ACT and SAT down to a T

In the light of the recent overhauling of the SAT, our post to ACT or to SAT made it clear that the ACT deserves to be taken seriously. Colleges accept both indifferently, but for us at Essai the ACT is definitely the way ahead. The present post is a follow-up in which we will get into the nitty gritty of things and give concrete examples of what separates the SAT and the ACT. 

SAT has only 7 practice tests

By far the most significant factor that makes us firm believers in the ACT is the scarcity of reliable practise material for the new SAT. There are only seven official practise papers published by the CollegeBoard. The bulk of the practice materials are imitations of the real test. But since nobody really knows what the new test is like, it's impossible to know how accurate its imitations will be. 

Students need more than 7 practice tests

A lot of practise material is necessary because students will be expected to take the test at least twice to cross the crucial college readiness mark. Each attempt requires at least ten papers. In the case of the new SAT, the available material will be exhausted after the first attempt. So, precisely at the most crucial moment, students will have to prepare with material that only imperfectly mimics the real test. From this point of view, the new SAT is full of what students, parents, and teachers want least: unknowns. Score optimisation is a process of fine tuning to the very particular demands of a standardised test. The problem is that at the moment the practise materials for the new SAT are by no means standardised, which renders the entire undertaking of practicing for it futile.

ACT has 50 practice tests

As far as the ACT practice materials are concerned, there's enough for as many attempts as students might wish: fifty real papersThis means students are able to gradually learn to deal with exactly the difficulties they will have to tackle in the real test. Each test is a real test; there are no imitations. Furthermore, tutors can rest assured that what they teach is really going to help students when they take the test. This gives both student and teacher a clear goal, which is the foundation of all motivation: reward will be commensurate with effort.

SAT becomes more like the ACT

One significant fact is frequently overlooked by people who are facing the ‘to ACT or to SAT’ conundrum: the SAT has partly been remodelled to become more like the ACT. The English Grammar section in particular has been totally changed from the older format and now looks much like that of the ACT. It is no longer a collection of unconnected snippets littered with faulty comparisons and other tricky traps but a running text mainly focussing on basic applied grammar. The ACT definitely has to have some virtues in order to have been chosen as the model for the remodelling of the SAT.

ACT is faster but less tricky

The main difference between the ACT and SAT is speed. The ACT is slightly faster paced, but it is also, question for question, the easier test. The good news is that speed can be trained. As students get used to the different types of questions, they will speed up. In contrast, many of the skills the new SAT tests are very difficult to categorise and train, and therefor also only very difficult to learn.

SAT reading 

The one section that is particularly tough in the SAT is the reading. The questions are not necessarily much more difficult than the difficult ACT questions; the problem is the sheer amount of questions that really test a student's ability to read critically. There are nearly no straightforward questions, no freebies; each question is a challenge. By including so called evidence based reading, the new SAT has become even more challenging. In questions like these, students will not only need to find the right answer, but also the right justification for the answer in the subsequent question. Obviously, if the answer is wrong in the first place, the evidence will also be wrong. A test contains about 8 of these linked questions (16 in total, i.e. nearly a third of the entire questions), which means that getting a really high score is contingent on not getting too many of the initial questions wrong. This, in addition to the high average level of difficulty of the questions, makes the new SAT very tricky to master if you are not a very experienced reader.

ACT reading

The ACT is much more straightforward. The questions are mostly simple reading questions requiring the student to effectively navigate the text and find items or express the main idea of a passage, which is not very difficult with a bit of help from an experienced teacher. Moreover, the few tougher types of questions are in general more teachable since they are more classifiable than those of the SAT. No one who has experience with both the ACT and SAT would deny that all in all the ACT is considerably more teachable and predictable. 

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This represents a question typical of the new SAT. Even if the ACT has questions that are roughly similar in what they ask about, the options are much less abstract than here. The new SAT really expects the student to synthesise the paragraph into its most basic constituents, and this is very tough, especially when the test does this again and again with each new passage. To answer this kind of question with confidence one has to be a very good reader, and one becomes a good reader only by constant practise over years. Since most of the students we teach, are not usually experienced readers, we can only very imperfectly help them to get better at the new SAT.

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This the same type of question (about the paragraph main point) but from the ACT. You can see that the options require much less abstraction. They are all literal; you just have to find which one matches the focus of the passage. Solving questions like these just requires guidance by a teacher, not years of reading experience. 

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These questions are all from the same ACT reading section. They have been selected here to show how much of the ACT focuses on basic rather than on critical reading skills. These questions all start with either 'according to the passage' or 'based on the passage'. This means the student just has to locate material in the passage. This is one of the most important skills in the ACT: find information quickly - a bit like a find Waldo with words. This is a skill tutors can be confident to teach students in a couple of months. While the SAT also has some of these more straightforward questions, there will be only a handful per test, never four in one passage. This is what we mean when we say that, question for question, the ACT is more teachable than the SAT.

