7 skills you need for a perfect SAT Writing/ACT English score

7 skills you need for a perfect SAT Writing/ACT English score

If you google “perfect score on SAT writing” (or “perfect score on ACT English”) you’ll probably come up with a couple dozen hits that make it seem as if accomplishing that feat is merely a matter of learning a few simple rules.

Now, if you have an outstanding ear and a solid basic knowledge of grammar, that could indeed be the case. And to be sure, the SAT and ACT both test a limited number of concepts (somewhere between 10 and 20, depending on how you count) over and over again, in very predictable ways. Within those 10-20 rules, however, there are many variations, and it’s always possible for rules to be tested or combined in slightly new ways. And rules that initially seem simple and straightforward can have very challenging applications.

Passages frequently mention topics, individuals, and places that most students aren’t particularly familiar with. It can be hard to worry about subject-verb agreement when you’re trying to puzzle through sentences that refer to multi-syllabic chemical compounds.

Given that, I’ve decided to compile a different sort of list. It is not a list of rules tested on the multiple choice grammar portion of the SAT and the English portion of the ACT. You can find those in my complete list of SAT and ACT grammar rules. Rather, it is a list of skills that you must have in order to apply those rules effectively.


1) Recognizing prepositions and prepositional phrases 

Prepositions are “location” and “time” words such as toof, by, for, from, with, and about.

Prepositional phrases are phrases that begin with prepositions and include nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, e.g. on the shelf, by the author, with my father.

Both the SAT and ACT test a couple of errors involving prepositional phrases.

Most frequently, they test the “no comma before or after a preposition” rule — if you can recognize prepositions, this rule is extremely easy to apply. If you can’t, you have to puzzle things out by ear.

Prepositional phrases are also used to distract from subject-verb agreements, e.g. The forests of central Mexico provides an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.

In addition to knowing what prepositional phrases are, you must be able to recognize them so securely and consistently that you can remember, under pressure, to cross them out of potentially long and complicated sentences in order to check for disagreements.


2) Knowing the definitions of transition words  

This is a big one. You probably don’t have any trouble with however and therefore, but what about less common transitions such as consequently, moreover, and nevertheless?

If you don’t know the literal meanings of these words as well as what sorts of relationships they’re used to indicate, you’ll have difficulty eliminating wrong answers and recognizing right ones. You might also start relying on how they sound (weird), and that’s usually a recipe for disaster.


3) Recognizing comma splices involving pronouns

A comma splice is formed when a comma rather than a period or semicolon is placed between two complete sentences. When this error involve two clearly separate sentences, it is generally easy to recognize; however, one very common problem arises when the second sentence begins with a pronoun (hesheittheyone) rather than a noun. Because the second sentence does not make sense out of context, many people falsely believe it cannot be a sentence.

Incorrect: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life, they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.

Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life. They provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.

Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life; they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.


4) Being willing to read both forwards and backwards

One of the most important things to understand about SAT Writing/ACT English is that errors are context-based. As a result, the underlined portion of the sentence may not give you the information you need to answer a given question. Rather, the necessary information may be located elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph.

This skill is key for answering rhetoric questions that ask you to add, delete, or revise information. If you are asked about a topic sentence, for example, you must jump ahead and read the body of the paragraph in order to determine what topic the first sentence of the paragraph should introduce.

For example:


The exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a matter of controversy. In July, the warmest time of the year, temperatures average  only about ?2°F on the summit; in January, the coldest month, summit temperatures average ?33 °F and can drop as low as ?76 °F. Storms can come up suddenly, and temperatures can plummet unexpectedly. The peak of Everest is so high that it reaches the lower limit of the jet stream, and it can be buffeted by sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour. Precipitation falls as snow during the summer monsoon, and the risk of frostbite is extremely high.


Which of the following is the most effective introduction to the paragraph?


B. The climate of Mt. Everest is extremely hostile to climbers throughout the year.
C. Glacial action is the primary force behind the erosion of Mt. Everest and surrounding peaks.
D. The valleys below Everest are inhabited by Tibetan-speaking peoples.


In order to determine the answer, you must temporarily ignore the first sentence and instead focus on the rest of the paragraph — you cannot know what the topic sentence should be about until you know what sort of information it introduces. In this case, the paragraph discusses the extremely cold temperatures and dangerous weather conditions present on Mt. Everest. That corresponds to the phrase “hostile climate” in (B). Although the other answers refer to Mt. Everest, they are all off-topic. 



