How to Practice Writing Conventions for ACT, SAT | College Admissions Playbook

The ACT English Test and the SAT Writing and Language Test assess test-takers in various conventions of standard English, such as punctuation, sentence structure and formation, and usage.

For many high school students, these aspects of the English language are far from second nature, and the necessary effort to improve this skill set can feel daunting. Luckily, there are some practical and enjoyable ways to honor your abilities in these areas:


Mentally Correct Text Messages

Texting is an activity that many people engage in every day, so it can provide plenty of chances to sharpen editing skills, which is precisely what the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections require. Whenever you receive a text, scan it for potentially misused or missing punctuation marks.

A common mistake in text messages, which also appears frequently on the ACT and SAT, is a misused apostrophe. There are two general instances in which apostrophes are used: contractions and possessives. Contractions are the shortened forms of two words, such as “didn’t” for “did not” and “they’re” in place of “they are.” Possessive apostrophes show who owns what – among other relationship types – as in “Jim’s dog.”

You add an apostrophe and the letter “s” when there is only one owner, such as in the previous example of Jim’s dog. When there are multiple owners, like with “the girls’ cats,” only an apostrophe is added, and it gets added at the end. An exception to this rule is irregular plurals that do not end in s, as in “the children’s shoes” and “the people’s beliefs.”

When you edit others’ text messages, remember to keep the corrections to yourself unless you are communicating with a consenting ACT or SAT test-taker who wants to practice proper punctuation with you.

Edit a Paragraph a Day

Some students may mistakenly think that if they are not overwhelming themselves with test prep, they are not studying enough. But that is not the case: the quality of your preparation trumps the quantity.

You can develop your punctuation skills gradually by editing just one small chunk of text per day.

For instance, you can try paragraph correction worksheets from English for Everyone, which are sorted by difficulty level and come with answer sheets to ensure you are on the right track. The advanced worksheets most closely resemble the nature of the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections, but it is perfectly acceptable to start with the beginner or intermediate-level worksheets.

As you edit, keep a keen eye out for comma splices, the use of a comma to separate two full sentences. Remember that at the very least, a sentence contains a subject and a verb, as in “We tried.”

Comma splices are common mistakes in written English, and they are frequently tested on the ACT and the SAT.

However, they can be fixed in several simple ways: by changing the comma to a period; by changing the comma to a semicolon if the sentences are closely related; or by adding a coordinating conjunction, also known as a FANBOYS word (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For instance, the comma splice in “You can stay, you can go” can be fixed by adding the word “or” in the middle: “You can stay, or you can go.”

Purposefully Include Punctuation in Your Writing

Most people are quite comfortable with the rules that govern period, question mark and exclamation point usage. However, it may be less clear when to include a colon, semicolon, hyphen or em dash.

To understand these less common yet equally useful punctuation marks, challenge yourself to use a few properly in your writing. For instance, you might set out to tactfully insert two semicolons into your English homework assignment or a well-placed colon in your next email.

Sentence Structure and Formation

Make Observations About a Canonical Work

English conventions do not always have to be learned consciously. You don’t need to memorize isolated grammar rules to become a better writer. On the contrary, you can perceive what makes for sound writing by critically reading renowned literary works.

If you are not sure what to read, browse Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of 12 novels that have been described as the greatest books ever written and see if one piques your interest. Then, read sections of the book during test prep time. Do not rush through it, as the goal is to reflect critically at the sentence level. Take in the words slowly, observing the author’s writing style and what makes it effective.

For that exercise, you may want to have a pencil on hand to circle structures that jump out at you as being especially clear, concise or expressive.

Use an AI-Based Writing Assistant

You probably write plenty of emails during the school year. When you do so, make sure you have downloaded an AI-based writing assistant like Grammarly to catch the weaknesses in your messages.

Products like Grammarly – which offers a free version – use artificial intelligence to pick up on redundancy, unclear referents, inconsistent verb tenses, colloquialisms, dangling modifiers and other blunders that can detract from the quality of your written work. If you subscribe to the paid versions of such software, which may prove to be fruitful, you can view more detailed explanations of why the software’s suggestions are superior to your wording.

Browse Grammar-Based Jokes and Memes

Humor is a fun yet overlooked way to internalize grammar rules. For instance, consider this list of clever grammar puns with the timeless “A (fill in the blank) walks into a bar” format. You can also search for memes on misplaced modifiers, unclear referents and Oxford commas. Not only are they bound to lighten your mood, but they can also help you remember abstract concepts via visual, absurd and memorable examples.

Pronoun and Other Word Usage

Listen carefully for pronoun usage

Pronoun usage is a hot topic these days, with social movements prompting people to reconsider how they speak and write. For instance, feminist thought has called for the usage of the feminine pronoun in generalizations like, “Each citizen should take advantage of her right to vote.” Traditionally, the male pronoun has been used in such statements.

On the other hand, some individuals have defaulted to they/their/theirs to promote gender-neutral discourse when referring to a singular person.

It is key to recognize that the makers of the ACT and SAT currently recognize only he/him/his and she/her/hers as the singular pronoun forms. For instance, the sentence “Each citizen should take advantage of her right to vote” should read “his or her right to vote” on the ACT or SAT. Other words that take a singular pronoun include every, either and neither.

Listen for pronoun usage on TV and elsewhere and see if you can identify phrases that would be considered incorrect on the ACT or SAT.

Clean up the Mistakes in Your Speech

Even native speakers of English are known to make ample grammar mistakes when they speak. In fact, certain mistakes are especially notorious, making them easy to identify in speech once you know what they are.

Start by perusing Duolingo’s list of “10 Common Mistakes That Native English Speakers Make.” Notice the mistakes you are guilty of and try to make the suggested changes to your speech, which will transfer to your writing.

Studying English conventions does not have to involve a boring test prep book. There are plenty of dynamic ways to prepare for ACT English and SAT Writing and Language in everyday life.


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