The essays

Although the SAT and ACT have in some respects become more similar, the essay certainly is something that sets them apart. The ACT essay is a typical high school level writing assignment where students are meant to pick and write about one of three perspectives on a theme. It can be taught effectively as part of the curriculum and doesn’t require preceding experience in structuring a written argument on the students’ side.

The essay of the new SAT, on the other hand, has a distinctively more college oriented drift. It asks students to analyse a piece of writing in terms of how it structures its argument. It essentially is an exercise in literary criticism, which is very difficult for students who are not used to judge a piece of writing in an objective way. Most colleges ask for an essay score, so the writing assignment of either the ACT or the SAT is not really optional for students who want to make the most of their chances to get into a good college. Our teaching experience has shown us that students have a considerably higher chance to get a good score in the ACT essay. We therefore warmly recommend students to opt in favour of the ACT to maximise their chances in the very competitive process of US college applications.

To SAT or to ACT?

What's going on with the SAT?

To the great confusion of teachers, students, parents, and colleges alike, the SAT has changed its format. It’s not the first time the SAT is throwing a curve ball at college applicants and their already sufficiently nervous parents. Originally, the SAT was scored out of 1600 points, then out of 2400 points, and now it’s back to a 1600 point format. But in the process of going back to the original scoring, the test has been radically revamped and has very little in common with the original 1600 point SAT, its tricky analogies, and its vocabulary section even the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary would have trouble getting through unscathed.

Enter the ACT

As a result, the ACT has come more into the limelight of the college application process. The ACT has been around for nearly as long as the SAT – and has always been scored in 36 straightforward points – but, in India at least, there has been a marked preference for the SAT. Now that parents and students are for the first time seriously considering the ACT, they are understandably unsure whether the ACT can be trusted. We at Essai are big believers in the virtues of the ACT, and we’d like to share with you what has given us the conviction that, in the present state of affairs, there is really no way the SAT has the edge over the ACT.

For colleges ACT = SAT

First of all, colleges do not discriminate against the ACT, so there's not inherent advantage in taking the SAT rather than the ACT if the ACT might give you better chances of coming out on top of the challenging US college application process. On the face of it, both tests are equal. 

On Yale's website you can read:

Columbia says much the same.

The University of Chicago is even more unambiguous about not favouring either the ACT or the SAT.

But at the moment there are, in fact, a number of advantages to taking the ACT – advantages with four direct beneficiaries: the student, the parents, the tutors, and the colleges. 

What's a new 1450 or 1500 is really worth?

Although the colleges obviously accept the new SAT, no one really knows much about how meaningful the score is to colleges in terms of offering a clear picture of a particular student’s capabilities and a means to compare them with thousands of other applicants. It takes years to establish a reliable average score in standardised tests, and at the moment colleges have just one year's worth of SAT data. We all know that colleges are interested in research, but you should rather contribute to it as a student than as an applicant. At the moment any one taking the SAT is actually testing a test. You should rather test yourself, so colleges know who you are and what you are able to do.

There's no mystery to what a ACT 33 or 34 is worth

The ACT score, on the other hand, is a long established trademark with decades of data that yield a highly reliable average score, so we as tutors and you as parents and students know exactly what a given score will mean to a college. This is why we, after years of teaching the SAT, are now exclusively offering tuition for the ACT. Times change; habits need to keep up. As SAT tutors, the SAT has been our habit. We have invested a large amount of time and effort to optimise our ways to teach it. So we, of all people, would be the first to stick with the SAT if it made any sense, but at the moment it's just not an option. So we invite you to change your habits with us to make the most of the prospect of a college education in the US by taking the ACT.

ACT 68G - ENGLISH QUESTION 33: FIND THE RELEVANT WORD

Questions asking you about the 'most logical' or 'most relevant' option can be quite tricky (or at least confusing enough to make you waste time on them). In the pure grammar questions you can follow reliable rules. So are there such rules for the so called rhetoric questions?

Yes, there are. When students go wrong or get confused, they stop focussing on what the test really tests them on: words and the way words are used to convey ideas. 

The most important rule with these questions is: always stick to the words. There is nothing in the ACT English that cannot be solved with words.

Let's have a look at the question. It wants you to create a effective transition to the rest of the paragraph. So your first job is to find the main point of the remaining part of the paragraph. 

This leads us to another important rule: always exactly do what the question asks you about. If it asks you to create a connection with some other part of the text, you first have to understand what that part is essentially about. 

So, what is the main point of the rest of the paragraph? Look for the important word.

Here the important word is 'reason'. The rest of the paragraph looks at various reasons for having a pen name. 

Now you just have to match this word with a word in one of the options.

What's the word? It gets quite easy at this point. There is only one word that connects to the word 'reason': the word 'why' in option C. Only this option is looking for a reason

So you see; there are rules that can help you to solve this kind of question methodically and without having recourse to following your gut feeling. 

