single rule associated with each principle we discuss. That's why we'll be outlining the pronoun rules here that you need to know for the SAT and ACT--not all the pronoun rules in the universe!

Here's what you need to know.

Rule #1: A pronoun must match its noun

This might sound fairly obvious, but it holds a lot of meaning on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language. In fact, this rule informs the first step of our pronoun questions strategy (outlined in the next section).

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.
  • Meredith and him are dating.

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 --> She and I plan on traveling to Uruguay soon
  • Meredith and Darrel are dating --> Meredith and he are dating

Rule #2: Who vs. Whom

Both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language are likely to contain at least one question that tests your knowledge of the difference between who and whom. For good reason, too--even professionals commonly confuse these pronouns!

The difference is actually relatively simple:

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

Basically, you should use who anytime you are referring to the subject of the sentence (the person who is "doing" the verb). You should use whom whenever you are referring to the object of the sentence (someone who is receiving the action of the verb).

If you are unsure, you can always replace "whom" in the sentence with an object pronoun to test it out. We recommend "them" or "him" as these object pronouns end in m (making it easier to remember). It can also be helpful to rearrange parts of the sentence as you test out the pronoun usage.

Here are 2 example sentences that require either "who" or "whom:"

  • Ms. Lutz, _____ is teaching the class, received her doctorate from Oxford University.
  • Kate, with _____ I am traveling to Uruguay, is fluent in Spanish.

With the first, it's clear that "Ms. Lutz" is teaching the class. We need a pronoun that replaces "Ms. Lutz," which is a subject. This means we need to use "who."

Here's how the new sentence would read: Ms. Lutz, who is teaching the class, received her doctorate from Oxford University.

With the second sentence, it's clear that the narrator is traveling with Kate to Uruguay. "Kate" here is a direct object, so we need an object pronoun to fill in the blank: "whom."

Here's how the new sentence would read: Kate, with whom I am traveling to Uruguay, is fluent in Spanish.

Rule #3: That vs. Which

We use the terms that and which frequently. What's the difference?

First, both are used to refer to objects, not people. You can only use "who" or "whom" to refer to people.

For the purposes of the SAT and ACT, the difference comes down purely to punctuation: which generally has a comma in front of it, while that does not require a comma or any intervening punctuation. Here are two examples that make this clear:

He told me that I would have to drop a class in order to maintain my grades.

Cooper Park, which is just a half mile from campus, is a popular destination for students and dog-walkers.

Rule #4: Differentiate between contractions and possessive pronouns

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language 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

Remember: write out the contraction to see if it fits the context (i.e., "it's" is the same as "it is"). If not, cross it off and go for a pronoun or other option.

Rule #5: Maintain pronoun consistency

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.

The strategy we discuss in the next section is designed to help you apply these rules in an efficient manner, regardless of the type of Pronouns question you're navigating.


Pronoun Questions Strategy

When you encounter a pronouns question, we recommend that students follow these simple steps:

  1. Identify the noun the pronoun is replacing
  2. Classify that noun (type and form)
  3. Eliminate accordingly
  4. If needed, differentiate between contractions and pronouns

We will apply these four steps to the next 2 guided examples.

You can also get a jumpstart and apply these steps to the practice questions in our Pronouns Worksheet, which you can grab below.


Guided Examples: Pronoun Questions

Let's take a look at this sample SAT pronoun question, mentioned earlier in this post. This is taken from the CollegeBoard's Official SAT Practice Test #1.

Guided Example #1: SAT Pronoun Question

ACT and SAT Grammar_Pronoun Questions

Identify the noun the pronoun is replacing

We can see that all of the pronouns in our answer choices are possessive pronouns. There are no contractions, so we won't be using step 4 of the strategy.

The underlined portion comes before the word lifetime, so we need to scan our context to see whose lifetime this is referring to. The noun that replaces this pronoun is students.

Classify that noun (type and form)

Students is a third-person plural noun.

Eliminate accordingly

We can cross off anything in our answer choices that isn't third-person plural. This eliminates A (first-person plural), B (third-person singular), and C (third-person singular). Our correct answer is D.

Guided Example #2: SAT Pronoun Question

Let's look at another sample pronoun question, also taken from the CollegeBoard's Official SAT Practice Test #1.

Identify the noun the pronoun is replacing

Looking at our answer choices, we can quickly tell that this is a "who vs. whom" question. It also appears to be a subject-verb agreement question, as we see "use" and "uses" in different answer choices.