5) Recognizing non-essential clauses

Simply put, a non-essential clause is a clause that can be eliminated from a sentence without affecting its essential structure or meaning. These clauses can be set off with either commas, dashes, or parentheses, but the same type of punctuation must be used at the beginning and end of the clause.

Correct: The peak known as El Capitan, which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world, is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Correct: The peak known as El Capitan – which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world – is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Correct: The peak known as El Capitan (which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world) is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Incorrect answers to questions testing non-essential clauses often omit one or both of the punctuation marks surrounding the clause. They may also “mix and match” — for example, use a dash to end a non-essential clause begun by a comma, or  vice versa.

To identify what type of punctuation should be used and where it should be placed, you must be able to identify where the non-essential clause logically begins and ends.

For example:


A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage, considered by some to be a “father of the computer” is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer.

B. computer is credited,
C. computer – is credited
D. computer, is credited


To answer this question, you must be able to recognize that the clause considered by some to be a “father of the computer” can be removed from the sentence without affecting its basic structure or meaning (A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage…is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer).


6) Distinguishing between number and tense 

Number = singular or plural
Tense = past, present, or future

Consider the following sentence:

Incorrect: The relationship between goby fish and striped shrimp are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.

When asked to correct it, many students will simply change are to were. Not only does that not fix sentence, it misses the entire point of what’s being asked. And that becomes a problem when you encounter questions like this:


The relationship between sharks and remora fish are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.

A. are
B. is
C. have been
D. were


If you don’t clue into the fact that the verb must agree with the subject, the singular noun relationship, you have no real way of deciding between the answers.

Note that to answer subject-verb agreement questions, you also need to be able to distinguish between singular and plural verbs.

Singular verbs end in -s (e.g. he talks)
Plural verbs do not end in -s (e.g. they talk).

Many people associate -s with plural forms because, of course, plural nouns end in -s. Making the switch to verbs can be confusing, particularly when sentences are long and complicated, and subjects are separated from verbs. If you have a tendency to forget, write this rule down on the front of your test.


7) Recognizing formal vs. informal writing (register)

Questions testing diction, or word choice, appear frequently on both the SAT and the ACT. In some cases you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate meaning, while in others you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate tone or register — that is, the proper degree of formality or informality.

Passages are almost always written in a straightforward, moderately serious tone. Correct answers to register questions are consistent with the tone, whereas incorrect answers are typically too casual or slangy. They may also be excessively formal, but this is less common.

For example:


As a result of variations in snow height, light refraction, and gravity deviation, the exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a topic of debate. Beginning in the 1950s, numerous attempts were made to measure the summit’s true height.

B. a thing that people fight about.
C. a matter of great disputation.
D. the cause of a bunch of arguments.


In the above question, (B) and (D) are both awkward and overly casual, employing “vague,” highly informal words such as thing and bunch, whereas disputation in (C) is excessively formal. (A) is correct because it is consistent with the straightforward, middle-of-the-road tone found in the rest of the passage.



It doesn’t matter how high your score is if you can’t apply the skills in real life

It doesn’t matter how high your score is if you can’t apply the skills in real life

As I wrote about recently, I’ve seen a recent uptick in email. In addition to requests for my books, I also receive everything from straight up fan mail (always exciting), while others involve questions or comments.

Now, some of these missives are absolutely lovely. The writing is not only grammatically correct but also polite, clear, and fluid, and could easily have been produced by someone a decade or two older. I assume that even if these kids don’t get into fill-in-the-blank-Ivy, they’ll most likely be fine in life since anyone who has mastered the rules of written communication at 16 or 17 will almost certainly be able to find a job doing something or other. If these letters include a request, I usually try to answer them when I have a moment and am not so mentally burned out that I can’t manage to string five or six sentences together.

Alas, other emails are, to put it bluntly, sloppy and ungrammatical, some with a whiff of entitlement.

To be clear, I am not talking about typos, which everyone makes, nor am I referring to understandable errors made by people whose first language is not English. It takes some serious gumption to write in a foreign language, and far more gumption to even contemplate applying to college in a foreign country. In addition, I’m aware that certain rhetorical flourishes common in some languages can translate awkwardly into English. Those don’t concern me here.

For the record, I am also not looking to pick apart anyone’s writing in the course of a normal email exchange. Yes, I write grammar books, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and I know how and when to shelve it. If you have a question, by all means write to me — I’m not trying to scare anyone off.