 

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ACT 68G - ENGLISH QUESTION 25: DASHES ALWAYS STICK TOGETHER

In a test like the ACT, time is everything. Getting a really good score depends on not wasting any time on easy questions. This will give you very valuable extra time on the really tough questions.

So if you can solve a question in literally five seconds, this will go a long way to improve your score. Luckily, there are questions like these!

Question 25 here is a typical example. The question only checks you on one very basic punctuation rule: dash always goes with dash.

The inserted phrase starts with a dash, so it needs to finish with a dash. If you know this, it will take you absolutely no time to pick the right option, and you will bank very valuable time for some tricky rhetoric question ahead. 

 

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ACT 68G - ENGLISH QUESTION 19: THE LOGIC OF WORDS

Here we are discussing question 19 at the bottom of the picture above. 

This kind of ACT English question can be quite tough. All the more important to know how to tackle it. The trick is always to do exactly what the question asks. So, what does the question ask? What does it want you to do?

The question asks you to find what best goes together with the first part of the sentence. First thing to do: find the main point of the first part of the sentence. What is it? He is quite nervous

Now we just need to find the option that contains the best explanation for his nervousness. One important condition: it has to be a literal explanation. The explanation needs to be contained in the words of the option. The reason why many students go wrong on this kind of question is that they thing that some of the options could imply the right answer. But these are not questions that ask you to make any deductions; it is pure and simply about the words. Each option contains five or six words, so finding the right option is really not that tough if you go about it correctly.

C and D do not contain any words that could help to explain why he is nervous. By implication they could explain his nervousness; i.e. he is nervous because he does not know the United States, or because he does not know his parents. But this is not what the question is about.

It is really between A and B. So, what does it really mean to be nervous? When do you get nervous? When you don't know something. When things are not sure. This makes it clear that A creates the most logical link with the previous part of the sentence. He does not remember, so he gets nervous. Missing his parents is not really the most logical connection. If B was the right option, the passage would need to contain something like 'I cannot wait to see them'; this would really logically connect with the word 'missing'. It is all about the words. Once you use the words, finding the right options comes naturally.

 

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WHAT IS A SEMICOLON?

There are a lot of semicolons hanging around in the options of the ACT English section. Students tend to get really scared about semicolons because it's commonly believed that the semicolon belongs to the realm of 'advanced' grammar, and that only a few specialists who know all the terribly 'complicated' rules applying to the use of this 'mysterious' punctuation mark.

This is very far from the truth. The semicolon is by far one of the easiest punctuation marks to use.

Especially in the ACT, the only function of the semicolon is to separate two independent clauses. As such, it stands instead of a full stop. The choice between full stop and semicolon mainly depends on how closely the two independent clauses are linked thematically. But this really belongs to the field of writing; the only thing you need to know for the ACT is that on both sides of a semicolon you need an independent clause. Not sure what an independent clause is? Read our post The Big Three In The ACT English - Part 2.

Let's have a look at two examples from the ACT test 70G. First, question 3.

When thinking about option B, the only thing you really need to look at is whether or not the punctuation mark is flanked by two independent clauses. If you are confused about the word 'clause', read our blog post Sentences, Clauses, and Phrases.

It is clear that there is no way 'Her statue of Sojourner Truth' is an independent clause: no verb = no clause. Job done; the semicolon is not the right option.

Next, let's have a look at question 55 in the same test. It also has a semicolon in the options.

The approach is again the same: find out whether or not the semicolon separates two independent clauses.

Are there two independent clauses on both sides of the punctuation mark? 'Harvey believed the term "waitress" implied servitude' certainly is an independent clause: it contains a conjugated verb (subject and verb in bold) and does not start with a subordinating conjunction. For the same reasons, 'his staff would offer gracious hospitality' is also an independent clause. The only right option is B. A is nonsense; C is a comma splice; and D just lacks basic punctuation. 

See, no need to be scared about the semicolon. 

 

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ACT 72F - English Question 52: the power of the article

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One thing should be immediately clear: this is an appositive question. 'Team leader' is in apposition with 'Riley Crane'.  If you don't known what an appositive is, you'll find all you need to know in our appositive post.

Knowing that this question is checking you on your understanding of appositives already eliminates two options. The only thing we try to understand when dealing with appositives is whether the appositive is essential or on-essential, i.e. whether or not it will need commas. Since the only choice we have is two commas or no commas, option H and J can easily be eliminated. You'll only seriously think about them if you don't know that this question is about appositives. Good proof that understanding what a question asks about is very powerful in simplifying the process of eliminating wrong options.

Now, is this appositive essential or not? The phrase 'team leader' might seem to exclude all other options and therefore make the following appositive non-essential. This impression is increased if we have a look at the previous sentence, where it is said that the team was from the MIT. So it appears to be clear that there can only be one team leader, and that there can be only one team meant here. But, in fact, the correct answer is G. The appositive here is essential. Why? This seems to go against the rules! 