Let's start with the pronoun situation first. Context tells us that who/whom must refer to people, directly before the underlined portion.

Classify that noun (type and form)

People is a plural noun. In context, it functions as a subject.

Eliminate accordingly

Because people functions as a subject, we can eliminate our answer choices that contain whom, which is an object pronoun. Cross off A and B.

People is a plural noun, which means we want to use a plural verb (subject-verb agreement). Use is the plural verb here. We can eliminate answer choice C and select D as our answer.


Download PrepMaven’s Pronouns Worksheet

Now it's time for you to apply our strategy for approaching concise questions on the SAT and ACT to some practice questions. 

You can do this right now with our free Pronouns worksheet.

ACT and SAT Grammar_Pronouns

With this worksheet, you get:

  • A recap of the rules and strategy discussed in this post
  • Guided examples of pronoun questions from official practice tests
  • 10 FREE test-like 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.


Combining Sentences_ ACT and SAT Punctuation Rules

ACT and SAT Punctuation 101: Combining Sentences

ACT and SAT Punctuation 101: Combining Sentences

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Combining Sentences Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

Most punctuation questions on the SAT/ACT test your ability to identify complete and incomplete sentences

Once you’re fluent in distinguishing these two types of sentences, you're all set to learn about the punctuation needed for combining them!

Those are the rules we'll be discussing in this post. Plus, we walk you through guided examples using official practice test questions. 

We also give you access to our Combining Sentences worksheet, which includes additional practice questions and explanations.

Grab this below before we get started.

Here's what we cover:


Complete & Incomplete Sentences in a Nutshell

We discuss the difference between complete and incomplete sentences at great length in our Complete and Incomplete Sentences post

For now, here's a helpful chart for breaking down the difference between these two types of 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

Identifying whether an idea is complete or incomplete on the SAT or ACT can be challenging, which is why we encourage students to practice honing this skill before they learn and memorize punctuation rules. 

When you encounter an ACT or SAT punctuation question, it's always important to read for full context. Doing so can help you determine if you are dealing with a combining sentences question or if you'll have to apply your knowledge of comma rules.

Giving the answer choices a quick scan can also clue you into what type of punctuation question you're dealing with.

For example, if you see a bunch of commas at different places in your answers, that's a good sign it's a comma rules question! If you see a mix of colons, semicolons, long dashes, and commas, this is probably a combining sentences question.

Here is our strategy for approaching punctuation questions that involve combining sentences (incomplete, complete, or both):

  1. Read the full context
  2. Focus on one idea or sentence at a time
  3. Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence
  4. Write down whether it's incomplete or complete

What we'll discuss next is what to do after you've completed step 4 of this strategy. Now it's time to talk punctuation rules!


ACT and SAT Punctuation Rule #1: Combining Complete Sentences

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 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, as it has a subject ("it"), a verb ("is"), and a full expression of an idea. The same goes for the second sentence, "many would argue that citizens are very interested in the planet's gradual warming," which has a subject ("many"), verb phrase ("would argue"), and full expression of an idea.

At this point, it's time to choose the punctuation that is appropriate for combining 2 complete sentences.

When combining 2 complete sentences, you can ONLY use one of the following:

  • semicolon
  • period
  • 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:

Period

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

Comma + FANBOYS conjunction

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.

Two More Tips About Semicolons

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

This is perfectly acceptable, as long as that transition word has a comma after it. We'll use the same example from above to show this rule in action:

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

Notice how the semicolon in this sentence comes before a transition word, "indeed," which is followed appropriately by a comma.

Additionally, FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) never follow a semicolon. If you see this as an option in an answer choice, you can always cross it off!


ACT and SAT Punctuation Rule #2: Combining Complete & Incomplete Sentences

What happens when you need to combine a complete and incomplete sentence, as in this example here?

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.

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, as it has a subject ("women") and a verb phrase ("are still earning") but lacks a complete expression of an idea. "Equity consulting companies are likely to prove their value in years to come" is a complete sentence, as it has a subject ("companies"), verb ("are"), and full expression of an idea.

There is only 1 real 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.

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! 

Let's apply this rule to the example above. 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.

Notice how the answer choices have a period and a semicolon in them--you can automatically cross these off as you can't have 2 correct answers!

Get a jumpstart on applying these rules in practice with our Combining Sentences worksheet, which includes practice questions, guided examples, and more.


