Most common essay mistakes: Add more detail to your writing

In general, it is important to include details in your writing to give your ideas more impact and make your writing more interesting. This is especially important for personal narratives and persuasive essays. (Actually, it's hard to think of a type of writing, aside from perhaps a research paper, that wouldn't benefit from ample but relevant detail).

Can you hear the fizz?

Why are details so important? For one, your goal as a writer is to create a vivid image in your reader's mind so that your main points are made more forcefully. It is hard to do this with vague information.

Compare the following two samples of writing to see the difference:

(1) Although college is important for many people, it is not absolutely vital in all cases to become success or to reach one's goals. Bill Gates is an excellent example of someone who is not just successful, but also highly accomplished and influential in his field of work. Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard College, one of the most prestigious universities on the planet, to found a little software company called Microsoft in the 1970s. At one point, with a fortune of over $40 billion, Gates was the wealthiest human alive. While one could argue that Harvard played a pivotal role in Gates' later success, it is self-evident that the entire four-year undergraduate program at Harvard College was not necessary for Bill Gates.

Boy did you ever feel good when you were able to get something done on DOS.

Okay, now let's look at the same ideas expressed with less detail:

(2) It is not important to complete college in order to be successful. Take Bill Gates as an example. He didn't finish college, and now he is extremely wealthy, even though he doesn't have a college degree. Bill Gates had what it took to be successful, and he didn't need college at all.

Which sounds better to you? (1) of course! Why? Because it has more detail and is more specific. Try to do the same in your own writing as well.

Most common essay mistakes: Avoid using informal words, such as “stuff”

As you know, there are different levels or varieties of formality in language, including in writing and in speaking. (Note: The formality of English that I generally use to explain concepts is less formal than typical academic writing.)

For example, if you were hanging out with your friends, at some point in your conversation, you might say something like, "Yo, wassup? Whatcha thinking of doing today? I got a bunch of stuff I just gotta get done before I go out."

Of course this kind of speech if fine (and expected) for spoken English. But for formal writing, we all learn that we should avoid vague slang and informal language.

Short list of words that are too informal for academic essays

Here's a list of the words I most frequently see in my students' writing that I generally recommend they change:

  • kid
  • mom
  • dad
  • grandma
  • grandpa
  • stuff
  • a lot
  • a bunch
  • okay

You can probably guess how to change these words, but let me explain a bit more about each.

Why these words are considered informal

  • kid literally means juvenile goat (or juvenile sheep). And for some reason in English, we've decided that we should call our young people baby goats. But this doesn't mean we should carry this peculiarity over to our writing. I quite frequently see the word kid used in formal essays to refer to human children. Instead of kid, use child, girl, boy, etc.
  • mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa should be mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather, respectively. I think that's pretty straightforward–the former set represents the more affectionate language we use with family whereas the latter words are considered more formal.
  • stuff literally means material used as stuffing, such as what you put inside a pillow. In modern English, we use stuff to refer generally to things or other unspecified material or concepts, both concrete and abstract. But in writing, the word stuff is simply too vague and informal for this meaning.
  • a lot has several different meanings, such as the lot in drawing lots or a parking lot. We often use the word lot in informal English to mean much or many, which probably comes from the usage of the word lot to refer to a group of items, especially for sale. For example, visit eBay and search for a lot of fidget spinners, and you'll likely find people selling large numbers together. So, instead of a lot, use many, much, a plethora, myriad, etc.
  • a bunch literally refers to a group of the same kinds of things, such as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of bananas, or a bunch of grapes. In modern American English, we often use bunch to mean many. So, instead of writing that you have a bunch of ideas for how to raise money for the senior prom, just say you have many ideas.
  • guy is used in the US by most people to refer to men or older boys, and now in modern years, to all members of mixed-sex groups. In formal writing, you'd be better off using boy, teenager, man, etc.
  • lady sounds like it would be a nice way to refer to a woman, but it's safer just to say woman since lady technically refers to a woman with a certain status in society.
  • okay is one of my favorite words, and it's one of the best-known and most-used English words worldwide. But it's best used in speech and in informal writing. Try using a more precise word instead, such as acceptable or simply yes.
Will the real kids please stand up?

