SAT Writing Section

The SAT Writing section, added in 2005, is a slightly shorter 60 minutes, which is broken into three sections (one 25-minute essay section to commence the test, a 25-minute section, and a refreshingly brief 10-minute section to round out the SAT). There are 25 Improving Sentences questions, 18 Identifying Errors questions, 6 Improving Paragraphs questions, and the essay.

Although the SAT does not explicitly test any grammatical terms, having a firm understanding of English grammar serves as an invaluable foundation for confidently answering each of the Improving Sentences and Identifying Errors questions. Having an especially good ear for what sounds right may get you a good score a lot of the time; but it is unreliable, especially these days, when colloquialisms and grammar errors pervade our speech.

There’s no big tricks to this section. Have a firm grasp of the grammar rules, and apply them. It helps a lot to understand what kinds of errors come up - you can learn this from real questions as well as our guide. As for the essay, it’s trivial to get a 10 or higher - we’ll delve into this later.

Below we will discuss the writing section in detail, and the Grammar Guide is in the next section.

Improving Sentence Questions

These questions test your ability to choose the best variation on a given sentence. In deciding which choice is “best,” you should first consider grammar. If an option is ungrammatical, it will never be the correct answer. When you are going through the choices initially, you are on the hunt for any mistakes; this usually narrows your choices significantly and can occasionally lead you to a single correct answer.

If choices remain after filtering out the ungrammatical ones, you must next consider the clarity of the sentence. Are all of the pronouns as unambiguous as they can be? Does the sentence flow logically? Are the conjunctions consistent with the intended meaning of the choice? These questions should be running through your mind.

If more than one choice remains after applying these techniques, go with the more concise choice. Once ungrammatical choices are eliminated, the correct choice will be the shortest one the vast majority of the time. Keep in mind, however, that the College Board would not consider a choice better simply because it was shorter than another; there is typically an unnecessarily wordy, awkward spot that contributes to the length.

Identifying Errors Questions

These questions test your ability to recognize usage errors and incorrect grammar. A sentence with four underlined words or phrases will be presented. If one of these four underlined portions contains an error, select it as the answer. If you think that there is more than one error, you have made a mistake. If there is no error, select (E) as the answer.

These questions are relatively straightforward and do not require a deep strategy; if you know your grammar, you will do very well. The only strategic thing is to mark each question that I think has no error. When finished, return to the marked questions to ensure that there is truly no error. While there is no predetermined number of questions that will have no error, it is good to keep in mind that approximately 20% of the questions will have no error on any given test. But don’t let this fact cause you to second-guess answers that you had been confident about.

Improving Paragraphs Questions

Compared to the rest of the Writing section, these questions have less to do with grammar and more to do with well-organized writing. Diction and clarity also come up.

Among other things, you’ll be asked to provide better alternatives for sentences and phrases, to fix the syntax of a sentence, and to rearrange sentences within the paragraphs. For the most part, the questions are not as objective or straightforward as the rest of the Writing section, so your best preparation will be to work through the Improving Paragraphs questions from The Blue Book. Once you get a hang of these, however, they can become quite easy.

Essay

The SAT essay tests your ability to write in a superficially good way. That’s right: the thoughtfulness and clarity of conception that ordinarily characterize effective writing apply much less on the SAT. The graders will spend about two minutes (at most) on each essay, and the result is a rather shallow and formulaic analysis of your writing. They do, after all, have to get through hundreds of thousands of essays within a couple weeks.

You will be presented with a prompt—one that has two justifiable sides. Your job is to select a side and support it with examples. Do not veer off topic (you will receive a score of 0) or attempt to find a middle ground; pick a side and stick with it. Pick whichever side you can more easily and cogently support.

There is no prescribed format for the essay. You don’t need five paragraphs, your thesis need not be at the end of your first paragraph (though this is generally a good idea), and you don’t need an elaborate introduction and conclusion. Try to shoot for around a three- sentence introduction and a two-to-three-sentence conclusion. It is commonly cited that three examples are necessary for a great score; this is false. A single, well-supported example is always preferable to three, scarcely-supported examples. Most people find that going with two examples works best for them.

Because of the time constraints, the essay graders will begin to notice correlations and use them to more efficiently assess the essays. One of these is length: longer essays, on average, tend to be better. As a result, graders will automatically associate length with quality. Again, there is no required length, but I highly recommend that you aim to fill up both pages. Practicing the typical good writing habits is important. Vary your sentence types, employ descriptive and appropriate vocabulary when you feel comfortable doing so, and try to establish good fluidity (by smartly using conjunctive adverbs, for example). Avoiding salient grammatical errors is important, but the technical and rigorous approach to grammar that characterized my coverage of the rest of the Writing section is not relevant to the essay; minor mistakes will not affect your score and may even go unnoticed.

As for what examples are acceptable, just about anything will fly. However, historical and literary examples, as opposed to personal examples, tend to result in higher scores more often; but, again, any type of example can be successful if done well. And the point of the essay is to assess your writing skills, not your knowledge of literature or history, so carefully and plausibly fabricating some historical details or books is not a bad idea. (Stay away from citing very specific statistics, though; they are almost never believable.)

It is impossible to ensure that you will receive a 12 on the essay (each grader’s score between 0-6 is summed). Indeed, because of the great inherent subjectivity and graders’ hesitancy to hand out 6’s, 12’s are quite rare (each grader would have to give a 6). Indicative of the randomness of the grading are the facts that 11’s are about three times as common as 12’s (meaning that the graders gave different scores) and that about 4% of essays are sent to a third, supervisory grader (meaning that the graders’ scores varied by two or more on a six-point scale). Moreover, 9’s are nearly twice as common as 10’s. These statistics do not reflect favorably on the College Board. However, it is possible to consistently score 10 or higher; a great essay will almost always receive at least 5 from each grader.

Luckily, you won’t need a 12 to score well on the Writing section of the SAT. In fact, on every administration (so far, at least) you can receive 800 with a 10 as long as you do not miss any multiple choice questions. If you do manage to get 12 on the essay, you can usually miss up to two questions on the multiple choice and still pull off a “perfect” score overall.