Guided Example

Let's apply these rules to two sample questions taken from official SAT test and a practice ACT test. As a refresh, this is our full strategy for approaching a combining sentences question on the SAT or ACT:

  1. Read the full context
  2. Focus on one idea or sentence at a time
  3. Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence
  4. Write down whether it's incomplete or complete
  5. Identify appropriate punctuation and eliminate rule-breakers
Joining 2 Complete Sentences Joining 1 Incomplete + 1 Complete Sentence 
  • semicolon
  • period
  • comma + FANBOYS conjunction
  • a single comma

Example: SAT Punctuation Question

ACT and SAT Punctuation: Combining Sentences Example
Source: CollegeBoard Official SAT Practice Test 1

1. Read the full context

It's always important to read more than just the underlined portion of a question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language. The full idea here establishes a cause and effect relationship: people should continue to produce Greek yogurt safely because of its health benefits.

Context also tells us that there are 2 sentences to be joined here.

2. Focus on one idea or sentence at a time

We'll focus on these 2 sentences individually: "because consumers reap the nutritional benefits of Greek yogurt and support those who make and sell it" and "farmers and businesses should continue finding safe and effective methods of producing the food".

3. Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence

The 3 components of a complete sentence are a verb, subject, and full expression of an idea.

The first sentence ("because...it") has a subject ("consumers") and a verb ("reap") but lacks a full expression of an idea due to the word "because" at the beginning.

The second sentence ("farmers...food") has a subject ("farmers and businesses"), verb ("should continue"), and complete expression of an idea. 

4. Write down whether it's incomplete or complete

The sentence starting with "because" is incomplete. The one beginning with "farmers" is complete.

5. Identify appropriate punctuation and eliminate rule-breakers

We can only use a single comma to join an incomplete sentence to a complete sentence. We can eliminate answer D.

The word "because" at the start of the first sentence means that the words "therefore" and "so" would be redundant and unneeded, so we can cross off answer choices C and A. This leaves us with answer B.

Here's how our corrected sentence would read:

Because consumers reap the nutritional benefits of Greek yogurt and support those who make and sell it, farmers and businesses should continue finding safe and effective methods of producing the food.

Example: ACT Punctuation Question

example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

1. Read the full context

This question is a bit more challenging, just because there’s so much more happening in context. The key is to read carefully, however.

2. Focus on one idea or sentence at a time

We notice that we have a semicolon as an option in the multiple-choice, so we should definitely consider whether or not we have two independent clauses. We’ll focus on the two halves of the sentence (dividing it where they place the semicolon or colon) individually: “The cargo facility's waiting area was small” and “with only one attendant.”

3. Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence

The 3 components of a complete sentence are a verb, subject, and full expression of an idea.

The first half of the sentence has a subject (“waiting area”), verb (“was”), and full expression of an idea. The second half, though, has no verb! It's not a complete sentence (also known as an independent clause).

4. Write down whether it’s incomplete or complete

The first half is complete, but the second half is incomplete.

5. Identify appropriate punctuation and eliminate rule-breakers

We can use any of the following to join 2 complete sentences:

  • semicolon
  • period
  • comma + FANBOYS conjunction

But these options are off-limits if one half is incomplete!

This means that the correct answer is definitely not the semicolon, A. For connecting an independent clause and a dependent clause, a comma is perfect, so we'll choose choice B.


Download PrepMaven's Combining Sentences Worksheet

Now that you know the essential rules for combining sentences on the ACT and SAT, it’s time for some test-like practice!

Apply your new knowledge to the FREE practice questions in our Combining Sentences worksheet.

Combining Sentences_SAT and ACT Punctuation

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of what we discussed in this post
  • Guided examples of punctuation questions from official practice tests
  • 10 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.


ACT and SAT Punctuation_ Complete and Incomplete Sentences

ACT and SAT Punctuation 101: Complete and Incomplete Sentences

ACT and SAT Punctuation 101: Complete and Incomplete Sentences

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Identifying Complete and Incomplete Sentences Worksheet

Punctuation is the most heavily tested English grammar concept on the ACT and SAT. The good news is that ACT and SAT punctuation rules are limited. 

In fact, understanding SAT and ACT punctuation largely has to do with one skill: knowing how to identify complete and incomplete sentences.

This post will teach you how to identify complete and incomplete sentences in any context. 

We strongly encourage students to read this post before learning the punctuation for combining these sentences.