No it doesn't. The reason is simple: there is no definite article. The absence of the article reduces the phrase's specificity and thus makes the appositive essential. In case the initial phrase was 'the team leader', the appositive would be non-essential. It would be clear that one grammatically very specific leader is meant (marked by the use of the definite article).

When dealing with appositive questions on the ACT English test, watch out for the definite article. Very general phrases like 'Italian writer' or 'Jazz trumpeter' will be followed by essential appositives. A general phrase, even if it might be quite specific in the context, can only be followed by a non-essential appositive if the phrase has a definite article. 

 

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ACT 72F - English Question 29: Don't fall into the modifier trap

This question is a modifier question. Modifier questions can be quite tricky if you are not familiar with one very important rule applying to the use of modifiers. 

First of all, what is a modifier? 

A modifier is a phrase that provides more information about the subject. Being a phrase, the modifier will not contain a conjugated verb (in that case it would be a clause). A common way to make a modifier is to start a phrase with a present or past participle.

With present participle: Falling like tufts of wool, the snow came down on Peter's field. With past participle: Encouraged by her initial success, Susan decided to continue playing poker.

If, as in the examples above, the modifier starts the sentence, it will be set off from the main clause by a comma. This is what makes question 29 really look like a modifier question. It just offers you different options for one and the same modifier position. Here it becomes very important to understand why one of those options is obviously correct. This all depends on a simple rule. 

The most important modifier rule is that when the modifier comes first, the subject needs to follow.

This means that if we switch around the subject in the example sentences above, the modifier will provide information about the wrong thing or person. Let's do this.

Falling like tufts of wool, Peter looked at the snow coming down on his field. Here we shifted the subject from the snow to Peter. Now it is no longer the snow that is falling like tufts of wool but Peter, which is obviously a bit strange - poor Peter. 

We can do the same thing with the second example by switching the subject from Susan to playing pokerEncouraged by her initial success, playing poker became one of Susan's favourite hobbies. In this sentence it is playing poker that is encouraged by her initial success. Again - if you known the rule - this is total balderdash.

Most of the ACT questions about modifiers check your understanding of this rule. So does question 29 above. 

Let's have a look at the options. C instantly stands out as being barely conform with correct English, so you can easily eliminate it. But if you don't know the modifier rule, all the remaining options might seem quite fine. But, in reality, the situation is very clear.

The first step to get more clarity is to find the subject, i.e. that about which the modifier gives more information. The subject is 'Santiago'. If you know the most important modifier rule, the solution now becomes very simple: you need to find the modifier that really modifies Santiago. What do the different modifiers tell us about Santiago?

Both A and D tell us that Santiago is a 'project', which is obviously nonsense; Santiago is a person who 'builds on' a project. This means that the only valid option is B. Here Santiago remains a person - someone 'building' on a project.

Modifier questions on the ACT English test will typically offer options where the same phrase is reworded alternately using nouns and participles. If you know this, they are pretty easy to spot. Never forget that all questions have a particular aim. All of them test you on a particular subject of grammar; none of them is random. If you understand the aim, you are already halfway there. 

 

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Six Easy Pieces

This is part of a blog series by Nicholas Henderson on the Do’s, Don’ts, and Dangers of the US college application process.

When it comes to applying to American universities, it is tempting to think that each college will consider the nuances, special circumstances, and unique complexity of each applicant’s character, history, and potential. They will see the real you. They will understand your specific strengths. They will generously understand your limitations.

This is false.

In reality, the application process is highly proscriptive, in which certain kinds of information are valued far more than others. The result is that each college will only get to know certain aspects of each applicant – aspects which reflect the institutional priorities of American colleges. It’s an imperfect system with many holes and pitfalls. But the upside is that knowing which information is important – and knowing how, where, and when to emphasize this information – will leave you a greater chance to communicate your individual message, meaning, and motivation. It’s a game, and like any game, you can win or you can lose: it all depends on knowing how to play by the rules.

What follows are the Six Easy Pieces of any US college application. This is all the data each college receives about any applicant, so take heed: your very future depends on it.

1.     School Grades. These are by far the most important metric for colleges, which will look for the rigor and relevance of your courses, as well as your informal rank (the first pool of candidates you’ll be compared against are other people from your school). The simple fact is that no amount of profile-building and ACT scores will offset poor grades. So study hard.

2.     Test Scores. It’s a sad truth that American colleges care about test scores. A lot. A few years ago, tier-one private colleges Emory and Claremont McKenna got in trouble for falsifying their student scores (pretending they were higher than they actually were); to this day, incoming student ACT/SAT score remain one of the biggest components of the all-important college rankings.