But how do I know?

Sometimes people aren't aware of which words are considered formal or informal. Fair enough–some of this truly is arbitrary.

One suggestion I've made that seems to help is to imagine which words you'd see on a government (or other) form you'd fill out–in the box where you put in the information about your parents, do you think you'd be more likely to see it labeled "Mother" or "Mom"? What about "Number of children in household" vs. "Number of kids in household"? It would be more common say use "Mother" and "Number of children in household" because this language is considered more formal (as well as more precise).

A few words that I didn't include

I'm keeping a mental list of words that I need to point out sometimes that I don't mention above.

Here's what I have now:

  • ton

Next steps

This is just a short list of a small set of words that I see most often in my students' writing. Of course, there are zillions more words that should be avoided as well.

But this list is a good start, and if you can take to heart the logic behind why these words don't quite fit in certain formal essays, you'll be one step closer to being a better writer.

Final note: Sometimes people ask me whether it's acceptable to use informal language when you're quoting the exact speech of someone. Of course! You can't go around changing people's words, so you should in fact (if the situation arises) use the quoted language exactly as it was spoken or written.

Most common SAT Essay mistakes: How to use the author’s name

When you're writing your SAT essay, you'll naturally need to make reference to the author or speaker throughout the essay. In my students' essays, I've seen many different ways of doing this, but there's really only one convention that we follow in college-level, formal writing in the US.

Handwritten SAT essay with comments (blurred for obfuscation)

Rule: In general, use the author's or speaker's full name the first time you need to mention her or him. After that, use her or his last name.

(Side note: Ugh. I wish I had a gender-neutral pronoun other than their.)

First, let's look at an example. Imagine you're reading an essay written by Zadie Smith about public libraries. You'll need to refer to her throughout your writing. (Note: The instructions state that Smith is a female; you should be sure to refer to her appropriately when you write.)

I have read essays with several different methods of referring to Smith. The first, and best, is simply to say "Smith." For example, "In her essay, Smith argues that public libraries are important centers of culture." This is the correct way–using Smith's last name (also referred to as the surname or family name).

Examples

Best: "Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is correct–here we use Smith's last name.

Avoid: "Zadie claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is not standard. To my ears, when I hear this (or read it, as it were), I feel like the author is a friend of the writer.

This mistake isn't terribly common, but I do see it, so if you're using this format, you should know it's not considered standard for formal essays.

Avoid: "Zadie Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

I also see this form from time to time–using the writer's full name. We generally don't do this in formal writing mostly because it's just too time-consuming to write out the full name.

What about authors with titles? Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and over the "I Have a Dream" inscription (in Washington, D.C.)

I have read many effective essays that use titles, such as Dr. Nip, Professor Nguyen, and of course, Dr. King.

In an SAT essay, this is acceptable in my opinion, though MLA and APA formats omit titles for in-text citations.

Final note: Be consistent, do your best

Finally, the cardinal rule, as always, is to be consistent. If you go back and forth between using the author's first name and last name, you'll appear inconsistent. Inconsistency shows an undesirable lack of control that also reduces credibility. ("Why should I believe what you're writing if you're just spouting out random words?")

That said, SAT essay readers are hired from pools of teachers, and every single educator I've known has tried to find the good in students' writing; if it appears that you're doing your best (under SAT's timed conditions) to cite the author, I think most teachers would be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

August 25, 2018 SAT, a date which will live in infamy (in the history of College Board)

Summary: There are credible allegations that the Aug 25, 2018 SAT had been leaked to the Internet in 2017, meaning a large number of test-takers had already studied the questions in advance.

About the video: I was interviewed by ABC TV here in San Francisco about the SAT leak.

If you’re studying for the SAT now or have taken it recently, you’ve probably heard about the colossal failure on the part of College Board–the SAT given in August of 2018 was a repeat of an SAT given previously overseas.