You’ll also get access to our free Complete and Incomplete Sentences worksheet, which includes additional practice questions. Grab it below before we get started.

Here's what we cover in this post:


ACT and SAT Punctuation Questions: Where You'll See Them

As we've discussed in other posts, the ACT and SAT are very different tests. All U.S. colleges and universities accept either ACT scores or SAT scores from applicants, without preference.

That being said, we encourage our students to prep for the test that's most likely to give them their highest score. If you're unsure which test is best for you, ask yourself these five questions now.

Punctuation Questions on the ACT and SAT

Regardless of which test is right for you, you'll definitely need to know how to use certain kinds of punctuation in various contexts. You'll find punctuation questions on these sections of each test:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Writing & Language

However, knowledge of appropriate punctuation can be helpful on the optional essay portion of either test.

Essay readers are interested in your ability to connect ideas logically on the page and use standard English conventions appropriately. Effective punctuation usage can definitely help you closer to a higher essay score.

How many punctuation questions can you expect to see on the ACT and the SAT?

Based on our analysis of officially released ACT and SAT practice tests, we've crafted a breakdown here:

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.

How will you know that you're encountering an ACT or SAT punctuation question? Easy!

You'll typically see different kinds of punctuation in the answer choices. At the very least, you'll generally see punctuation (like commas) in different places in the selected word or phrase.

Here's a sample punctuation question from an SAT Writing & Language section:

SAT Punctuation Question
Source: College Board Official SAT Practice Test 1

Notice how the answer choices to this question include a semicolon, colon, and various commas. That's a sure sign that you're dealing with an SAT punctuation question!


Complete Sentences in a Nutshell

Remember: the list of punctuation rules you need to know for the SAT or ACT is finite. Before we can get to that list, however, it's important to understand complete and incomplete sentences.

Let's start with complete sentences, as these are often easier for students to recognize.

Complete sentences are technically called independent clauses, but we'll do our best to keep grammar jargon out of this post.

A complete sentence must have the following three things:

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

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

ACT and SAT Punctuation_ Complete Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

I understand.

She couldn't go.

David waited.

This discussion of complete sentences is best paired with one about incomplete sentences. We'll talk about those now.


Incomplete Sentences in a Nutshell

Basically, if a sentence lacks one or more of the following things, it's an incomplete sentence (or dependent clause):

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

Here's an example of a trademark incomplete sentence:

Although I intended to take the ACT twice

Notice how this sentence still has a subject ("I") and a verb ("intended"). However, the sentence does not express a full idea. In fact, it leaves us hanging! We know this person intended to take the ACT twice, but the rest of the story is missing.

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

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

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

Here are additional examples of incomplete sentences:

The long-awaited decision to appeal

While the rest of the class worked on the exam

Horses running through the field on a cloudy day


Identifying Complete and Incomplete Sentences

On the SAT and ACT, it can be challenging to identify complete and incomplete sentences.

Both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language contain dense, boring passages full of detailed sentences. It can be hard to wade through this extra verbiage and determine what kind of sentence you're dealing with!

That's why we encourage students to keep these tips in mind when dealing with ACT and SAT punctuation questions:

  1. Read the full context
  2. Focus on one idea or sentence at a time
  3. Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence
  4. Write down whether it's incomplete or complete

Let's apply these tips to a sample punctuation question now from an officially released SAT practice test:

Complete Sentences

Read the full context

It's always essential to read the full context on any ACT English or SAT Writing & Language question. That means reading the full sentence expressed here, starting with "But Jason Box" and ending with "problem."

Focus on one idea or sentence at a time

In this question, we can see that the punctuation in the answer choices separates two thoughts: "But Jason Box, an associate professor of geology at Ohio State, believes that another factor added to the early thaw" and "the "dark snow" problem."

Incomplete and Complete Sentences_SAT

Let's focus on one of these ideas at a time, to make things easy.

Look for the 3 components of a complete sentence

In analyzing "the "dark snow" problem," we find a subject (problem) but no verb or complete expression of an idea. This is an incomplete sentence!

If we take a look at "But Jason Box, an associate professor of geology at Ohio State, believes that another factor added to the early thaw" we find a subject (Jason Box), a verb (believes), and a complete expression of an idea. This is a complete sentence!

Write down whether it's incomplete or complete

You can do this by writing an "I" or a "C" above the relevant sentences.

