(FUN)ction Graphs

Calling all Math students…Could you answer this simple question on function graphs?  

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Correct answer, C.  See the end of this post for the explanation. 

If you got the answer straight away, well done! You’ve clearly given the sine, cosine and tangent functions the attention they deserve. But don’t panic if you got it wrong- you are not alone. The majority of ACT Math students really struggle when faced with this type of question, and this blog post has been created to help you out.  

Learning what the linear graphs of sin, cos and tan look like on the x/y plane is ESSENTIAL.

I repeat- ESSENTIAL.

It’s only once you are secure in this knowledge that you can learn how to transform them (coincidently, our blog topic for next week)! 

Lets start from the beginning…

f(θ)=sin(θ) is known as the sine function: 

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The wave repeats every 2π radians, or every 360° (i.e. it has a period of 360°). It’s maximum y value is 1, and minimum is -1. It crosses the y axis at (0,0).

f(θ)= cos (θ) is the cosine function:

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Just like the sine function, the wave has a period of 360°. It’s maximum y value is 1, and minimum is -1. However, the cosine function crosses the y axis at (0,1). See how it ‘follows’ the sine wave at 90° behind?

 f(θ)= tan(θ) is the tangent function:  

It is not a rising and falling wave like the other two- it’s y values range from negative infinity to positive infinity, and it crosses the y axes once every π radians, or 180°. However, it does pass through the origin, point (0,0), like the sine wave. 

Notice how every 180° there is an x value for which there is no apparent corresponding y value? This is because tan(90°), tan(270°), etc (and tan( π/2), tan(3π/2)) is equal to either positive or negative infinity- meaning that it is is officially undefined.

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Undeniably, it is easiest and fastest just to remember what each function looks like (i.e. the maximum and minimum y values, y-axis intercept, period etc.).
However,  if you forget what any of these functions look like, it is possible to quickly check using your calculator to create a table like the one below. You can then sketch a rough diagram to jolt your memory or clear up any confusion. 

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So now let’s go back to the first question and see how we can use our new knowledge to solve it easily.

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If we look at the sine wave and the cosine wave plotted onto the same x/y plane, we can see that the x value for their first intersection in the POSITIVE x quadrant is 45°. Therefore our answer must be C

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Totally terrible, very bad writing mistake #1


Students love their emphatic adverbs – otherwise known as the completely unnecessary, totally redundant (hah! See what I did there?) usage of the words “very”, “completely”, “extremely” and the likes.  It’s okay – I’m quite guilty of it too.

So, what’s the real issue here? The problem comes in when your writing starts relying almost exclusively on emphatic adverbs for describing things. Consider the following sentences:

The hall was completely silent. 

The hall was so silent, that not a whisper could be heard from the students.

What’s the difference between the two sentences? Not the meaning, because they both convey the same message: the hall was silent. But if I ask you, “how silent was the hall?” the only thing you can say from reading the first sentence is, “completely silent”. The difference, as you probably guessed, is in the quality of description. The second sentence packs a lot more descriptive detail than the first. So, how silent was the hall? Completely silent – not a whisper could be heard from the students. A far more vivid picture than the first! Always remember: effective writing uses emphatic adverbs to increase the effect of (and not in lieu of) a description.

Happy writing, and stay tuned for the totally terrible, very bad writing mistake #2! 

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How much do you know about Beyonce & modifiers?

You may love Beyonce, but did you know that before her solo career she was actually part of a chart-topping R&B group called Destiny’s Child? Fix the following modifier errors to learn about how one of today’s icons got her start:

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, [1] singing was something Beyoncé did from a young age. Her vocal talents were discovered almost accidentally: one day after dance class as a kid, Beyoncé’s instructor was humming a song, and Beyoncé chimed in with the lyrics, beautifully hitting all the high-pitched notes. Not long after, Beyoncé began competing in local singing competitions. Joined by childhood friends Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and three other young girls, [2] Girl’s Tyme formed as a group with Beyoncé. The group traveled from Texas to California to compete on Star Search, a national television show. Unfortunately, however, Girl’s Tyme did not win.

Motivated to succeed in the music world, [3] giving up was not an option. Eventually, their hard work payed off. In 1996, the group signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and became known as Destiny’s Child. With hits like “Say My Name,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and “Jumpin Jumpin,” [4] success came quickly to the group in the R&B world.

However, success didn’t come without setbacks. Unhappy with the group’s management, [5] quitting felt like the only option for two of the group’s members, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett. Destiny’s Child was thrust into the entertainment spotlight with Beyoncé largely at the center of the negative media attention. Consequently, Beyoncé fell into depression, and the group struggled for a brief period.

After regaining some stability and some shuffling in group members, Destiny’s Child was composed of three women: Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams. As one of the most successful R&B groups of its time, [6] many chart-topping albums were made by Destiny’s Child, like Survivor, and the group went on to win multiple Grammy awards.

