ACT Prep

The Essai Files: 7. Ananya Maskara


Ananya Maskara is a difficult girl to describe. In her own words: “I’ve got so many different sides to me – and they don’t ever want to talk to each other.”

She’s a drama queen (in more ways than one) but she used to be shy and introverted. She’s mean (but only after 10pm). She’s super smart but scared of tests. She’s self destructive and she’s self-controlled.

For this edition of essai files, we had to try to get to the bottom of who ‘Ananya’ really is.

Essai: We have been waiting for this interview for so long Ananya! You’re one of our longest-term students, and everyone in the office is super proud of everything you’ve achieved so far (and are going to go on to achieve). But we’re intrigued by the fact that you describe yourself as ‘drama’. What exactly do you mean?

Ananya: I do theatre drama and I do ‘drama’ drama. That’s me. That’s been me since the age of 9.

E: Okay so we understand what theatre is, but what’s ‘drama’ drama?

A: I have this tendency to turn everything in my life into a huge scene – for me, the minutest incident can become a total breakdown, with tears and worst-case prophecies. My Spanish teacher even reserves 5 minutes at the start of every class for me to cry!

E: Is there some connection between the two kinds of drama? When you’re having a very public breakdown then you are demanding the attention of the people around you and putting on a show, and when you’re on stage you are also performing and being the centre of attention.

A: I think there probably is: I love being the centre of attention. I think that’s why I got hooked on theatre. My first proper play was Midsummer Night’s Dream, and since then I’ve been in a performance every year. I’m doing Drama HL at school, and I’d love to go into acting, writing, or directing in the future.

E: And you’ve always been like this?

A: No! It sounds strange to say this but I was actually a very quiet, shy child.

E: Getting involved with theatre must have been a real turning point in your life then?

A: Yes; now I really can’t stop talking.

E: Making up for lost time perhaps? Anyway, another interesting contradiction in your life is the self-control / self-destruct pattern you describe yourself following in your personal and academic activities. How can someone who manages so many extracurriculars and gets such good grades also have a self-sabotaging tendency?

A: The kind of stupid things I’ll do include staying up on my phone until 5am when I have a test the next day. My friends have tried to talk me out of it, and I guess I really should try harder to listen to them! But it’s my self control which counter-balances this and enables me to keep up with all of my work despite feeling tired or cramming all my studying in to the last possible minute.

E: And what about in your social life? Does this destructive tendency spill into that too?

A: I guess part of my ‘mean’ behaviour – gossiping, bitching, judging – is a form of sabotage. Thank god I’ve grown out of the worst of that phase though – now I try to play nice until 10pm, when I allow myself to vent some of my feelings on the phone to my friends.

E: Clearly this ‘mean’ personality is something of a façade; you’ve just beaten 3500 applicants to win a Silver Pramerica ‘Spirit of Community Award’ for commitment to your social service project. That’s an incredible achievement!

A: Thanks... I started my project by selling homemade candles to fundraise to buy biodegradable sanitary pads for girls from low-income communities. Then when I met the girls, I felt a real sadness and sense of shock at the level of prejudice they were having to deal with every month. I started running education sessions at a local NGO for these girls to speak about sanitation, consent, and sexual health.

E: And what was it like going in to try to tackle these prejudices?

A: I found it a real challenge to run the education sessions at first because my Hindi is not very good. However, just bringing these ‘forbidden’ topics into an open forum helped to eliminate some of the stigma surrounding them.

E: We’ve been following this project since the very start, and we’re so happy to have been able to support you with it. It seems like you are quickly gaining momentum – what are the next steps?

A: Mili and the counselling team have been so great – motivating me and helping me to grow the project. I currently work with 3 different NGOs and visit each one once a month with a small team of juniors from school. I’d really like to partner with more NGOs or schools in Delhi, and eventually go to the surrounding villages to run the education sessions. This would mean I’d need to train up some more session leaders in order to expand our reach.

E: Something we really can’t leave out of this interview is your coveted title of ‘essai’s best reader’. We’ve never had a student who can read as quickly and answer the questions as accurately as you. Can you share the secrets of your success?

A: Well it certainly helped that I liked coming to classes at essai – I was in class with my friends and I enjoyed beating their scores in all the Reading sections – even if math was a different picture. But really, I think that to be a good reader you have to love books, and you have to start young. I’ve been obsessed with books for as long as I can remember – I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a young child, so books were my source of entertainment, my escapism. I also loved stories – reading them, telling them, writing them. Memorising books was my superpower, and I wanted to be Roald Dahl’s Matilda!

E: Reading is a solitary activity; how does this fit with your chattiness and extroversion?

A: When I first got in to reading I was in my quiet and shy phase. Fictional characters were my friends; reading allowed me to withdraw from social situations.

E: What about the distractions of phones and laptops as you got older? These didn’t replace books as sources of entertainment?

A: I go through phases of using my phone too much… It’s easy to get addicted to constant social interaction, especially when everyone else is living in the same virtual bubble. But being online can never bring the same comfort as reading can. I think it’s sad that Delhi has so few good bookshops. Everyone can fall in love with reading if they just find the genre which is right for them.

E: Students take note! Ananya might have less than ideal nocturnal phone habits, but she is living proof that if you want to get a good Reading score then you have to actually read.

Thanks Ananya for coming and sharing your wisdom with us and for giving us a peek inside the ‘messy wardrobe’ (Ananya’s description!) of your life.

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:






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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Sentences, clauses, and phrases

Sentence clause phrase.jpeg

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


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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