Incomplete and Complete Sentences_SAT


Download PrepMaven's Complete & Incomplete Sentences Worksheet

Remember: most punctuation questions on the ACT/SAT come down to your ability to distinguish complete and incomplete sentences. 

Students should thus boost their fluency in identifying these sentences before they start learning the punctuation rules for combining these sentences.

You can do exactly this with our free Complete and Incomplete Sentences worksheet.

Complete and Incomplete Sentences on the SAT:ACT

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of what we discussed in this post
  • Guided examples of punctuation questions from official practice tests
  • 20+ practice questions that test your ability to identify complete and incomplete sentences
  • Detailed answers/explanations 


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBioKate

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_ Verbs

Verbs on the SAT and ACT: The 2 Rules You Need to Know

Verbs on the SAT and ACT: The 2 Rules You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Verbs Worksheet with FREE Practice Questions

Verbs are the second most heavily-tested grammar concept on the ACT and SAT.

This makes sense--we use verbs all the time in both conversation and writing! What's more, verbs are an essential component of complete sentences, which have a lot to do with how we use punctuation in the English language.

As simple and useful as they may seem, however, verbs can appear in unfamiliar and challenging ways on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language.

To succeed on ACT and SAT Verbs questions, it's essential to know 2 verbs usage rules and apply a key strategy.

In this post, we discuss both.

We also give you access to our free verbs worksheet, which includes additional guided examples, practice questions, and more. Grab it below.

Here's what we cover in this post:


Where You'll Find Verbs Questions on Either Test

Both the SAT and ACT directly test students' knowledge of English conventions on the following 2 sections:

  • ACT English
  • SAT Writing & Language

Students can thus expect to find Verbs questions on either of these sections.

While the number of Verbs questions you'll find on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language aren't set in stone, we've analyzed data from officially released SAT and ACT practice tests and come up with the following estimates of Verbs questions on each test:

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

Keep in mind that ACT English has nearly twice as many questions as SAT Writing & Language, with 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes. SAT Writing & Language only has 44 questions, to be completed in 35 minutes.

Knowledge of verbs can help out students on another section of the test: the optional essay portion.

While the ACT/SAT essay doesn't directly test your ability to use verbs correctly, essay graders do assess each student's ability to use proper English conventions. Proficiency in proper punctuation, verbs usage, and transition words can be beneficial for a higher ACT/SAT essay score.

How do you know you're dealing with a Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language?

In general, you'll see different tenses and forms of verbs in the answer choices, as in this example from an SAT practice test (#1):

ACT/SAT Grammar Rules_Verbs_Example

We'll use this question in the guided example portion of this post.


Verbs in a Nutshell

What is a verb?

A verb is a word in the English language that expresses action, occurrence, or state of being. Verbs are an essential component of clauses, a string of words that includes a subject and a verb.

ACT and SAT Grammar Rules_ Verbs (1)

Verbs are also an essential component of complete sentences, which require a subject, a verb, and the complete expression of an idea. 

Each verb also comes in a variety of tenses and forms, depending on its usage.

  • Verb tense: the 'time zone' of a verb, indicating when this action, occurrence, or state of being is happening
  • Verb form: changes depending upon the subject of the verb

For the purposes of the SAT and ACT, you will not have to memorize every single verb tense for every single verb you know! In general, however, it's wise to be familiar with the following frequently tested tenses:

  • past (indicating an occurrence that has already happened) --> I studied.
  • present (indicating an occurrence that is happening now) --> I study.
  • future (indicating an occurrence that will happen) --> I will study.

It's also essential to be familiar with how verbs change their form depending on the subject with which they are associated. We call this subject-verb agreement, which we discuss at length in the next section.


The 2 Verbs Usage Rules You Need to Know

ACT English and SAT Writing & Language are only interested in students' familiarity with the following 2 concepts:

  • Verb tense
  • Subject-verb agreement

That's all! We'll discuss the 2 verbs usage rules associated with these concepts now.

Rule #1: Verb tense must remain consistent

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

That 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 Writing & Language!

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.

Here are some examples of those verb tense clues:

  • 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. 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.

Here's a table that contains sample English verbs in plural and singular form (tenses vary). Notice how, in general, singular verbs often end in an s (although this does not apply to every tense), while plural verbs do not end in an s.

Plural Verbs Singular Verbs
are is
were was
have has
want wants
speak speaks
teach teaches
pursue pursues
cultivate cultivates
say says
believe believes

Now, our ears are pretty good at "hearing" when 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."

