About the Writing Section
Every SAT will have four sections: Reading, Writing, Math (no calculator), and Math (with a calculator). The Writing section consists of 44 questions that students must answer in 35 minutes. Although the number of questions and time constraints of the Writing section may initially seem daunting, the curriculum that the SAT tests remains constant among every single SAT. In this Writing section guide, we’ll go over some general study strategies, the types of questions, and some major grammar rules.
Students looking to boost their Writing section scores will have to focus on a few key question types: command of evidence, words in context, specific subject area analysis, expression of ideas, and standard English conventions. Once these concepts are mastered, students will be able to apply them to any question the SAT Writing section throws their way.
Best Strategies to Prepare
The best way to prepare for the SAT Writing section is targeted practice! Answering practice problems and going back to review any that were difficult will help students understand their main points of weakness. From there, students should create a list of concepts they need help with. However, in order to do that, students need to understand how to categorize the types of questions they are getting incorrect.
Students can better understand how to categorize their areas of weakness by considering what type of question they are missing in the Writing section, detailed later in this article. Conversely, students can also make their list of weak areas based on specific grammar rules they struggle with. This will allow them to closely examine the rule in question and master it before attempting a similar problem.
Certain prep books for the SAT contain distinct sections that will first explain certain concepts and then provide practice questions that specifically test one area. These can be particularly helpful for students looking to make the most out of their practice time. Another helpful alternative is working with a tutor, as they will be able to identify categories of weakness from personal experience and SAT expertise. Both options will take some stress off determining where students are having the most trouble.
Close to the exam day, students should take a practice run of the Writing section and replicate real test-day conditions. This will allow them to gain an understanding of their pace and timing, as well as present an opportunity to look for any unexpected areas of difficulty that they might not have faced during regular practice sessions. Test day anxiety is another factor that affects many students, regardless of how much they studied — in order to assuage test day anxiety, taking a practice run in a silent environment can also help the exam feel more familiar on the actual test date.
Types of Questions in the Writing Section
1) Command of Evidence
Command of Evidence questions will ask students to examine specific parts of the provided passages in order to make their meaning more clear. One common Command of Evidence question is when students are asked whether or not a new sentence should be introduced. When considering whether or not to add the line in question, students must consider if the sentence adds relevant or new details, or if it distracts from the main point and provides unrelated information. Depending on the value-added to the paragraph, students must then decide whether or not to add it and back their decision up with a reason.
2) Words in Context
These questions test a student’s command over vocabulary. Students will need to decide whether to keep the word already embedded in the paragraph, or choose to change the word. An extremely important aspect of answering Word in Context questions is to go back and read the sentence in question — context is everything! Since the same word can have so many different meanings depending on the context, reading the sentence in its entirety can be the difference between getting the question correct or incorrect.
3) Specific Subject Area Analysis
The Writing section, like the Reading section, will include passages spanning a wide range of topics. Specifically, the Writing section will ask students to analyze passages about the history and social studies as well as science. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to students who don’t feel as strong in those areas: absolutely no background knowledge is ever required on the SAT. Important historical details will be included throughout the passage, and all relevant information is available on the page.
Subject Area Analysis will ask students to read passages through a critical lens and make editorial decisions in order to improve their flow, diction, and/or clarity.
4) Expression of Ideas
Expression of Ideas asks students to think about the organization of a passage. Specifically, these questions may push students to consider word choice or paragraph structure in order to ensure the passage is making the clearest point it can.
An example of these types of questions is when the SAT asks students to reorder sentences within a paragraph. When answering these types of questions, students should be sure to carefully and quickly read through the passage as a whole and determine what the main point or argument is. Once that is established, students can then think about what order of sentences would make the strongest argument.
5) Standard English Conventions
Questions that test Standard English Conventions will call upon the knowledge of basic grammar rules. However, just because they are testing the building blocks of writing doesn’t necessarily mean the questions will come easily. These questions will ask about punctuation, verb tense, subject-verb agreement, and parallel construction.
Staying alert while taking the SAT Writing section will help students make sure they’re not letting small errors slip past them. Since colloquial language oftentimes uses incorrect grammar, students may be used to seeing a phrase written in a way that is technically grammatically incorrect. Therefore, operating in a thoughtful and engaging manner when reading through questions and answer choices is extremely important, as sometimes errors will not automatically send alarm bells ringing.
Basic Grammar Rules and Concepts to Know
Many grammar rules will come naturally to native English speakers since they’re accustomed to hearing and reading English in everyday life. However, students need to make sure they are rock solid in a few basic English grammar rules in order to best prepare for the SAT Writing section.