To make matters worse, that test had apparently been “leaked” in PDF form to the Internet (probably as early as 2017), meaning that it was widely available to anyone who knew how or where to look for it. (I have never seen the test, but I have seen discussions online about it.)

College Board has a policy of not commenting on the “specifics of question usage and test administration schedules”, so this is all unconfirmed, but ample evidence supports the conclusion that it was the same SAT given in October 2017 in Asia.

Why it’s bad

I think it is fairly clear why reusing a large part or all of a previous SAT test is at best problematic and at worst massively unfair–those who have seen, taken, or practiced from that test before have an extreme advantage when taking the test.

One of the most common methods of studying is to take many practice tests and review them. If you’ve done your studying properly, you will see where you went wrong and remember your mistakes. If you happen to see that question again, or even a similar one, you should get that question right.

Furthermore, it is common in some places to “share” tests for studying purposes. In some cases, this “sharing” is done on a very large scale.

In a word, a very high number (but certainly not the majority) of students had seen, taken, and reviewed this particular test before they took it last August 25. But more students had not, and it is these students who are at a disadvantage.

How do we know that the SAT was leaked?

As I said above, College Board has not confirmed that the August 2018 SAT was recycled from October 2017, but there is simply too much anecdotal evidence showing that it was. Online, in the usual places, you can find people saying that they had seen the August test before.

A quick search of Twitter and Reddit shows:

📷

📷

And I’ve personally heard at least three different students tell me that someone in their test room last Saturday told them that they had seen the test before. For example, one test-taker announced, when the test was over and he was on his way out, that he had taken the test before, upon which the proctor politely dismissed the class except for that one test-taker. (Well done, sir!) Another student told me that, after the test, someone was showing people his copy of the test on his phone.

How do SATs get leaked?

Most people who take the SAT have never seen that test before. Or the questions on it.

However, that doesn’t mean that some people somewhere don’t have access to a particular test beforehand. In fact, there are entire operations devoted to getting copies of these tests or “reconstructing” them after they’re administered.

Here are the common ways that SATs (as well as a few other high-stakes tests) are compromised:

  • A corrupt proctor steals a test or copies it during the administration of the test.
  • Huge numbers of students take an official SAT; each is assigned a section to memorize and then recreate later that day back at the lair of the company that organized the group.
  • A test-taker will covertly photograph pages of the test.
  • A test-taker in one time zone will contact another test-taker elsewhere to divulge parts of the SAT.

For the record, I have not seen this happen anywhere in San Francisco, nor do I know anyone who has engaged in this sort of activity. But it does occur in some places.

What will College Board do?

This is turning out to be a public relations disaster for the nonprofit College Board. Especially after the controversy of the June SAT (that one was too easy, resulting in lower-than-expected scores), College Board needed to deliver a hitch-free testing experience in August. That didn’t happen.

College Board, again, is neither confirming nor denying the reuse of the test. However, they are stating that they will scrutinize the test answer sheets to find cheaters (my term, not theirs). This is actually standard practice for the College Board, but you can bet that they will be especially cautious for this test administration.

As of now, College Board is maintaining that nothing will change, and scores will be released as scheduled on Sep 7, 2018.

Some students fear that their scores will be canceled. (That's the rumor going around amongst the high school kids.) I honestly cannot envision that happening—there's simply too much at stake for too many people, and College Board can't just cancel the scores of the 200,000-300,000 people who took the SAT in August.

How does College Board determine cheating?

How does College Board decide that someone had previous access to the test? There are several ways that I have heard of over the years. First, College Board will look at your previous SAT or PSAT scores if you have them. If your score improvement is significant, College Board may decide to withhold your scores while they investigate further. In this case, you will get a notification from College Board informing you that they are going to examine your scores more closely.

The second method that I’ve heard about (and this was a while ago, so this may not happen any longer) is that College Board will compare your answers with those seated next to you. Presumably, if there’s too close a match, one of you will be suspect.