3.     Letters of Recommendation. You have the option to submit two academic LORs, one counselor/principal LOR, and up to two external LORs for each college. These are a great chance to showcase your strengths and explain your weaknesses, while corroborating the other aspects of your profile to create a unified and coherent whole.

4.     Activities List. On the Common Application portal, you’ll have the chance to submit short descriptions of ten activities, and it is important you have ten things to write about. This is meant to give the colleges a picture of what you’ve been doing outside the classroom since grade 9 (the way your school grades/LORs give colleges a picture of what you’ve been doing inside the classroom since grade 9). You’ll be asked to rank your activities in term of numbers of years committed, number of weeks per year involved, and number of hours per week engaged.

5.     Common Application Essay. This is the fun part of the application. The Common Application essay (650 words) is a chance to showcase your quirks and questions, your habits and hobbies, and your outlook and opinions. Most Indian students make two common mistakes: they brag too much (save that for the LORs!) or they stay too strictly biographical (save that for the Activities List!). Great Common Application Essays are risky, bold, provocative, and memorable. Above all, they are personal, and they are real.

6.     Supplemental Essays. This is the challenging part of the application. Almost every college will ask you to write a few additional pieces, which invariably will require you to discuss “why do you want to come to this college?” and “why do you want to study your subject?” Being able to answer these by pointing to selected extracurricular and academic activities from your profile – in conjunction with sophisticated and specific discussion of intended college major – is the key to a compelling, coherent, and creative supplemental essay.

 

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The ACT's two most common comma traps

Punctuation questions are at the heart of the ACT English section. If you know what you're doing, they are quite straightforward. But they are full of traps, ready to catch the inattentive student. So it's a good thing to know where these traps are set most frequently.

The two most common traps are: 1. comma separating the subject and verb; 2. comma in front of a prepositional phrase.

Commas are meant to separate clauses or items in a list, so commas are totally meaningless in the two places above: subject and verb are the heart of any clause, so don't separate them; prepositional phrases can cluster without any punctuation since they don't affect the number of clauses - they just make clauses bigger and add information.

An example for trap number one would be: He, went home. 'He' is the subject doing the verb 'went'. This duo is at the heart of any clause. The two should never be separated.

An example for trap number two would be: He went, to school. The prepositional phrase 'to school' does not alter the number of clauses; it is an extension of the clause started by 'he went'.

This is by far the most common trap in the ACT English section. So watch out, and don't get tempted to put in a comma before such a phrase even if it reflects a pause you would make when speaking. 

 

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Appositive, are you essential or not?

There are a number of questions in the ACT English section that test your understanding of appositives. But what, exactly, is an appositive? To answer that, we first have to understand what the word 'apposition' means. 'Apposition' really just means 'putting something in close proximity with something else'.

In our case, these two 'somethings' would be a name and a phrase, i.e. a bunch of words. So the definition of an appositive is 'a bunch of words that is put next to a name in order to give additional information about the name'. It also works the other way around: an appositive is a name that is put into close proximity with a bunch of words in order to give additional information about the bunch of words.

To be more concrete, we could take the phrase 'the great English writer' and put it into apposition with the name 'William Shakespeare' to make provide more information about William Shakespeare. 

What can be tricky is to understand whether the appositive in question is essential or non-essential. The status of the appositive is important because it determines whether the appositive in question will need to be set off by commas or not. The general rule is: Only non-essential appositives need to be set off by commas. People get very confused about this. What's essential? What's non-essential? Is that not something subjective? So let's try to get some clarity right from the start. 

How do we determine whether an appositive is essential or not? In fact, it's quite easy. You just need to think whether the phrase that goes with the name excludes any other name. If it does, the appositive will be non-essential.

What does that exactly mean? That's where the confusion can start. But no need for that at all. Let's go back to the example about Shakespeare. What you need to ask yourself is: does the phrase 'the great English writer' exclude anyone else than Shakespeare? The answer is obviously no. There are many great English writers; Shakespeare is only of them, so the appositive offers vital clarification of a quite vague phrase. In other words, the appositive is essential.

How, you might ask, can we make 'William Shakespeare' an non-essential appositive? We simply need to find a phrase that is more narrow in scope. How can we narrow it down to good old William? A example would be to use the phrase 'the author of Hamlet'. There is only one author of Hamlet. There can be no other name in apposition than 'William Shakespeare'. Here, the name becomes non-essential. Used in a complete sentence, the correct punctuation would be 'the author of Hamlet, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon'. The name needs to be set off by commas.

It's important to understand that it does not matter whether you know who the author of Hamlet was. The only thing that matters is that the phrase obviously narrows down the possible options to just one (there can be only one author), making the appositive non-essential. 

Considering this concept of limitation, you always have to look out of superlatives (i.e. forms like best, greatest, etc.) since they automatically exclude any other option. If we were to start the sentence with 'the greatest Elizabethan playwright', the name 'William Shakespeare' would automatically come between commas.

