Tag Archives: writing

Poll a random sample of college admissions officers, high school students, and test prep professionals on just about any issue, and you’ll likely encounter a lot of divergent ideas. On one issue, however, we all tend to agree: The SAT and ACT essays are a waste. These essays are a waste of time, adding nearly an hour to each official test and many more hours to any comprehensive test preparation. These essays are a waste of money, anywhere from $14 to $16.50 per test plus the extra cost of prep. These essays are a waste of effort, as fewer and fewer colleges require or recommend essay scores. To my knowledge, even the ones that want the scores don’t use them in any real capacity, as I’ve yet to hear about a student denied admission because of a low essay score. Harvard clearly agrees, as that estimable institution recently dropped its…

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In a world where most communication occurs through spoken word and snippets of text, the rules governing effective written communication begin to fade, becoming first esoteric and then inscrutable. Punctuation appears most mysterious to the average English speakers, particularly those marks that appear in the middle of sentences. Punctuation marks in general serve to add structure and logic to written communication. Often, this role requires making the right connections between independent clauses (those that stand on their own) and dependent clauses (those that cannot stand on their own). While commas, colons, and dashes may be used to connect clauses, none of these operate as easily and simply as the semicolon. In a world of complexity, semicolon rules are beautifully basic: use a semicolon to connect related independent clauses. That is all. We generally use terminal punctuation marks like periods and question marks to connect independent clauses by making them sentences.…

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Most influential standardized exams assess comprehensive reading and reasoning skills. Even the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school, evaluates Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills along with the expected biology, chemistry, and physics. The excerpts of text most exams use to evaluate reading, grammar, and even science reasoning skills are typically called passages. Yet, after decades of helping students master these tests, I’ve never seen a good explanation of what a passage actually is. Technically, a passage is simply a portion or section of a written work, either fiction or non-fiction. Some hold that a passage can be as short as a sentence, but most consist of at least one paragraph and usually several. One iteration of SAT Passage-based Reading included both Short Passages of 1-2 paragraphs and Long Passages of 4-9 paragraphs. These days, most test passages, at least at the high school level, come in at what is…

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A few days ago, my eyes fell on the lead news column, a piece about a terrible attack in Paris, in the New York Times, one of this country’s most prestigious and professional newspapers: Here, on the front page of a paper of record whose famous motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” can be found a phrase that would fail both the English and Writing sections of the SAT and ACT exams. The writing sections of both tests look for clear and concise wording; the job of the headline writer is to be concise to the extreme, but this often comes at the cost of clarity. We have here an example of tautology, ‘a needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word’ according to Merriam-Webster. Terror, in that same dictionary, is defined as a state of intense fear. To state that “Terror is Feared” is to belabor…

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Most high schoolers, particularly native English speakers, expect the grammar sections of standardized tests to be easy. Unfortunately, those used to informal spoken English and social media snippets find themselves woefully unprepared to understand the fundamental challenge of any true writing test: effective written communication. What exactly is effective written communication? Forget about fancy vocabulary or flowery phrasing. Only one standard for communication determines its effectiveness: Does the reader understand the intended message? If you as the writer transmit the idea you wanted to get across, your writing is effective. Easy, right? With this standard of effectiveness, we can evaluate all writing through the lens of what we call the 3 C’s of Effective Communication: CLEAR Clear simply means easily comprehended. Word choice and style is specific and appropriate to the audience, with active and direct phrasing. Ambiguity—the enemy of clarity—should be avoided at all times. CONCISE Concise means short…

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Now that the Writing portions of both the SAT and ACT are optional, students must content with a challenging decision: spend the extra time and effort to write the essay or gamble that their target schools won’t require the scores. On the one hand, nobody wants to risk an incomplete college application. On the other hand, nobody wants to struggle through another forty or fifty minutes on an already exhausting test day. What choice should a smart test taker make? In previous years, we always recommended that students take the optional ACT Writing section (or take the mandatory SAT Writing section seriously) in order to keep their options only. Few aspects of the admissions process feel worse that having to take an entire ACT again just because one school required a Writing score. But events over the last year have shifted perspectives on the test essay. Most competitive schools routinely…

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