As you study for SAT Writing, you’ll need some sample tests to practice your new skills on. Resist the temptation to just start trying random questions, however. It’s vital that you only use practice tests that will actually help you improve, and those can be a bit tricky to find.
In this post, I'll explain why you should stick to accurate practice tests, what makes for a good practice test, how to use them in your SAT writing prep, and where to find the best practice SATs.
Keep in mind that although the general advice in this article applies to every standardized test, it only includes links to materials for the current SAT. For more info on how to study for the new SAT, try this full guide.
Feature Image: Dennis Skley/Flickr
4 Reasons to Stick to Accurate Practice Tests
For the most part, you should focus on practicing with official SAT writing tests. SAT writing questions have their own logic and style, which you'll only become accustomed to by studying the actual test.
In a perfect world, you could also supplement the official tests with extra practice materials designed to help you study specific concepts. Unfortunately, the majority of unofficial SAT practice materials, including those made by well-known companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review, aren't true to what's actually on the test.
(Here at PrepScholar, we believe our program is an exception, but you don't need to take my word on that. Read the rest of this guide and then give it a try—for free!—yourself.)
Using bad practice materials is a waste of valuable SAT study time and can even hurt your progress. Below, I've expanded on key reasons not to use inaccurate practice materials.
#1: They Don't Cover the Right Concepts
SAT writing questions only test a handful of topics, but most non-official practice tests either ask about concepts that aren't on the real test or skip some of the key ideas that are. Even when unofficial materials do stay focused on the same concepts as the real SAT writing section, they generally don't do so in the same ways.
For example, a bad test might ask you about the difference between "who" and "whom," a concept that isn't covered on the real SAT writing section, or have Identifying Sentence Error questions that count style issues as errors or ask about punctuation, neither of which would ever happen on a real test.
If you're using inaccurate tests, you're learning to take the test the wrong way—to look for errors you won't see on the real thing—instead of getting accustomed to the style of question you'll actually see on the SAT writing section.
#2: Big Picture Strategies Won't Apply to Them
One of the most important parts of studying for SAT writing is learning how to effectively approach the questions. If a practice test doesn't allow you to practice those big picture strategies, it probably isn't worth your time. Some of the worst practice materials include questions that use different formats than those on SAT writing.
This change may not seem important, since you can still practice the SAT writing grammar concepts. However, SAT writing isn't a regular grammar test, and succeeding on it is just as much about understanding how to attack the test as it is about knowing the rules.
Make sure to use differently formatted questions sparingly, if at all.
#3: They Don't Employ the Same Logic as SAT Writing Questions
I briefly mentioned this idea above, but it is really, really important: SAT writing questions follow specific patterns and the best way to learn them is to study official SAT writing tests.
As such, even the best unofficial tests can't replace real SATs in your prep plan.
#4: They Can Convince You that You're Much Better (or Worse) at SAT Writing than You Actually Are
A lot of unofficial tests feature questions that are either considerably easier or markedly harder than those on the actual SAT writing section.
If you practice on easier tests, you're likely to end up thinking that you're more prepared than you are and then panicking when faced with real questions. If you're using harder tests, on the other hand, you're likely to become discouraged because the tests feel impossible (sometimes they are!).
In neither case do you get a good sense of what the material on the official SAT is like, which is one of the main reasons to practice the SAT in the first place.
You would never see this question on a real SAT, but you might on a bad practice test. Image: Duncan Hull/Flickr
3 Key Qualities to Look for in SAT Writing Practice Material
Now that we've established some of the problems with bad study materials, let's go over what to look for in good SAT writing practice materials.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the best approach is to start with real SATs. Luckily, the College Board has released a total of 14 official tests, which should be enough to cover at least 40 hours of studying. (I'll go over where to find these tests, as well as other official SAT writing practice questions, below.)
If you do find yourself in need of further study material, however, there are three questions you need to ask yourself as you evaluate potential practice materials.
#1: Do the Questions Have the Same Formats as Those on SAT Writing?
The first step to evaluating practice materials is glancing over them and making sure they look the same as real SAT writing sections. Are the three different types of questions (Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors, and Improving Paragraphs) all represented? Does each type look the way it should?
You'll likely be amazed by how many practice tests don't pass this basic screening. Make sure not to use materials that don't look right—they'll certainly be off in other ways as well.
#2: Does It Test the Same Concepts as the Real SAT Writing Section?
This question can be very difficult to answer because it requires you to fully understand what's actually on the SAT. This is one of the reasons that you should only turn to unofficial tests if you've already used up the majority of the materials available from the College Board.