I can speculate on a third method, but it makes sense to me—a close analysis of your performance would indicate how you typically fare on certain question types. For example, if your weakness is permutations in math or inference questions in reading, and you suddely jump in those question types, your answer set may get flagged. Of course, if August was your first sitting of the test, this method would not work. (And again, I am only surmising here.)

So in terms of numbers, what sort of increase could trigger this warning? In the past, our students who have raised their scores about 500 points (yes, it’s possible with hard work) have been singled out. Fortunately, in all but one case, the students later had their scores released. (For the one whose scores were not released, the student admitted to me that he had had some sort of unfair advantage.)

In the end, however, no matter what College Board says, there will almost certainly be people who did not cheat who have their scores canceled and conversely, those who did who don’t get flagged.

The worst-case scenario and what to expect

If you’ve never taken the SAT or PSAT before, and you didn’t have access to the test beforehand, you should be safe.

However, if the following apply to you, you need to be prepared:

  • You’ve taken the PSAT or SAT before before, and you studied really, really hard for the August test and had a good chance of raising your score. In other words, if you have a big (but legitimate) jump in scores between administrations, you may become suspect.
  • You took the PSAT before and didn’t really try very hard, and in August, your score jumped.

Consequences—in the past, both with the SAT and other tests I’ve coached (GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL), the following could happen:

  • A suspect set of responses could be withheld and then released as usual.
  • A suspect set of responses could be withheld permanently, after which:
    • A student could be offered the chance to retake the SAT; presumably if the score is close, the student can keep her score (perhaps the higher score?).
    • A student’s scores could be canceled, and the student barred indefinitely from ever taking the SAT.

I’ve not heard of the last situation, neither with our students nor with students I’ve read about. However, there was a GMAT mini-scandal some years ago in which a handful of test-takers were banned from ever taking the GMAT again. (Please note that College Board is not associated with the GMAT in any way.)

Of course, if someone is prohibited from taking the SAT, he can just take the ACT instead. Or apply to U Chicago!

Why did College Board resuse the test?

College Board has largely remained mum on the subject, but has spoken about the need to reuse questions in the past, but not an entire test. The reason for reusing questions would be to cut costs—I’ve seen an estimate online that estimated that it could take up to 30 months and cost up to $1 million to prepare a single SAT test. College Board has also said that they can’t just whip up a new test in short order; presumably, it’s a lengthy process that needs to be planned far in advance.

While reusing a single test item or a handful is perhaps excusable, the reuse of an entire test is not. To make matters worse, as stated previously, this test was readily available online. (Note: A lot of people are stating that it was available only in Asia. I’d like to point out that if it’s on the Internet in Asia, it’s also online outside of Asia. Plenty of students outside of Asia had access to it.)

A reporter asked me why College Board would reuse an entire test. I’ll tell you the same thing I told her—no one but College Board knows for sure. However, my educated guess is that they were aware of the situation but could not reasonably cobble together an entire SAT in time to administer a new SAT in August. In this scenario, the alternative would have been to put out a sloppy, under-edited test, which would likely have put College Board in a very unfavorable situation. At least in this case, College Board can blame illicit behavior on some unknown bad actor.

I saw an old comment from College Board online that said that if they did use a new test for every administration, the cost of the SAT could double. People already complain about the SAT testing fees, so College Board is probably not too keen on raising that fee. I do know that the GMAT and GRE cost $250 and $205 respectively to take, so the SAT’s fee of $47.50 sure does seem inexpensive by comparison.

What will happen in the future?

For sure, the security of the SAT will increase in the future. College Board is already shipping some tests to certain testing sites in locked containers. This may mean more security while taking the test as well, though in this particular situation, that wouldn’t have helped a whit.

I can also only imagine College Board will attempt to speed up the process of moving the SAT to computer, which would be a massive undertaking and frankly, perhaps not feasible for the numbers involved with the SAT. For most of you reading this now, if the SAT moves to a computer-based test, it will likely happen long after you’re in college and are finished with the SAT stage of your lives. (I remember some rumors of moving the SAT to computer around 2000.)