The important fact is that it really doesn't matter whether you would agree with the statement that Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of the period. In the context of the sentence, there can be only one name since there can obviously be only one 'greatest'. In the sentence 'the greatest Elizabethan playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon' the name will therefore come between commas.

You can also replace the name and make the sentence 'the greatest Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, was murdered under mysterious circumstances'. The name still comes between commas; the appositive is still essential. Some people might disagree, but the appositive doesn't care. 

This leaves us with three rules of thumb:

1. If you go from unspecific phrase to name, the name will not need to be set off by commas.

The author (unspecific) William Shakespeare wrote great tragedies.

2. If a sentence starts with a name (i.e. the most specific thing there is) and then phrase (less specific than a name) give more information about the name, the phrase will be non-essential and therefore need to be set off by commas.

William Shakespeare (very specific), a prolific writer of plays (less specific), remains today a very mysterious character.

3. If a very specific bunch of words comes before a name, the name will come between commas.

The greatest of all English tragedies (very specific), Hamlet, was written sometime between 1599 and 1602.

 

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The big three in the ACT English - part 3

This post completes the set of three basic grammar skills. After this, you'll know exactly what to focus on when dealing with the ACT's grammar questions. The number of grammatically really important words is actually very small: subjects, conjugated verbs, and conjunctions. Confusion about grammar arises mainly if you don't know which words to look for when looking for the right answer. This post is all about eliminating words that make sentences look more complicated than they are.

The last basic skill is find the preposition and its prepositional phrase. This is important not mainly because prepositions are important, but because they don't really matter and just clutter sentences. If you lose your way in grammar, prepositional phrases will probably be the reason.

First of all, let's clear up a very common misunderstanding about prepositions: they are not called prepositions because they indicate position, but because they are prepositioned to other words (i.e. put in front) with which they form a prepositional phrase. The name preposition is purely a structural description; it tells you where these words stand, not what they mean or do.

There are indeed prepositions that indicate position (i.e. in, at, on, under, etc.), but some of the most common ones are very different: of, with, from, for, to, etc. 

So, by definition, prepositions can't be used on their own: they need something to lean against. They will always be part of a prepositional phrase, which is a bunch of words to which the preposition adds more precise meaning by creating a specific relationship with another word outside the phrase. Not complicated at all. Let's have a look at an example.

Let's take 'the car' and 'my father'. Just like that, we don't know anything about the relationship of these two. But if we add a preposition, the relationship becomes clear. E.g. the car of my father, or the car for my father. 'My father' has become part of a prepositional phrase that clarifies the relationship with 'the car'. The important thing to understand when thinking about grammar is that the words in the prepositional phrase will never really do anything in the sentence, nor is anything going to be done to them directly. In short, words in a prepositional phrase are neither going to be the object nor the subject of a sentence. 

So we know that 'my father' will not do anything in either of the examples above. If we complete the examples to a full sentence with a verb, the verb is never going to go with 'my father. E.g. the car of my father really needs servicing. Who needs servicing? Not the father, the car does. A full sentence for the second example would be 'I bought the car for my father'. Here a subject 'I' has been added, which agrees with the verb bought.

This fact becomes a vital skill when you are dealing with confusing long sentences, such as 'the team of players from the most prominent South American football nations at the International tournament in Spain were disqualified due to a doping scandal'.

This sentence contains a mistake in subject verb agreement, but it is made difficult to pick up on because of the long string of prepositional phrases: of players from the most prominent South American football nations at the International tournament in Spain. The basic sentence without prepositional clutter is 'the team were disqualified'. Were? No, obviously not; the verb needs to be was. Your ear might take the players to be the subject, which makes the sentence sound sort of ok if you are not attentive, but this is not possible: 'the players' is part of a prepositional phrase: of players. The players are grammatically not important; they are not doing anything. 

When combined, the three basic skills become a powerful tool to solve any ACT grammar questions with surgical precision. More importantly, these skills will also turn you into a better and confident writer who knows how to put together sentences that can cope with the scrutiny of any university professor. So, if you develop a good grasp of these three basic skills, you don't just learn something for your ACT English score but also for your academic career ahead and, ultimately, for life.

 

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The big three in the ACT English - Part 2

To really rock the any punctuation question of the ACT grammar section you need to know your dependent clauses from your independent clauses. That's not really hard, but frequently people do not focus on the right thing when trying to determine to which of the two types a clause belongs.

As a little recap from the last post, a clause is a unit of meaning that contains both a subject and a conjugated verb. So 'they run' is a clause. 

Now, is this clause dependent or not? Can it stand on its own, or does it need completion by another clause? The answer is yes, it can stand alone. You might want to say that 'they run' is not enough information to stand on its own - that we don't know who is 'they', or that we don't know where or why they run - but as a unit containing a subject and a verb that goes with it, it is a complete thought able to stand on its own.