That said, I’m also not letting people entirely off the hook here. If you know English well enough to be aiming for a high score on the SAT, and to apply to study in the United States at the university level, chances are that you know English well enough to follow its most basic rules. And if English is your first language, or if you’ve been going to an English-language school for years, you really have no excuse. The assumption on the reader’s part will be that you know perfectly well how to write correctly but simply couldn’t be bothered to do so. That is not an impression you want to make. In fact, it’s just plain rude.

This may sound obvious, but the point of writing is to communicate with other people when you are not physically present. Your writing is a stand-in for you, a delegate on your behalf, if you will. And in the absence of any other information, you will be judged by it — consciously or subconsciously — because it’s all that the reader has to go on.

Furthermore, different situations call for different types of communication, and what’s perfectly acceptable in one situation might not even be remotely appropriate in another.

When you are texting your friends or posting on Facebook, it’s perfectly fine to write things like “HAHAHA ROTFLMAO!!!”

When you are writing to your parents, you can say things like “hi, ill be home at 6, when r we eating”

However: Any time you communicate in writing with an adult you do not already have an established, familiar relationship with, you are expected to write  correctly. Admissions officers, college professors, and prospective employers all fall into that category. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution. Trust me when I say that no one cares whether you got an 800 in Writing if you cannot actually express yourself in clear, coherent, grammatically standard English. Test scores only have meaning if they reflect what you actually know.

This does not mean you need to be stylistically brilliant, nor does it mean you need to pack your writing full of ten-dollar words and use convoluted sentences that are five lines long. It does, however, mean that you are expected to follow the conventions of standard written English (electronic) communication.

These include:

  • Capitalizing the first letter of every sentence, proper names, and the word “I.” Moreover, capitalization must be consistent — you can’t capitalize in some places and use lower case in others. It is almost impossible to overemphasize how sloppy that looks. (It also comes off as a little unstable.)
  • Ensuring that your writing does not contain any egregious grammatical errors — that means things like comma splices. Most people aren’t interested in picking apart your grammar, but they will notice if your mistakes are glaring.
  • Phrasing things politely and recognizing that people will not necessarily be able to accommodate you simply because you’re making a request.

And if you really want to make a good impression:

  • Separating ideas with a space between paragraphs. Large blocks of text can be extremely difficult to process mentally, especially on a screen. Creating clear visual divisions between thoughts makes your ideas easier to follow.

Perhaps I’m turning into an old curmudgeon, or perhaps capitalization is just a relic that can’t be seriously expected of 21st century students (who are presumably all going to become superstar coders who have no need to write anything), but I’m not quite willing to throw in that towel just yet.

In some ways, I feel bad for picking on people for this — some of the emails I receive are terribly, almost painfully sweet. When I jotted down the first handful of exercises that would eventually become The Ultimate Guide to SAT® Grammar, I had absolutely no idea that my books would help students in places like Egypt and Tunisia fulfill their dreams of studying in the United States. I’m staggered by their impact, and I’m truly sorry that there are limits to how I can distribute them. But on the other hand, it seems like a disservice not to point these things out, and not (only) for the sake of being a nitpicky grammarian.

I think that this problem seems particularly acute to me precisely because I’m not a teacher. Website aside, pretty much all of the people I exchange emails with are other adults (of varying degrees of education, I might add) who invariably follow the basic standard rules of written English — even in a casual, two sentence exchange. It’s therefore very striking — and irritating — to me to receive an email that does not contain a single capitalized letter. I’m also not subject to administrators or educational fads that subscribe to the belief that it’s normal or acceptable for high school juniors to write like fifth graders.

Given the obsession with “real world skills,” I find it frankly bizarre that schools are not actually impressing upon their students the importance of mastering this exceedingly fundamental real world skill. But as someone who’s basically made a career out of teaching very important (basic) things that no longer get taught in school, I feel responsible for bringing it to people’s attention.

The reality is that in college, in the professional world, the ability to express yourself well still counts enormously. Like it or not, poor writing will reflect poorly on you. You have no idea what sorts of opportunities you might miss out on simply because you made a questionable impression. You also have no idea whose hands your emails might end up in; the “Forward” button is a powerful tool. If you are the one-in-a-million exception who starts the next Facebook, you’ll get a pass. Otherwise, you probably won’t.

So in the immortal words of adults everywhere, I’m not just trying to be mean; I’m actually doing you a favor.

Someday, you’ll thank me for it.

(For further reference about what will be expected from you in college, see https://www.math.uh.edu/~tomforde/Email-Etiquette.html. Note that this was written by a MATH professor.)