It is also possible that universities will start requiring their own admissions tests; the University of California discussed this at some point back in 2001 (which was one of the reasons the SAT changed in 2005).

What will TestMagic do?

If you prepped with us for the August test, and you need to retake it, we’ve got your back! This applies to both students in our group classes and doing one-to-one tutoring with us. Just get in touch, and we’ll get you sorted.

Final thoughts

This story is still unfolding and there will surely be protests, petitions, complaints, and changes to come. We’ll keep you updated, and we also ask that you also get back to us if you’re one of our students. We’re here to help.

see vs watch – Why are so many people making this grammar mistake?

Summary: You see a movie at a movie theater; you watch a movie at home.
English grammar question--see vs watch
What’s the difference between SEEING a movie and WATCHING a movie?

When I first started teaching English some twenty-five years ago, a constant area to cover in a lesson at some point was the difference between seeing and watching, for example, seeing a movie and watching a movie. Most of the English books that we teachers used in our classes had at least one unit devoted to covering the topic. Other books also explained the related difference between hearing something and listening to something. In classes, we generally described the difference simply like this: You see a movie in a theater, and you watch a movie at home. Or to put it differently, you saw a movie on a large screen and watched a movie at home on a small television set (for example, with a VCR (a very old device used to play videotapes)). Remember, this was at a time when only the wealthy owned large-screen TVs and DVDs did not even exist, so the distinction between the two types of screen was quite a marked one and was therefore all the easier to explain.

The grammar rule: see vs watch

For those students who were more curious and had more questions, I would typically explain that seeing a movie had something to do with the larger screen typically found only in cinemas, which created a more immersive experience. Watching seemed to be a more deliberate, active activity – one had to make a conscious effort to watch something, whereas seeing something was slightly more passive, as if it were occurring before your eyes and you happened to see it. My students seemed to accept this explanation unquestioningly, even if the distinction seemed an unnecessary one.

I never noticed native speakers of English making this mistake, and it was taken as a given that this distinction was an important one, though one that wasn’t completely necessary for the most basic level of communication. So imagine my surprise when I started to notice, some twenty years later, native speakers making this error. In fact, at least among the group that I teach – high school students in San Francisco – the dominant usage is to watch a movie; rarely do I hear students saying that they are going to see a movie.

Complicating things is the fact that home screens are getting larger, and many of the smaller independent cinemas, at least in San Francisco, seem to be quite small in comparison with the stadium-seating in the giant multiplex cinemas, so it could be argued that the home experience, especially if you throw into the mix a $5000 home theater system, is just as immersive, if not more so, as the one in some movie theaters.

It is also completely possible that the language is changing, and the distinction between watching and seeing is disappearing; it certainly seems that way among many of the people I know and interact with. However, if you’re a traditionalist, a purist, or dare I say even a prescriptivist, we see a movie at the theater and watch a movie at home.

On a related point – we typically also see (not watch) other related visual arts– we see plays, we see performances, and we see recitals.

Finally, in a few days I should be able to upload a see vs watch grammar worksheet in our new Worksheets section, if you’d like to test yourself or your students.

Will the University of California accept old SAT scores for the class of 2017?

Summary: No official announcement from the UCs yet: The University of California has not yet made an official decision about whether it will accept for admissions only the new SAT scores or both the current SAT and the new SAT scores. However, we can’t imagine why they would not accept both the 2005 (2400-point scale) SAT and the 2016 (1600-point scale) SAT, as many colleges have already announced that they will accept both.

If you’re a high school student in the class of 2017, you may be wondering whether you should take the current format of the SAT (which debuted in March, 2005 and is scored on a 2400-point scale) or the new format of the SAT (scheduled to launch in 2016 and scored on a 1600-point scale). It’s a good question.

Our official recommendation for most students is that they should take not just the current version of the SAT and be prepared to take the 2016 SAT, but also the ACT. Granted this is a lot of tests to prep for, and many students will simply not have the time. But for those of us who work with students every day to help them get their college applications in order, we frequently see distinct differences in scores among the various tests available. So, if it’s at all possible, please consider taking two or three of the tests available to you.

