Categories
Randomness

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.

Categories
SAT Essay

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.

Categories
Randomness

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.