The important thing to understand is that all clauses are born free and independent. What can make them dependent is the use of conjunctions. This is why conjunctions are extremely important words. Conjunctions are words that create joints between clauses and determine the type of clause at the beginning of which they stand.

Understanding this is important since it drastically reduces the number of words you focus on when determine the type of a clause: one; only the first word counts. If the clause does not begin with a conjunction, the clause will automatically be independent, as in the example 'they run'.

If a clause is headed by a conjunction, the clause can be either dependent or independent. 

When a clause is headed by one of the FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), the clause will always be independent. E.g. they run, but he doesn't. Both clauses are independent; the comma could easily be replaced by a full stop without any sense that something is left incomplete. As far as punctuation is concerned, it's important to remember that FANBOYS will always be preceded by a comma. So the formula to remember is CLAUSE COMMA FANBOYS CLAUSE.

A common mistake consists of doing the same thing but leaving out the FANBOYS. This is called a comma splice. Never pick an option that has the structure CLAUSE COMMA CLAUSE, the comma splice formula.

There is a another type of conjunction, called subordinating conjunction (Sub), which always makes the clause to which it is joined independent. Common Subs are after, when, because, if, although. 

Whenever a clause begins with one of these, an independent clause will need to follow in order to complete the thought. If I just say 'when they run', everyone is going to wait for me to finish the sentence - the thought is incomplete, the clause dependent - and say something like 'they get very hungry'. 

Now, for punctuation, the order in which dependent and independent clauses follow each other is key to deciding whether the two clauses need to be separated by a comma or not.

When a sentence opens with a dependent clause that is followed by an independent clause, the two will always need to be separated by a comma. Always follow the formula SUB CLAUSE COMMA CLAUSE. E.g. because they run, they are fit.

If the dependent clause comes second, no comma is needed. The formula is CLAUSE SUB CLAUSE. E.g. they are fit because they run.

So there are only a handful of formulas you need to know in order to totally rock any clause and punctuation question:

CLAUSE (INDEPENDENT)

CLAUSE COMMA FANBOYS CLAUSE (INDEPENDENT + INDEPENDENT)

CLAUSE COMMA CLAUSE !!! COMMA SPLICE: DON'T DO THAT

SUB CLAUSE COMMA CLAUSE (DEPENDENT + INDEPENDENT)

CLAUSE SUB CLAUSE (INDEPENDENT + DEPENDENT)

Determining the type of clause is really very easy. You only need to look out for the first word in the clause; that's all. That's the power of conjunctions. 

 

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The big three in the ACT English - part 1

When you deal with the English section of the ACT, there are three basic skills that can get you to make decisions fast and accurately. These are: 1. find the conjugated verb and identify its subject; 2. find and identify the conjunction; 3. find and identify the prepositional phrases. 

Whenever you struggle with a pure grammar question (i.e. not one where the test asks you to arrange sentences or something similar), these three basic skills will get you on the right track. They help you to focus on the right words and replace educated guesses by informed decisions. It's all about understanding that there are not that many grammatically important words in a sentence.

In this post we'll have a look at the first basic skill, which is the most important of them all: find the conjugated verb and identify its subject. In any question on punctuation or clauses (i.e. one that gives you options between forms such as walk, walking, or to walk), this will help you find the right option with speed and confidence.

The first thing you need to know is that verbs fall into two different categories depending on whether or not they are joined to a subject, i.e. someone or something doing the verb. When a verb form is directly linked to a subject it is called conjugated. 'I walk' and 'he walks' are conjugated forms. See how the form of the verb changes as it changes person from I (first person) to he (third person). Now, in English the change does not always show, i.e. walk can be a conjugated form with you, we, and they, but this should not prove too much of an obstacle in finding which verb form is directly done by the subject of a sentence. Since a clause contains always only one conjugated verb, and the number of clauses in a sentence has a lot to do with how many commas will be needed, finding the conjugated verb is a very important skill when dealing with punctuation questions.

What will go a long way in helping you identify the conjugated verb is a good knowledge of the other type of verb forms: the unconjugated forms. There are two different types of unconjugated forms: the infinitive and the participles.

The infinitive is the base form of the verb and usually always has a 'to' before it. See how when I say 'to walk' you would not be able to tell who is walking. The reason is simple: the form is not conjugated; it has no subject, so how should we know.

There are two different participles: present and past. The present participle is the form that always ends in -ing. I cannot say 'I walking'; the participle can only be used together with a conjugated form. 'I am walking' works because there is the conjugated form 'am' of the verb 'to be'. 

The past participles are forms like gone, done, swum, run. These, too, can never be used alone. You cannot say 'I gone' or 'she swum'. You need a conjugated verb: 'I have gone' and 'she has swum'. Note how the form of 'to have' changes from the first to the third person, proof that it is indeed conjugated, while the form 'gone' will never change, i.e. you can use it with 'I' (I have gone) and with 'she' (she has gone). 