However, it is also important to know whether the UCs will even accept the 2005 (2400-point scale) SAT, since you wouldn’t want to prep for it and take it for no reason. To find out, we recently emailed the UC Admissions department to find out. We received a prompt reply basically saying that they had not made an official decision yet, and please check back on their admissions website in the future to find out.

What about other colleges and universities? Stanford has announced that they will accept both; so has Harvard.

On a related note, the University of California has announced that the essay portion of the 2016 SAT will be required for admission.

 

SAT essay prompts from March 2015

SAT Essay prompts March 2015

This article is designed to help students prepare for their SATs. It outlines some practice questions and answers based on the latest official SAT essay prompts, which were released by the College Board in March 2015, as well as some advice for constructing an argument and planning and writing an essay. If you would like to see the official list of essay prompts, please visit the essay prompt section on the College Board website. Note that each new set of essay prompts replaces the former set. (Note: There appears to be a number of typos on the current page (as of 2015-04-14). For several of the prompts, the context paragraphs do not match the essay prompts given.)

As outlined below, each prompt involves a single issue or idea (which prompts you to think critically about it). For these three prompts, the issues are self-discipline, art and collaboration. For each issue, there is a question and some arguments for and against, as well as some things to consider before writing an essay about that specific issue. Remember, these questions and arguments are just examples and will differ in your actual exam.

Essay Prompt 1: Is Self-Discipline Valuable?

For: Yes. Self-discipline helps us control negative and potentially damaging behavior and emotions. It helps us to say no to things that might initially seem like a good idea, but might have negative consequences. People without self-discipline have fewer boundaries and are not fully aware of how their actions affect others.

Against: No. Self-discipline restricts creative freedom and makes social interaction more difficult. If someone spends too much time disciplining himself, he might suffer from a lack of spontaneity and low self-confidence. Self-discipline emphasizes organization and control, and might lead to anxiety or depression when situations cannot be controlled.

Considerations: Before starting your essay, you should consider the terms of the question. In this case, establish what self-discipline means and then consider whether it’s valuable according to your experience, studies, or observations. As with any essay, you will first need a strong argument. Your argument might be that self-discipline is an important quality that many people develop when working towards set goals. Although you’re arguing for self-discipline, you should aim to construct a balanced argument with points for and against. When making a point for self-discipline, you might say that self-discipline is good for people who need strict organization to achieve goals, such as athletes or actors. You can then make a point against self-discipline, perhaps saying that too much self-discipline for certain people might lead to addictive or selfish personality traits.

Essay Prompt 2: Can Art Change Your Life?

For: Yes. Art changes us every day by moving and inspiring us. Many people are inspired by a favorite book, film, or song that has changed their perspective on the world. Art allows us to explore ideas, emotions, and thoughts from a perspective different from our own.

Against: No. Art’s job is to entertain and distract us and simply cannot change the way we think and act. Art cannot stop climate change or end wars; neither can it change people’s religious or political beliefs.

Considerations: Again, first consider the terms of the question by thinking about what art is and how it might have changed your life or the lives of others. What about the Bible? Isn’t that a work of art that has changed people’s lives? What about American folk music from the 1960s or certain popular music today (hip hop, indie, electronic, metal, etc.)–do you think that has changed people’s lives? To answer these questions, remember to consider whose lives have been changed and in what ways. Also, what does “change” mean? Change is a very broad term and can be interpreted how you like, as long as you make a convincing argument by arguing for and against. Change might be positive or negative, it might be personal, or it could apply to an entire country.

Essay Prompt 3: Is Collaboration Useful?

For: Yes. Human society and individual relationships need collaboration to succeed. Most great discoveries in science and many advances in works of art and architecture have been created in collaboration. Society would not function without collaboration, and it would take individuals much more energy and time to achieve the same results.