Other Tips

There are a few other considerations to keep in mind as you prepare to tackle Verbs questions on both the ACT and the SAT.

Be concise

Both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language care about your ability to write concisely. This means using as few words as possible to make a point or express an idea.

Because of this, in general, long verb phrases like I would have been studying or They will be studying are very rarely correct. The same goes for verbs ending in -ing (studying, walking, breathing). Prioritize the shortest verb choice in your elimination strategy.

Ask yourself: is this the most concise way to express this idea?

Be active

It is possible to craft sentences in active voice or passive voice. We won't go too far into this concept in this post, but it's important to note that both the ACT and the SAT reward students who think in active voice.

Active voice constructions tend to be more concise than passive voice constructions. They use fewer words and they have the added benefit of, well, sounding much more active than their passive voice alternative!

Here are some examples that prove this point:

  • Active voiceMary delivered the textbooks to her friend on Tuesday.
  • Passive voiceThe textbooks were delivered by Mary to her friend on Tuesday.

Notice how the passive voice construction here uses more words and makes the direct object (textbooks) the subject, as opposed to Mary, who is the one delivering those books. Active voice constructions make the actual subject the focus of the sentence, and often result in a simpler verb or verb phrase.

When navigating Verbs questions on the SAT or ACT, be on the lookout for active voice. This will often mean prioritizing the most concise expression.

Watch out for "being"

If you see the word being in the answer choices, it is likely incorrect. It is very difficult to use this specific verb in a way that is both concise and active!

Get rid of excess words

The SAT and ACT love cramming in a bunch of words between a subject and a verb, to make it all the more confusing for a student to identify the appropriate subject and test for agreement.

Here's a good example of that:

The committee's decision to allocate extensive funds to water treatment strategies was significant.

In this sentence, the subject is decision and the verb is was. Notice how many words appear between these two parts of speech, however, making it fairly difficult to identify the appropriate noun.

It can be helpful here to cross off this excess verbiage to make things more clear:

The committee's decision to allocate extensive funds to water treatment strategies was significant. 


Verbs Questions Strategy

We have a very simple, memorable strategy students can use when approaching a Verbs question on ACT English or SAT Writing & Language.

When you see a Verbs question, follow these 4 steps:

  1. Identify the tense of the surrounding context
  2. Identify the noun of the verb in question, if necessary
  3. Eliminate rule-breakers
  4. Plug in your final choice

It is possible to encounter Verbs questions that strictly concern tense or only focus on agreement. However, it is very common for either test to incorporate both concepts in one question!

That's why we encourage students to check for both tense and agreement on every Verbs question they encounter.

We'll apply this 4-step strategy to 2 example questions from officially released practice tests in the next section.

You’ll also be able to apply this strategy to the 10 practice questions in our free Verbs worksheet!


Verbs Questions: Guided Examples

We've already mentioned this first example question, in the first section of this post. This is taken from the CollegeBoard's Official SAT Practice Test #1. Find all 10 of the CollegeBoard's officially released SAT practice tests here.

Guided Example #1: SAT Verbs Question

ACT/SAT Grammar Rules_Verbs_Example SAT Verbs Question_ACT and SAT Grammar Rules

Identify the tense of the surrounding context

We can tell that this is a Verbs question because the answer choices contain different tenses and forms of the verb contain. When we read for full context, we find 2 simple present tense verbs: consider and is.

We also see that this underlined portion is part of a list, which means that we should follow parallel structure, a concept we discuss further in our 3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the SAT and ACT post.

Identify the noun of the verb in question, if necessary

We are discussing Greek yogurt here, referred to as "it" in context. This is a singular noun.

Eliminate rule-breakers

We can eliminate any answer choices that are not in present tense: D, which is in the future tense (will contain). We can also cross off B, an -ing verb, as the verb tense in context is in simple present, not present participle form (the fancy name for an -ing verb).

Parallel structure means that we have to maintain consistency with the verb forms in this list, meaning that the additional it in answer choice A is unnecessary. We can eliminate A.

Plug in your final choice

Here's what our sentence sounds like with C as the proper choice: Nutritionists consider Greek yogurt to be a healthy food: it is an excellent source of calcium and protein, serves as a digestive aid, and contains few calories in its unsweetened low- and non-fat forms. Great!


Download PrepMaven's Verbs on the ACT/SAT Worksheet

Now you’re primed for additional Verbs practice, which you can get right now for free with our Verbs Worksheet!

