Test Prep

Understanding Idioms on the SAT and ACT

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Whether you choose to take the ACT or the SAT, one of the trickier parts you'll run into on either Writing section has to do with idioms. The reason for the difficulty is that idioms are phrases that simply have to be memorized, much like the way you have to remember how to properly conjugate irregular, rule-breaking verbs. And on these tests, they're not even flashy phrases like "It's raining cats and dogs," or "I'm pulling your leg," which are used to indicate something different from their literal meaning. Instead, you'll have to remember the subtle differences between things like "arrive at" and "arrive to" or identify a correct answer as "in order to" and not "in order with."


These phrases are hard enough for native English speakers to keep straight, but whether you're a non-native speaker or not, you'll definitely want to make sure you've learned the right usages (and that you have time to unlearn any wrong ones). After all, while these idioms do follow consistent rules, those rules change for each phrase! With a little practice and some solid strategies, you'll be prepared to ace idioms on the SAT and ACT.

Know What the Test Is Saying

The easiest and best-case scenario is that you are already familiar with the idiom. Here's an example:

The fact that my friend has tried out for every school play even though she has never gotten a part is a testament _____ her persistence.

A. by

B. for

C. of

D. to

If you understand that the sentence is suggesting that her persistence is what has caused the friend to continue to try out for a part, you may be able to eliminate (A) and (B) because they don't quite suggest that idea. However, between (C) and (D), you have to know the idiom. The correct phrase is "testament to," so the answer here is (D).

Rule Things Out

If you're stuck between two choices that sound equally plausible, consider the definitions of your answer choices. Most idioms on the SAT and ACT involve prepositions, which are those little directional words such as of, with, by, from and on. Sometimes you can answer, or at least eliminate a couple of wrong answers, simply by considering the definition of each preposition. Here's an example sentence with answer choices:

Review the vocabulary words before your test so that the definitions are fresh ______ your mind.

A. on

B. with

C. in

D. from

Here, if you are not familiar with the idiom, you may be able to get the answer by thinking about what each preposition means in the context of the sentence. The word on generally involves something being on top of something else, and the definitions wouldn't be on top of your mind, so (A) doesn't work. The word with joins together two things, but the definitions and your mind aren't being put together, so eliminate (B). In works: the definitions should be fresh inside your mind. Keep (C). The word from indicates the source of something, like the definitions are coming out of your mind. This isn't the intended meaning of the sentence, so eliminate (D). Only (C) makes sense here.

Idiom Questions Aren't Raining Cats and Dogs

The good news is that on both the SAT and ACT, these types of questions are relatively rare, appearing once or twice on the SAT and slightly more than that on the ACT. The vast majority of questions on both the SAT Writing & Language and the ACT English follow consistent grammar and punctuation rules, so you should focus your efforts on those topics first. But after you've done that, idioms are a way to pick up some extra points, especially if you're aiming for the highest possible score.

The bad news is that you can't just memorize a list of idioms: there are too many to list, and the writers rarely test the same one twice. The best way to improve on this topic is to be an active reader. The more you immerse yourself in books, newspapers, articles and other sources, the likelier you are to encounter and absorb idioms. This exposure to common phrases will help you subconsciously identify which ones sound correct.

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