Finally in 2001, the group announced that they would be taking a hiatus so that the members could pursue individual singing careers.


1. The modifier in this sentence is “Born and raised in Houston, Texas”, which describes, or modifies, Beyonce. Thus, “Beyonce” must immediately follow the modifier and the comma. A correct version of the bold portion could read Beyonce grew up singing and dancing. 

2. Everything preceding the comma in this sentence describes a person. Our hint is the word ‘joined’. Someone must be joined by the names listed, and in this case that someone is Beyonce. Thus, again, her name must follow the comma. A correct version of the bold portion could read Beyonce became a member of the singing group Girls Tyme.

3. As it reads, this sentences gives the impression that “giving up” was motivated to succeed in the music world, which obviously doesn’t make sense. A better version of the sentence might read Motivated to succeed in the music world, the group didn’t give up.

4. The modifier in this sentence is describing Destiny’s Child, so Destiny’s Child must immediately follow the comma. The bold portion could instead read Destiny’s Child quickly became successful in the R&B world.

5. The bold portion should begin with whoever was upset with the group’s management. It should then read two of the group’s members, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, quit the group.

6. The modifier here is clearly referring to Destiny’s Child, so the bold portion should read Destiny’s Child made many chart-topping albums, like Survivor,.

Student Spotlight: The Math Girl

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A highly accomplished student with outstanding grades at a high school which had limited US student outflow. In many ways, she was something of an academic prodigy: she took her first AP test when she was 14 and cleared the SAT with a 2250 when she was 15. That summer, she attended SUMac – a highly selective math camp at Stanford – and subsequently embarked on a major research project with an IIT professor, using Graph Theory to model traffic flow in Delhi for improved emergency response time, founded her school Math Club and started an independent math magazine. Additionally, she participated in a substantial internship with Barclays Bank, founded and led her own NGO “Leap of Faith” working with education and job training initiatives in a small village, and was a talented painter, flautist, and national-level badminton player. 

This student did many things right. She demonstrated a specialised academic passion while managing to participate an impressive array of verifiable extracurricular activities (exemplifying what it means to be a student-plus). but, mostly, she made her own structure to pursue her love of math at an increasingly high level. It is very difficult to do this well (particularly for academics). Most students would only have gotten excellent grades, taken AP tests, and crack the SAT. However, this student demonstrated curiosity and resourcefulness in having independent research options to continue following her love of mathematics.

The Math Girl was unique in that her academic strength and her social service strength were almost identically (very) strong – which is why, when we were helping her decide how to frame her Common App essay, we ended up feeling that her best bet would be to combine these two outstanding aspects of her profile into a coherent whole. Math and social service isn’t something that usually go together, and we found this duality fascinating. Evidently, so did Stanford – as she not only got in via ED, but received a handwritten note about her essays from the Dean of Admissions.



This is a great sentence and question that tests your knowledge of commas, appositives, introductory phrases. 

Lets first deal with the question: to comma or not to comma. Should there be a comma before Levi Strauss? After Levi Strauss? On either side of Levi Strauss? Or just no comma at all? In order to answer this question, it is important to know what concept is being tested here. It is a question about appositives. 

The real question to ask yourself is whether Levi Strauss is essential to the sentence or not. You could also ask yourself if there is more than one “clothing store owner” in the world. If there is more than one “clothing store owner” in the world, then Levi Strauss becomes essential to the sentence. Levi Strauss is the subject. Levi Strauss cannot be between commas. He is essential (in more ways than one - my wardrobe would be very different had Levi Strauss been non-essential). 

When a name is essential to a clause, it (the name) cannot go between commas. However, if the sentence had read “The founder of Levi Strauss & Co, Levi Strauss, was an important man in the history of fashion” then we would have commas around Levi Strauss. Why? Because he was the only founder. His name is non-essential. By saying the founder of Levi Strauss & Co, we already know that we are talking about Levi Strauss. Got it? If a name is non-essential, we put it between commas.

The next question I am often faced with as a teacher is why is F not correct. Why can’t there be a comma before Levi Strauss. That would put clothing store owner between commas, make it non-essential, and the sentence would read In the late 1800s Levi Strauss patented… This is an important question, and it is important to know here that the comma after “In the late 1800s” is used for something else. It is being used to set off the introductory phrase “In the late 1800s”. That comma is essential. In other words, the real clause starts with “Clothing store owner…”

This brings me to one of my big lessons on English grammar: commas are NOT about pauses. It would SOUND good if one had a comma before Levi Strauss, but commas are not musical objects. They are punctuation marks that have purpose. Their purpose is NOT TO CREATE PAUSES. 