Verbs on the SAT/ACT

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

  • A recap of the 2 Verbs rules and strategy we discussed in this post
  • 2 more guided examples of questions from official practice tests
  • 10 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.


Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules_PrepMaven

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

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

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

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

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

But this doesn't mean you should overlook them!

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

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

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

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

Here's what we discuss in this post:

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

3 Rarely Tested Grammar Rules on the ACT/SAT

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

  • Modifiers
  • Idioms
  • Parallelism

Rule #1: Modifiers must be placed correctly.

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

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

walking down the street

bespectacled and grimacing

associated with ancient tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • prepositional phrases
  • homonyms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guided Examples: Rarely Tested SAT and ACT Grammar Rules

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

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

Guided Example #1: Modifiers

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

Modifiers Questions on the SAT and ACT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guided Example #2: Idioms

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

Idioms Questions on the SAT

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

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

This is how the corrected sentence would read:

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

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

Download Our Rarely Tested Grammar Rules Worksheet

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

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

With this worksheet, you’ll get: 

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


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

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.


Essential Grammar Rules for High School Students

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

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

Bonus: PrepMaven's ACT & SAT Grammar Workbook (100+ Practice Questions)

Proper grammar is the foundation of strong writing. 

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

Given that high schoolers have to apply knowledge of grammar rules to the SAT and ACT and need proficiency in certain rules to succeed in college, we’re also including our SAT/ACT Grammar Workbook as a free bonus for you.

You can get that workbook and 100+ practice questions here:

Here’s what we cover:

  1. 14 Essential Grammar Rules
  2. SAT/ACT Grammar Workbook

14 Grammar Rules You Need to Succeed

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

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

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

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

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

A complete sentence must have the following three things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I understand.

She couldn't go.

David waited.

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

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

Here's an example of a trademark dependent clause:

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

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

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

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

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

Here are additional examples of incomplete sentences:

The long-awaited decision to appeal

While the rest of the class worked on the exam

Horses running through the field on a cloudy day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a look at this example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In 1938

On the other hand

Beneath the sofa 

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

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

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

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


DID YOU KNOW? We cover the test prep version of these essential grammar rules in our free workbook,  which you can grab below.


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

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

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

Check out these examples of singular noun possession:

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

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

Here are some examples of plural noun possession:

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

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

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

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

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

  • Moses' leadership
  • Jesus' teachings

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what that generally breaks down to:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule #11: Modifiers must be placed correctly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rule #13: Who vs. Whom

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

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

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

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

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


Rule #14: Lay vs. Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAT/ACT Grammar Workbook

You've just learned 14 important grammar rules. What happens now?

Work through our individual blog posts for deeper coverage 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:

  • Reference our 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


5 Sample College Essay Formats_PrepMaven

5 Ways to Structure Your College Essay

5 Ways to Structure Your College Essay

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays That Worked

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also give you access to 30 free college essays that worked--that is, they earned their writers Ivy League acceptance! Grab these below.

Here's what we cover:


The College Essay Structure: 5 Sample Structures

This list of sample college essay structures is by no means comprehensive. But the majority of the essays we see do fit these molds, and often successfully.

1. The Setback

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

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

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

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Setback (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Thesis

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

This is an ideal structure to use if your essay describes

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

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

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Compare & Contrast

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

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

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

Choosing Your College Essay Format_Compare and Contrast

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

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

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

4. The Discovery Structure

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

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

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

Here's what the Discovery structure generally looks like:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Discovery Format

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

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

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

5. The Evolution Essay

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

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

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

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Evolution Format

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

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

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

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


Your College Essay Structure: Next Steps

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

It's also helpful to look at examples of successful essays and pay attention to the structures that they follow. But these examples can be hard to find, and few and far between.

That's why we compiled 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. You can download these examples for FREE below.


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. 


How to Choose That Winning College Essay Topic_PrepMaven

6 Tips for Choosing That Winning College Essay Topic

6 Tips for Choosing That Winning College Essay Topic

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what we cover:


A Winning College Essay Topic Defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


6 Tips for Choosing the Right Topic

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

1. Identify supplemental essay prompts (if applicable)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Put a star next to lucrative topics

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

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

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

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

3. Consider the rest of your application

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

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

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

4. Identify what excites you

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

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

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

5. Think about storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Consider unconventionality

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

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.