1) Subject–Verb Agreement
Singular nouns need to be paired with a singular verb, and plural nouns require plural verbs. Don’t get confused by “singular verbs” and “plural verbs!” While we can tell when nouns are plural by determining whether or not they end in ‘s,’ plural verbs do not end in ‘s.’ For example, we wouldn’t say “The students run.” We would say “The students run.”
Although the subject-verb agreement may seem obvious to many English speakers, the SAT Writing section often tests this concept using an unclear subject. When reading a long and complicated sentence, it becomes harder to tell what or who the true subject of a sentence is.
Example: It’s been days since the news outlets covered the Senate’s huge public relations crisis, but the Senator, along with other members of Congress, still has yet to respond.
While at first glance, this sentence may seem correct, there is an unclear subject. The grammatically correct sentence would actually need to replace “have” with “has,” because the subject (the person who has not responded yet), is the Senator, not the other members of Congress. Since the members of Congress are mentioned right before the verb is introduced, students may believe that the subject of the sentence is those members of Congress. However, if students think carefully about who has yet to respond, they will notice that the actual subject of the sentence performing the action verb is the Senator.
After reading through many paragraphs and sentences, it’s easy to miss small details. We recommend that when students come across a sentence testing verb tense, they identify the subject in the sentence — that means going back and rereading it! The answer might not be as obvious as it may seem.
Another hint: students should watch out for verb-subject agreement questions. The same rules apply, but these questions might be confusing because the sentence will place the verb before the subject. An example of a verb-subject sentence is: “Lounging across the window lies the house cat, purring and licking its paw.” In this case, the cat is the subject, and “lies” is the verb, but the order in which we are introduced to both words is flipped.
2) Collective Noun Plurality and “Or” Plurality
Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group of things or people, but the word itself is singular. Therefore, when choosing a verb for a collective noun, students have to make sure to choose a singular verb!
Example: The group of chickens clucks.
In this example, the group is the collective noun serving as the subject. Therefore, even though the sentence may not “sound correct,” it’s the grammatically correct way to compose the idea. Writing “the group of chickens cluck” would be incorrect because it would assume that the subject-verb agreement in question is “chickens cluck” instead of “the group clucks.”
“Or” plurality refers to when there are two subjects related by the word “or.” When this occurs, the subject is actually singular, even though more than one subject may be mentioned.
Example: “The chicken or the goose eats lunch” versus “The chicken and goose eat lunch.”
In the first sentence, the chicken and goose are related by “or,” meaning only one of them performs the action. Therefore, the sentence requires a singular verb, “eats.” On the other hand, the second sentence relates the chicken and goose with “and,” meaning the subject refers to multiple nouns and requires a plural verb, “eat.”
3) Parenthesis and Em–Dash
Em–dashes are one of the hardest punctuation concepts for students taking the SAT to master. However they behave very similarly to parentheses and therefore, students should consider their similarities if struggling to decide whether or not the sentence requires em–dashes.
Both parentheses and em–dashes are used to set off nonessential phrases and clauses from the rest of the sentence. A good way to test whether or not a phrase is “nonessential” is to remove it from the sentence and reread the altered version — it should still make sense! Parentheses are used to contain additional information that provides more context about a subject, while em–dashes can be used in order to emphasize a certain point. If the emphasized phrase occurs at the end of the sentence, only one em–dash is required.
Example: My friend Anna’s new puppy (a mini dachshund) loves to play outside.
Note that the information inside the parentheses is not essential to our understanding of the sentence!
Example: My other friend usually doesn’t like dogs — even the cutest puppies — but she loved Anna’s new addition to the family!
In this example, we use two em–dashes in order to emphasize that someone doesn’t like even the cutest and most lovable dogs in order to drive the point home. If we removed the phrase inside the em–dashes, the sentence would still logically make sense!
Example: A good way to test whether or not a phrase is “nonessential” is to remove it from the sentence and reread the altered version — it should still make sense!
If this sentence sounded familiar, it’s because it is — it’s featured in an earlier paragraph for the parenthesis and em–dash section! Em–dashes can be very commonplace and applicable to many different sentences. Since the emphasized phrase occurs at the end of the sentence, we don’t need to use two em–dashes to set it off from the rest of the sentence. This example also shows that the phrase offset by an em–dash at the end of a sentence doesn’t necessarily have to be an incomplete clause: in this example, “it should still make sense” is a complete clause with both a subject and verb.
4) Clauses (Independent, Dependent)
Clauses are similar to phrases, but they contain both a subject and a verb. Independent clauses refer to complete sentences while dependent clauses refer to a phrase that cannot form a full sentence on its own. Sentences with multiple clauses usually require some form of punctuation, usually commas, in order to separate them from each other.