Against: No. Collaboration often leads to conflict between groups and people, or results in compromise, where neither group get what they want. If individuals were to work on their own, the finished product would be more personal and closer to the original idea.

Considerations: What is collaboration and in what context are you going to write about it? You might consider “collaboration” in relation to politics, business, TV, or music, or you might think about important scientific discoveries or works of art that relied on the work of more than one person. You might also think about collaboration between areas of study. Do artists collaborate with scientists? Do musicians work with film directors? As with any essay, it’s important to give specific examples to support your arguments. Examples show the essay reader what evidence you have, making your argument more convincing. All of your examples should include names, titles of work, and dates to the extent that you’re able to remember them. A common but also effective kind of example is the quotation. When quoting, remember to make it clear who is speaking and how this relates to the point you are making. If you’re talking about scientific discoveries, for example, you might consider Isaac Newton’s famous quotation, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

SAT Essay planning and writing

Before starting any essay it’s important to plan what you’re going to say. When you’re planning your essay, you may wish to take up to three minutes to consider what your argument is and what the structure of your essay will be. At this point, it might be useful to try to summarize your argument into one simple sentence and to note down the main points for each section of your essay.

Once you have your argument, you should think about your introduction. Put simply, your introduction sets out your main argument and says succinctly what you are going to say in the whole of your essay. In the middle section of your essay, each point you make to support your argument should include evidence in the form of examples (quotations are especially useful here). All essays should end with a conclusion, which recaps what you have said and reasserts your main argument, preferably with a slightly different take on your main points.

Remember

Essay prompts usually focus on one issue or idea, but that doesn’t mean you should respond to an essay question in a particular way. Usually, essay prompts focus on broad ideas, as you’ve seen above with questions about self-discipline, art and collaboration. The readers are looking for your own interpretation of the issue, according to what you have experienced and studied. Finally, remember to stick to your chosen argument throughout and to provide a balanced argument that you think best answers the question.

If you’ve found this article useful it would be great to get some feedback, even it’s just a “like” or a simple thank you. In my experience as a tutor and a writer, constructive criticism is especially welcome. Good luck to everyone preparing for their SATs.

The Redesigned SAT (2016): An Overview

Studying for the SAT
Summary: The SAT will change significantly in the spring of 2016. These changes will affect high school students of the class of 2017. Students should strongly consider taking the ACT in addition to the SAT and see which they perform better on. Some (but not all) important changes include: The types of questions will change. The essay section will be optional (but always check with colleges to see whether they require the essay). The new SAT will have a “no-calculator” section. The scoring will change from a maximum of 2400 to a maximum of 1600 (as it was before the 2005 changes). All students taking the new SAT should be familiar with the U.S. Declaration of Independence and other “founding documents.” See the Official College Board page for the 2016 SAT for more information.

If you’re planning to attend college in the United States in the fall of 2017 (or later), there’s a good chance that you’ve already heard that the SAT will undergo significant, even radical, changes in two years’ time.

TestMagic is keeping updated with all the changes, and we will keep all of you updated. Right now, there are not too many details available, but here’s an overview of what College Board has announced:

  • The graduating class of 2017 is affected. These students will have to take the 2016 SAT (unless they take the current SAT in the fall of their junior year or earlier).
  • A computer SAT will be available in certain places. This change is more significant than it may at first seem to be!
  • The PSAT given in October 2015 will reflect changes to the SAT
  • There will be three sections on the new SAT:
    • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW for short)
    • Math
    • Essay (“optional;” see more below)
  • The verbal sections will require analysis and will include a wider variety of material and types of writing.
  • The math will reflect real-world situations.
  • The new SAT will be approximately three hours long; the “optional” essay will be 50 minutes long. (Exact times have not yet been decided–research on optimal times is still being conducted.)
  • There will be a “no-calculator” math section on the 2016 SAT
  • No more deductions for incorrect answers! So on the new test, be sure to answer each question.
  • Essay will be “optional” in theory
  • Vocabulary will be a bit easier and less esoteric. Two words mentioned that could appear on a future 2016 SAT: empirical and synthesis. Examples of words that we conjecture would not appear on the new SAT: pusillanimouspulchritude, and fulsome.
  • Scoring goes back to 400-1600 (200-800 for each EBRW and Math), with a separate score for the essay (No official mention of whether the essay will still be scored on a 0-6 scale)
  • Each new SAT test will include questions about the “Founding Documents,” such as the American Declaration of Independence or discussions of these documents.
  • Free SAT test preparation will be offered through a collaboration between College Board and Khan Academy

