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.

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.

The “Catch-up Word of the Day”

In a nutshell: I am a little behind on sending out new vocabulary words. To get caught up, I will send out abbreviated Words of the Day for a short while.

Authoring a word of the day has turned out to be a lot more time-consuming than I had anticipated. I initially thought that it would be easy to come up with a new word every day, write a definition for it, and then send it out. But I quickly got requests for, among other things, pronunciation, examples, and more information. I also started adding a few extras myself – a vocabulary quiz, extra information, and the occasional image to accompany the word. I have also tinkered with the design a bit and have, the help of two other talented people, created a little PHP script that enables me to generate newsletters and vocab entries quickly.

However, I am still behind on the words. When I take the “kitchen sink” approach to writing the TestMagic SAT Word of the Day, it can take me three to four hours to write one entry. I won’t go into the details of finding the word, defining the word, writing the IPA pronunciation, finding a royalty-free image, and writing a vocabulary quiz, but it really does take that long. So, for a short while, I will send out shorter versions of TestMagic SAT Word of the Day. The good news is that the abbreviated SAT vocabulary word will be displayed in our shiny, new format, which I believe is much, much prettier than the previous version.

Any comments? Please post here, and thank you for reading and learning with us.

(This entry was dictated with Dragon Naturally Speaking.)

Case study: 15-year-old from Egypt

300 points in two weeks? Yes.

I tell this story a lot to my local students. Some years ago, in the late 1990s, a very bright 15-year-old boy originally from Egypt came to TestMagic and told us that he needed to raise his score on the official SAT by about 300 points. I told him and his father of the challenges he would face, but told him that I’d work with him personally to help him as much as I could. After a bit of discussion, Ahmed and his father decided to focus solely on the verbal section, although I told them that it’s not always advisable to work only on your weakest section.

Blurry TestMagic window sign, with flowers in focus.
Learn. Excel.

But first, his back story. “Ahmed” (not his real name) had come to the United States only a few years earlier and was attending Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco. His father worked for the Egyptian government and was to be stationed in the U.S. for only a few years. Ahmed did not know English before he came to the U.S., but had picked it up fairly quickly, which is quite common for people of that age. In fact, when speaking to him, you might not immediately recognize him as a non-native speaker. It was only when he talked more and at length that it became apparent, at least to me, that English was not his first language. Ahmed and his father were returning to Egypt soon, but did not want to complete high school in Egypt, opting instead to go directly into the American University in Cairo. I was told that American University would accept him if he had a 900 or better on the SAT (remember, this was in the days of the two-section SAT I, in which a perfect score was 1600). He had scored only 600-something on his official SAT and had only two weeks to raise his score to 900.

Such scenarios, I should mention, are all too common. People frequently have very little time to reach a goal, but very much need to.  Happily, in the majority of cases, it seems that people do reach their goals, which speaks a lot to what people can accomplish when they give a goal their very best effort. So back to Ahmed. He had two weeks until his official SAT and needed to improve his score to 900 or better. His score breakdown was something like 350 on the math and 250 on the verbal, which again is quite typical for non-native speakers of English, and we set about on the usual diagnostics necessary for new students we work with.

It’s not such a long story, but I’ll leave out some of the details. One of the first things I check with students is simply how many empty bubbles there are on their answer sheets. Ahmed had none. Okay, I thought. First thing to point out to Ahmed. I then checked the distribution of incorrect answers. Like most people and quite understandably, Ahmed was missing more hard questions than easy questions. (Remember, most  SAT questions (but not all) progress from easier to harder within the question set.) Okay, that’s our second point to cover–how to face challenging vocabulary in the sentence completions (and analogies) and harder reading passages.

In our very first tutoring session, I sat with Ahmend and worked through some official SAT questions from the Official SAT Study Guide (always the most important book for you to have) and watched as he answered the questions. Ahmed was not leaving a single question blank, even the questions he couldn’t understand (again, quite common). Now I’ve seen many well-intentioned people and  books teach rather simplistic guessing strategies, such as If you can eliminate one answer choice, guess! Or elsewhere, If you can eliminate two answer choices as wrong, guess, since your odds of getting the right answer are in your favor. So, is it one or two? Well… It’s both. And neither. It’s just not that simple. In a word, some people are good guessers, while others seem to have bad luck. (In truth I think it really has to do with overall academic preparation.) So Ahmed and I worked on an effective guessing strategy, which ultimately resulting in his leaving a sizable number of questions blank, from about one third to one half, depending on the section.

I know you may be curious about the guessing strategy. I’ll give an example for the SAT sentence completions. For this section, which is heavily vocabulary-based, it largely boiled down to something like this–look at the question stem (the “top” part) and assess how well you understand it by counting how many words you don’t know. Then look down at the answer choices (the (A), (B), (C), (D), (E) part) and count how many words you don’t know. Come up with a threshold beyond which you should omit a question and below which you should guess. If this sounds complicated, it’s not. It’s actually relatively easy to do, and it’s one of the fastest ways to get a big score boost on the SAT if you’re not already doing it.

Ahmed and I worked through our standard curriculum (adapted to his needs, of course), which introduces students to concepts tested on the SAT and teaches them what they need to know for the test. But since it would be easier for Sisyphus to push his rock to the summit of the hill than for a mere mortal to learn in a few short weeks all of the vocabulary that could appear on the SAT, I focused less on building his foundation of knowledge and more on strategies that would give him an immediate boost. (More on strategies vs. knowledge.)

The results? Well, I’m happy to say that Ahmed reached his goal, and scored a bit over 900 on his SAT, and back to Cairo he went. He was an exceptional case for sure, but he illustrates why people should know more about their test before they take it.