To identify a clause, look for both a subject and verb preceding or following a comma. Alternatively, another way is to look for a subject and verb before subordinating conjunction, which we’ll dive into in this section.
Students can think of subordinating conjunctions as transitional phrases in sentences. A few extremely common subordinating conjunctions include: after, although, because, before, even though, since, when, where, whenever, whether, while, etc. If a clause begins with a subordinating conjunction, then that clause cannot stand on its own and must be followed by an independent clause.
In order to identify independent clauses, students should ask themselves if the part of the sentence they are considering can stand on its own: does it have both a subject and a verb?
Example: Even though Andie didn’t like studying, she knew that all her time in the library paid off when she aced her Economics exam.
In this example, there are two distinct clauses. The first clause, “even though Andie didn’t like studying,” contains a subordinating conjunction (“even though”), and therefore cannot stand on its own. Since it can’t stand on its own, the first clause we read is a dependent clause. However, the second clause contains both a subject and a verb and does not include a subordinating clause. If we were to simply read the second clause on its own, we would be able to comprehend the sentence: “She knew that all her time in the library paid off when she aced her Economics exam.” Therefore, students can identify this as an independent clause.
Once students feel comfortable with independent versus dependent clauses, they should also think about the process of building sentences. For example, connecting two independent clauses is necessary and usually requires common coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. A good mnemonic device to remember coordinating conjunctions is the acronym FANBOYS — For And Nor But Or Yet So.
5) Semicolons and Commas with Coordinating Conjunctions
Two independent clauses cannot exist next to each other without either a comma and coordinating conjunction or if they are separated by a semicolon.
Semicolons can get confusing for students, but they act very similarly to periods. In fact, the biggest difference separating the function of semicolons and periods is that semicolons separate two complete sentences that are directly related. Still, periods can be used to separate two sentences that are directly related — semicolons just help to drive the connection home.
Example: She just bought a car, she can drive it tomorrow. (This is grammatically incorrect!)
This example combines two independent clauses together, but actually is grammatically incorrect because it doesn’t separate them with a coordinating conjunction or semicolon. The correct way to express this idea would be “She just bought a car, so she can drive it tomorrow,” or “She just bought a car; she can drive it tomorrow.”
Another punctuation mark that might lead to confusion for some students is the colon. Colons are used to separate an independent clause and list, or an independent clause and an explanation of the independent clause.
The most common use for colons is to denote a list, but that is not the only time colons are grammatically correct! Typically, students will eliminate an answer choice with a colon if they do not see a list come after; it’s extremely important to understand that colons can also act similarly to em-dashes in that they can be used to provide more details about a previous clause.
Example: To go camping, bring the following items: a tent, sleeping bag, warm clothing, toiletries, and a water bottle.
This example demonstrates the most familiar use of a colon.
Example: I can’t believe what happened: we got lost in the woods and couldn’t get out until the ranger came to get us!
The colon in this example separates the independent clause (“I can’t believe what happened”) and an expansion of that idea (“we got lost in the woods and couldn’t get out until the ranger came to get us!”) Both uses of the colon are grammatically correct.
7) False Comparisons
Another commonly–missed concept on the SAT Writing section is false comparisons. The two objects being compared to one another must fall under the same “category” of nouns in order to make the sentence grammatically correct. For instance, objects must be compared with other objects, and people have to be compared with other people; comparing an object with a person would not make sense.
Example: Jane’s clothes are more flattering than Josh’s. (This is grammatically incorrect.)
Here, Jane’s clothes are being compared to Josh’s. While this sentence may sound alright because we may colloquially speak this way, grammatically the sentence is illogical. Comparing items (clothes) to a person (Josh) doesn’t make sense; the sentence is trying to compare Jane’s clothes to Josh’s clothes. Therefore, the proper way to write this sentence is, “Jane’s clothes are more flattering than Josh’s clothes.”
The SAT may find ways to complicate this concept. For example, they might write the sentence as “Jane’s clothes are more flattering than that of Josh.” The grammar issue here is now that the plurality of the compared items is not parallel. Since clothes are plural, the noun representing both items must be plural. The correct way to phrase this sentence would be, “Jane’s clothes are more flattering than those of Josh.”
Taking the Writing Section
While the section above covered some of the biggest concepts tested by the Writing section, there are still many rules to learn and master. The best way to do this is, again, targeted practice!
Whether students choose to develop their understanding on their own or turn to an online SAT tutor, they can conquer the Writing section by brushing up on key grammar rules. We recommend that students cram for the SAT a day or two before their exam date to keep the concepts fresh in their minds. Good luck!