However, if you do need to find some more SAT writing practice, I recommend working through 10 of each type of SAT writing question (or just one passage for Improving Paragraphs) and trying to see if anything jumps out at you as obviously unlike a real SAT writing section.
Are there questions on topics you've never seen on the official tests? Or are there topics clearly missing? Do the explanations clearly lay out why the correct answer is the only one that works?
#3: Is the Test Roughly as Difficult as the SAT?
This problem is another issue that can be challenging to resolve without investing a lot of time into materials that may or may not be helpful.
After testing some of the questions (as I recommend above), compare how many you missed on the unofficial tests with your average from an official test.
Is the number much higher? Much lower? If so, think about why—is it fluke or are you doing measurably better or worse on the unofficial questions? If you suspect the unofficial practice materials differ significantly from official ones, don't use them.
The Best Ways to Use SAT Writing Practice Tests to Prep
What you're using SAT writing practice for will depend on what kind of prep program you're doing (independent, with a tutor, through an online program), but there are three main types of SAT writing practice: taking full tests, analyzing sections, and drilling with questions.
I've outlined some general advice on how to effectively practice for SAT writing below.
Take at Least 3 Full Practice Tests
One of the most important parts of studying for the SAT is building up the endurance to stay focused for a three-hour test, and the only way to do that is by practicing.
No matter what type of study program you use, you must take at least three full practice SATs where you closely simulate testing conditions: timing yourself, sitting in a quiet room, turning off your phone, and taking only the SAT-allowed breaks.
Make sure to use official SATs for these full practice tests. The point of the exercise is to mimic the experience of test day as closely as possible, which is only possible with a real test.
Analyze the Questions
Another reason to primarily use official SAT practice tests is that their questions have a unique style and logic. Therefore, it can be very useful to carefully pick apart real SAT writing questions and think about how they work.
When analyzing a question, ask yourself the following questions. What idea is the question testing? How are the wrong answers wrong? Are there traps meant to trick you into picking an incorrect answer, and, if so, how can you avoid them?
The deeper your understanding of how SAT writing questions are built, the easier, and quicker, answering them becomes. You can also check out our post on reviewing your mistakes for more tips on how to effectively analyze questions.
Practice Both With and Without a Timer
Although moving quickly through the questions is an important part of succeeding on the SAT, you shouldn't focus only on timed practice—doing so will keep you from getting the most out of your SAT writing practice.
After you’ve taken a full practice test and set a baseline, it’s better to start with untimed practice and work up to doing timed sections. That way ,at the beginning, you can focus on gaining a deep understanding of the structure and style of SAT writing, which will then help you approach the timed questions more confidently.
Know when and when not to use a timer.
The Best SAT Writing Practice Tests
I've said it before and I'll say it again: use official SAT writing practice tests whenever possible. To help with that, I've curated a list of everywhere you can obtain official SAT writing practice materials—for free and for sale—and explained the best ways to use them.
Free Official Tests
There are a number of full-length official tests available online. These are great for taking as complete tests, but can certainly be used for other purposes as well.
Most Recent SAT Practice Test
On its website, the College Board offers a free practice test (broken) that anyone can download and take. You can even input your answers on the College Board site, and it will grade the test for you. (Otherwise make sure to download them here. [broken])
This test is great to use as your baseline test because there are full answer explanations available on the College Board website, as well as helpful explanation videos for some of the questions on Khan Academy.
More Free Official Tests
In addition to the most recent free PDF, there are some older official SATs available through the links below.
Extra Free Official Practice
In addition to the full length tests, you can find extra SAT writing practice questions in the following places.
College Board WebsiteThe College Board offers some extra writing practice questions as well as the full tests: Identifying Sentence Errors (broken), Improving Sentences (broken), and Improving Paragraphs (broken).
These aren't as good for simulating the actual test, but they can help you get a general sense of the questions and style, especially since they include explanations.
Online education non-profit Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to create official study materials for the redesigned SAT, but they also have some great practice questions for the current version of the test.
If you sign up for a free account you can access more official Identifying Sentence Erros and Improving Sentences questions (unfortunately there are none for Improving Paragraphs). The questions include explanations.
Official SAT Writing Tests for Sale
Finally, there are also some real SATs for sale, in the form of The Official SAT Study Guide, which includes 10 more official tests. The book is currently available for $11.81 on Amazon, so it's an excellent value. The book itself doesn't include full answer explanations, but they are available on the College Board website.
You can likely check the book out of the library as well, but if you do so, make sure that it doesn't include other students' notes and keep in mind that you may not be able to access the online explanations.
If you still want more sources of SAT writing practice, check out our guide to the best SAT writing books (coming soon).
Make sure that you know how to study effectively with these key tips (coming soon).
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.