No, ACT and SAT grammar is not dead

With the redesign of the SAT in 2015, many students rejoiced at the prospect of a revised Writing test: no more grammar, they thought! Actually, their celebration was premature. There still is plenty of grammar in the SAT Writing test – up to one-half of all the questions test grammar rules directly. The remaining half test usage, idioms, vocabulary in context, organization and understanding of the text. Similarly, the ACT English section – which has not changed in over 20 years – tests plenty of grammar, usage and punctuation. So strong grammar skills are still required.

The good news is that the grammar, usage, punctuation skills and knowledge tested on both these exams is quite circumscribed and thus predictable. Students who master this material can devote more of their time and focus to the content and context questions, which often require careful analysis – analysis that those caught up in grammar dithering don’t have time for.

For a fun introduction to some common grammar rules tested on both these exams, check out my Grammar Bloopers. I’ve collected over 30 grammar errors from popular publications (whose editors should know better!) and assorted advertisements (that get away with it because they can). Click through to the end or jump to Blooper answers and explanations at any point. 

Master these, and you’ll smile knowingly when you encounter one of your new grammar facts on the test. But be forewarned: you are likely to become of one of those who sees the grammar errors where others do not. Have you found some of your own? Great! Email the links to me and I’ll add them to the collection!

What you should be reading to prepare for the new SAT

Sure, you are slogging through challenging novels in English class, muddling along detail-strewn sagas in history and still trying to keep up with the Kardashians (stop that, by the way). It’s all good, but it’s not quite enough. If you are a sophomore or junior in 2017 or later, you don’t know what it was like before, but trust me: the SAT is a lot different in mood, emphasis and difficulty than it was just a year ago. Yet, you are still studying the same curriculum at school as students who took the old test. You are going to have to do something different if you want to distinguish yourself on this new test.

The new SAT is obsessed with historical documents (not these historical documents, but if you haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, do watch this extremely charming movie that won’t help you on the SAT but will give you a little joy). The new SAT also has a thing for what I call archaic parlor dramas: works by Oscar Wilde and other snarky Victorians, Jane Austen, and the writings of other authors –just crying out for a Merchant-Ivory production. Then there’s a smattering of sociology, anthropology and hard-core science writing.

I find that most students are surprisingly adept at the science passage; I guess that’s one thing the new SAT has got right. The current high school curriculum, now geared more towards STEM and designed to fulfill Common Core standards, does prepare students better for challenging science writing. But parlor dramas and 18th-19th century political treatises? Not so much.

Here is a starter list of some works that my recent students have found helpful:

• Franz Kafka’s Metamophosis is excerpted in one of the official SAT practice tests. If you’ve never encountered Surrealism, you’ll be flummoxed, but you can read the story in full here.

• Another writer whom I recommend is Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who died in 2015. You can find his articles for the New York Times and some excerpts from his works here. His books are here. Dr. Sacks is a favorite of both the SAT and ACT; both tests’ makers have excerpted his works more than once because he wrote beautifully with tremendous humanity – and sophisticated vocabulary and style. You can learn from him to apply to your essay, too…

• Check out some Oscar Wilde’s stories and/or plays: The Importance of Being Earnest (silly, funny, very facetious), The Picture of Dorian Gray (thrilling story).

• If you like this sort of thing, check out Lost in Austen, the British mini-series about a modern Londoner who magically becomes enmeshed in her favorite romantic tale. Tremendous fun and it will build your vocabulary and understanding of rich English speech. Did you know that “want” also means “lacks”? If not, it seems that your vocabulary wants sufficient depth.

Speaking of vocabulary, I’ll address that in a post soon. Suffice to say, vocabulary is NOT over; it’s just harder to study for in the new SAT.