The answer to question 46 can actually be explained later in the sentence when commas are placed around “tiny metal studs”. Why are there commas around “tiny metal studs”? Because they are irrelevant to the sentence! They are simply describing what rivets are. Therefore, if the sentence would have read “In the late 1800s, Levi Strauss, a clothing store owner, patented the practice…” there would have been commas around “a clothing store owner”. Why? Because being a clothing store owner is non-essential! It is simply adding a little more information to the subject of the sentence - Levi Strauss.

Do Something, Then Do It Better


Gone are the days of only grades and strong test scores solely determining your place at Harvard and the likes. With over 250,000 applicants to the Ivy Leagues each year and acceptance rates lower than 6% (Princeton, Harvard), straight A’s and a strong ACT score, unfortunately, no longer cut it!

Hello, Profile! What is a profile, you may ask? It is a demonstrated, coordinated, and coherent record of increasing engagement over time in a chosen field. A chosen field can be anything, from a social initiative supporting women’s health to competitive ice skating, but should be something outside of the classroom. By no means does this mean that a profile, should not be connected to the classroom or academics. Far from it. However, illustrating that demonstrated and increasing engagement in a particular field, is key to a strong profile!

Let’s try to build Rahul’s profile. Rahul is a grade 11 student who is interested in studying business and has been playing the piano for 12 years. He then passes the Grade 8 level Trinity exam in the next few months. At the end of grade 11, he organises a benefit concert, with a group of external young musicians, to raise funds for a local charity. The event is being sponsored by a large corporation and there will be food and drink vendors.

Notice how playing the piano was his chosen field, yet was only the first stage of what turned out to be a multi-stage progression of Rahul’s interest in music and business. In other words, simply playing the piano is great; having passed the Trinity Grade 8 Level exam is outstanding; and going above and beyond to use your talent for social good, ultimately connecting his efforts in music to his interest in business (by working with corporations and external vendors) is absolutely fabulous

10% = 100%?!

Imagine a text that goes ' Ugly mess called sprawl. Communities destroyed. Laws and policies. Incentives for sprawl. Why so concerned about sprawl? About more than bricks and mortar. Corroding the sense of community. One form of sprawl, strip malls. Sprawl's other form, spread-out residential subdivisions. Affordable housing. Who picks up extra costs? We all do. Higher taxes. Government riddled with policies that encourage sprawl. Current zoning laws. Impossible to create compact walkable environment. Insist on sensible land-use panning.'

These are 75 words from a 750 ACT reading passage, so ten percent of the text. A bit stream of consciousness? Yes maybe, but you get a lot from just reading these ten percent.

The text is about sprawl. Sprawl is not good. It destroys communities. We don't care because we think we can save money. But sprawl increases taxes, so we lose money somewhere else. There are two types of sprawl: commercial and residential. Stopping sprawl is difficult because zoning laws support the spread of sprawl. The solution is to have more sensible land-use planning.

This is pretty much all you need to know about the text before having a shot at answering the questions. Surprisingly, all of it is in only a very small portion of the text.


So, one of the key skills in the ACT reading section is to identify the most important parts of a text and don't get lost in the details.

One of the big dangers of tackling a reading passage is to get lost in the details it contains. If you try to keep everything you read in you head, you'll end up understanding nothing at all. 

In the ACT you don't read in a conventional sense. The aim is not to read each and every last word but to find the really important words that make up the framework of the text. This type of reading should actually rather be called searching or rummaging

Imagine you're in a messy antiques shop looking for a couple of specific items. How are you going to proceed? Painstakingly examine each and every item? No, probably not. The way to find what you want before going crazy is to scan the piles of items for signs of something interesting. The same counts for the ACT reading passage: you just want to find the items you are looking for.

A lot of the time, when students have problems dealing with the reading sections, this is only due to the fact that they don't understand that conventional reading and ACT reading are two very different activities

Contact us here for more info about ACT prep with Essai.


DIY in the ACT reading

These questions have one thing in common: they are very general. They ask you to find the main point of a passage, the tone of the author, or the function of a paragraph. . 

The ACT is a multiple choice test. That's great. Imagine you had to find all the answers yourself: what a nightmare! The answers are all there; you just have to eliminate all the wrong ones, but in general questions the options are frequently traps rather than props.

The options are here to mess with your common sense. They try to make you overthink. This is why the most important thing to do when you get to that kind of question is to first make your own answer: DIY, do it yourself!

What's the main point of a passage or paragraph? What's the author's attitude to the topic? Good or bad? You know this. It's all very basic. Just don't go straight to the options; first make up your mind what you would answer if there were no options to chose from. Only then go and check which of the options best matches your DIY answer. 

That's how you avoid choosing an answer you would never give yourself. Don't let go of your common sense. One of the most important skills in the ACT reading section is to be able to keep two or three important main points in your head and use them to eliminate nonsensical options. 

Contact us here for more info about ACT prep with Essai.

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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


Contact us here for more info about ACT prep with Essai.


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. 


Contact us here for more info about ACT prep with Essai.


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.


Contact us here for more info about ACT prep with Essai.


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


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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