College Board has announced that it wishes to make the new SAT more realistic and more aligned with what students learn in school and do away with the more “puzzle-like” sections of the test. Overall, the math should reflect real-world problems and situations that people encounter and the verbal sections will cover a wider range of topics and subjects and will now require more analysis than previous SATs did.

Studying for the SAT
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamieleroy/

So, why the changes? In the world of testing, there has been a long controversy over standardized tests and whether they are fair. Over the decades, many of the best-known admissions tests (such as the GRE, the GMAT, and the TOEFL) have become more realistic in their content. For example, in years past, the TOEFL (a test of English proficiency) included dialogues recorded by actors. Now in their place, the test has recordings of real conversations that people have. The SAT itself discarded the analogies (DOG is to PUPPY as CAT is to ???) in 2005, but retained the “sentence completion” questions (Isaac was quite ——-; rarely did he call attention to himself.).

In the coming weeks, we will address the changes to the SAT thoroughly and will keep all of our students and their parents updated on the changes so that they are ideally prepared to apply to college.

In the meantime, please leave a comment or a question!

Don’t call them “dramas”

Pointing up
Summary: Don’t call them dramas. Call them television programs.

Quick tip: If you’re writing about serialized Chinese television programs, don’t call them “dramas” in your essays. Instead, refer to them as Chinese television dramas (or Korean if they’re Korean, Mexican if they’re Mexican, etc.).

Why? Well, “drama” is a broad term that refers to many different types of performances, so “dramas” by itself is too vague. And whoever reads and scores your SAT essay may very likely not know what you mean if you simply write “dramas.”

Note: There is a large Chinese population in San Francisco, and many young “ABCs” (American-born Chinese) refer to these nighttime “soap operas” as dramas. Other people may refer to similar programs from their cultures with different terms. For example, some Spanish speakers may refer to them as “novelas.” If you’re using a word or term that many people have not heard, it’s always a good idea to explain that term in your writing so that the reader will not be confused.

For example, the following writing might be confusing for some readers:

*For example, in a drama I was watching, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome and rich boy.

This would be better:

For example, in a Chinese television program I watched, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome, rich boy.

One related point–avoid using television programs as examples. Literary works tend to get higher scores. But if you can’t think of anything else, a writing about a television program is better than not writing anything.

A new version of the Common App is coming. Thank goodness.

There’s a new version of the Common App coming on August 1, 2013, and they’re calling it CA4.

So, what’s wrong with the current version of the Common App? Well, a lot of things. It’s a noble effort, and it saves a lot of time for applicants and admissions committees alike. But it does have a few shortcomings. For example:

  • If you want to make a correction to your application, it’s difficult to do so. There’s a way to edit previous versions of your Common App, but it’s a bit tricky.
  • It does not have a rich-text editor. What’s that? In plain English, that just means that you can’t format your writing with bold, italicsunderlines, etc. Why does that matter? Actually, it matters a lot. In many situations, applicants need to write about books, movies, music pieces, etc., and it’s not only difficult or tedious to use quotation marks, underscores, or asterisks for formatting, doing so typically counts against your total character count, meaning you can’t write as much as you’d like.
  • The editor is tricky to compose in–it doesn’t save automatically, and if you compose in Google Docs or OpenOffice, slight formatting changes occur, which could make your application look sloppy.

I haven’t seen any news or previews of the new platform, but I hope it will address some or all of these issues. Of course, I’ll keep you updated with news when I learn more.

More information: https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/CA4.aspx