Studying for the grammar portions of the ACT and SAT can be tiring. Often, it seems like there are endless grammar rules to memorize. One positive: although memorizing these rules may seem onerous, the tests rarely stray from them, making the grammar sections predictable. For many of my new students, these sections can be overwhelming at first thanks to all the rules that have to be discussed, but, as time goes on, the repetition and predictability of the questions will often make grammar one of their strongest areas.

But I want to talk about something other than specific grammar rules — those can be studied and mastered. Instead, I want to talk about some preferences the ACT and SAT have shown in the past regarding the questions and concepts students might not necessarily think about when studying. Understanding these tendencies can help students identify correct answer choices and, just as importantly, eliminate incorrect answer choices. Often, students rush to immediately find the right answer instead of narrowing down their choices. However, by narrowing down the answer choices first, students can limit the number of options to choose from, making almost any question both easier and less stressful.

One thing students can look for when eliminating answer choices is any option which appears overly wordy or complex. Both the ACT and SAT tend to prefer concise wording over longer descriptions which often contain some repetition. From my experience working with students, this seems to go against what most high schoolers naturally assume: they believe that a longer description must be “smarter” and thus the correct answer. This is not the case, though — standardized tests would rather a shorter answer most of the time. To be clear, this does not mean that students should always pick the shortest choice automatically, but it does mean that if a student is stuck between two choices, they should guess the more concise answer as it has a higher probability of being correct. More than a few of my students have been able to earn points by relying on this method when they’re in a pickle.

Let’s take a quick look at how this might appear on a test. Consider the two sentences below.

  1. After failing the test, Oliver became very mad and irate.
  2. After failing the test, Oliver became furious.

Some people assume the first sentence is better. After all, it’s longer and that must mean it’s more detailed, right? Wrong. The words mad and irate mean the same thing and are therefore redundant. This is why the second sentence works better: it gets across the same information with less words. Standardized tests love that! It’s a good practice for your own essay writing too — while redundant wording may make it easier to hit a page count, it often leads to an awkward flow.

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The tests also prefer when sentences introduce the subject as soon as possible. This is another solid writing rule in general; the sooner a sentence establishes a subject, the clearer the sentence’s intention is. The ACT and SAT are generally not interested in convoluted language or phrasing, opting for a more straightforward style of writing. A good rule of thumb is that if a choice sounds like it’s written by someone who’s trying to sound smart, then it’s most likely not the correct choice. Simplicity is king.

There’s specific wording which the tests shy away from, as well. The ACT and SAT have a bit of a bias against the word “being,” which is rarely found in correct answer choices. Another example would be the phrase “having been”, which is usually used incorrectly in most answer choices.

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None of these are official grammar rules, but rather patterns these tests have established over the years. Remembering these preferences can save you if you’re in a jam. If you’re staring at a question, wondering what grammar rule you’re being tested on, think back to these concepts. It’s very possible you can rely on one of them to locate the correct answer.