 

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How to act on the Activities List

 

In the Activities List section of the Common Application, we are told: “Reporting activities can help a college better understand your life outside of the classroom. Your activities may include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits. Do you have any activities that you wish to report?”

The answer is yes: you wish to report all your activities.

The Activities List is one of the most important components of a US college application. Firstly, it gives colleges an idea of an applicant’s interests and achievements; secondly, it communicates an applicant’s more subtle – but important – skills like time management, multi-taking, and work ethic.

There is space for ten activities on the Activity List, which apply to any and all pursuits you have taken part in between Grades 9 and 12. School clubs? Music? Volunteering? Internships? Language-learning? All good. On the Activities List, itself, you’ll have the option to rank your activities and to list the number of years pursued, number of weeks per year practiced, and number of hours per week engaged. Always be as accurate as you can with these time-estimates, and don’t feel intimidated just because you haven’t been able to devote as much time to your less important activities: it is often these small peripheral engagements that result in the most interesting supplemental essays.

There is a common misconception that a ‘good’ activity will involve something high-level or prestigious. In fact, a ‘good’ activity is simply something an applicant has engaged in meaningfully over the course of years. An extended engagement such as this will, of course, result in increased opportunities to participate, which may lead to more selective experiences (such as a committed musician being invited to join a jazz band or a chess player gradually working her way through the ranks to compete at the State Championships), but these end-products are the result of continued extra-curricular engagement, not the goal.

A warning about the “shotgun approach”: more activities does not necessarily lead to a better or more compelling profile. There is very little value in engaging in extracurricular pursuits just to fill the Activities List; in truth, colleges are very good at seeing through this well-meaning deception. It’s important to follow a simple rule of thumb: never try to impress colleges. Don’t do things that ‘sound good’. Pursue your goals and hobbies with all your passion and resources, and you will ‘sound good’ – whether your passion is research, music, sports, or tiddlywinks.

 

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Sentences, clauses, and phrases

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These are three essential words for anyone who has something to do with grammar, especially for the ACT. But many people get very confused about them. What are they exactly, and how do we use them precisely?

The most important of the three is without doubt the clause. A clause is a unit of meaning built around a conjugated verb, i.e. a verb that is used together with a subject. 'Walking around in the park', for example, is not a clause. Who's walking in the park. Well, I couldn't tell; you couldn't either, and there's a good reason for it: there's no conjugated verb. That's the trick. Similarly, 'my uncle's big beautiful house at the end of the road' might contain quite a lot of words, but there is nothing going on. There is no verb. What's up with the house? Not clear at all. This is not a clause either. It´s not about quantity; it's all about the verb, and someone doing the verb. So, 'he walks' is a clause. We know who is doing what.

A sentence can contain just one clause followed by a  full stop. 'He walks' therefore is both a clause and a sentence. A sentence can also contain many clauses joined together, e.g. he comes home after he finished work, but his kids have not yet arrived. This sentence contains three clauses containing three conjugated verbs: comes, finished, have. So the sentence is a larger unit than the clause.

Finally, a phrase is just a bunch of words. Phrases come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There is the noun phrase. 'The car', 'my friend's really fast car', and 'the astonishingly realistic replica of the 1950s Chevrolet' all count as noun phrases. Making big subjects with a lot of information is one of the main jobs of the noun phrase. 

One of the most important types of phrases is the prepositional phrase. It helps putting in more information into a thought without opening a new clause. Prepositional phrases are for example: in the room, at the office, for my dad, etc. When things get complicated it's mostly because of clusters of prepositional phrases. Consider the sentence 'she managed an exciting project for her boss at the art fair in Delhi during the summer of 2016'. Most of this sentence is just a load of prepositional phrases. 

There is one other, less important but very interesting, type of phrase: the verb phrase. It consists of all the verb forms in a sentence and any added prepositions used together with the verb. The addition of prepositions to change the meaning of a verb is one of the great features of the English language. Consider, for example, the verb 'to tell'. On its own it just means 'to say something', but if you add the preposition 'off', it means to scold; as in the sentence 'dad again told me off for coming home late'. Verbs joined to prepositions are called phrasal verbs. 

If you ever get confused about clauses, phrases, and sentences, just look out for the conjugated verb. Is something happening or not? How many actions are happening? Sentences can contain an infinite number of conjugated verbs. Clauses always contain only one. Phrases do not necessarily contain a conjugated verb.

 

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Oh comma, my comma

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The ACT is full of questions concerning the necessity and placement of commas. It wants to know whether you are aware that commas are not about pauses but about clauses. If, a, comma, was, just, about, pauses, then, we, could, put, them, anywhere. A pause in a sentence is often a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of what you might intend to emphasise. This is a part of speech; it is not a part of grammar. There are rules concerning the placement of commas; a comma is not a pawn in the game of the sentence. 

Lesson one: Commas possess culture. Please use them with care.

 

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