Does your English score on the SAT or ACT need some help? Keep reading for some actionable advice that will help you earn a score you can be proud of. (In case you were wondering, it’s absolutely okay that I ended the previous sentence with a preposition.)
Which of the following options is most consistent with standard English conventions?
Although she didn’t feel good on the day of the test, Alexandria still did very well.
A) No Change
B) well on the day of the test, Alexandria still did very well.
C) good on the day of the test, Alexandria still did very good.
D) well on the day of the test, Alexandria still did very good.
Trust your instincts, but follow the rules
The English section of the ACT and the Writing and Language section of the SAT both contain multiple choice questions very similar to the one above. If you’ve been hearing, speaking, reading, and writing English for most of your life, you probably didn’t have any trouble determining that B is the correct answer, even if you can’t explain exactly why you know that. Those of us whose first language is English can usually do quite well on this test just by using our instincts.
But here is the question on most of my students’ minds: if they can get a good score by trusting their instincts, what do they need to do to get an excellent score? The answer is that I can’t give you better instincts, but I can teach you the grammar rules behind why each of these options is right or wrong. In the case of the question above, you need to know that good is an adjective (which is used to modify a noun) and well is an adverb (which is used to modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb.) Feel and did are both verbs, so they both need to be modified by well. (For more on good vs. well, check out Grammar Girl’s Myth #3.)
The English language has thousands of grammar rules for you to learn; fortunately, the SAT and ACT are quite predictable as to which rules they deem the most important. The following is my list of the 10 most important grammar rules to learn for the English section on the SAT and ACT. Since these tests have more questions on punctuation than any other topic, the first several rules are in that category.
Top 10 Grammar Rules for the SAT and ACT
- Use a comma and conjunction between two independent clauses. Ex: Harry got to work at eight in the morning, but he didn’t leave until almost midnight.
- Use a comma but no conjunction after an introductory word, phrase, or dependent clause. Ex: Although she loves to read, Ellie procrastinated when it came to starting the book assigned by her teacher.
- Use a pair of commas, which I like to call a comma hug, around non-essential information. (See what I did there?)
- Only use a semicolon where you could also use a period. Ex: Sarah was feeling tired this morning; she decided to take a nap in the afternoon.
- Like a semicolon, a colon should only be placed after an independent clause. The difference is that you can have a phrase, list, or even a single word after the colon. Ex: The following is a list of my favorite movies: The Three Amigos, Spaceballs, and The Pink Panther.
- Lists and comparisons need to be written in parallel form. That is, the first item will set a grammatical pattern which the other items will need to follow. Ex: This summer Ellen plans to go swimming, hiking, and parasailing. -or- This summer Ellen plans to swim, hike, and parasail.
- Test verbs by finding their subjects and checking that they are either both singular or both plural. Ex: The boy plays at the park, but the boys play at the park.
- Test a pronoun by making sure it agrees with its antecedent. Ex: This is David’s favorite book because his grandmother gave it to him. (His and him agree with David and it agrees with book.)
- Avoid redundancy. Ex: We have an annual family reunion every year. (Include annual or every year, but not both.)
- Pay close attention to the difference between its (belongs to it) and it’s (it is) and the difference between your (belongs to you) and you’re (you are).
If you have an SAT or ACT in your future, put this advice into action by taking a practice test. Once you’re done, grade it yourself or send your answer sheet to a tutor like me for a comprehensive score report. Analyze every question you missed and try to identify the grammatical errors in each of the three wrong answer choices, especially the one you incorrectly selected. Think like a computer when you’re doing this. That is, look for very clear technical reasons why the answers are correct and incorrect rather than settling for what option “sounds” the best. If you want even more practice, I suggest checking out the free website NoRedInk.com.
To recap, my best advice is (1) trust your instincts when there’s an obvious answer, (2) learn the grammar rules that are commonly found on the SAT and ACT, (3) take a practice test, and (4) analyze your errors. Combine all this with some hard work and a positive attitude, and not only will you see your test scores climb, but you’ll also become a better writer.
What tips would you add to my list? Post them in the comments below.
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