I’ve spent the past decade teaching SAT prep classes and helping hundreds of students prepare for the SAT Writing section. After taking my class, many of my former students were able to improve their SAT Writing scores by more than 200 points. My experience has taught me that having a disciplined, focused approach to your SAT prep will allow you to maximize your score.
In this article, I have given you the best advice I have for preparing for SAT Writing. Using these methods will enable you to use your study time wisely and master the skills you need to be an SAT Writing superstar.
I tried to arrange these tips by how important they are to acing SAT Writing. However, these are all crucial tips for SAT Writing success, and you need to follow them all if you want to fully prepare yourself.
#1: Learn the Grammar Rules that the SAT Tests
SAT Writing is primarily a grammar test. Knowing the grammar rules that appear on the SAT is the most important way to prepare for SAT Writing. On the PrepScholar blog, we have written articles covering all of the grammar rules and errors that repeatedly appear on the SAT Writing section. Here they are:
You should focus your studying on the rules that are more commonly tested. We have written a post on the distribution of appearance of the grammar rules on SAT Writing (coming soon).
For those of you striving for a high score, you need to have a firm grasp on all of these grammar rules.
And learn them. And understand them.
#2: Do Tons of Practice Problems and Understand Your Mistakes
If you want to do the best you can on SAT Writing, you have to put in the time. Doing tons and tons of practice problems will make you more confident with the material. You'll be able to recognize grammar errors more quickly and avoid falling into common SAT Writing traps.
Frankly, there's a lot of SAT prep material out there that isn't good and will be of minimal help to you. The practice questions you're doing should be representative of the questions you'll find on your SAT. We've identified the quality material so you won't waste your time.
To spend your time wisely, you want to do practice problems that are likely to resemble those you will encounter on the SAT. Practice with official SAT tests and make sure you're using the best books to prep for SAT Writing.
Additionally, PrepScholar has over 1500 practice problems customized to each skill.
However, simply doing practice problems is not enough.
Why You Need to Understand Your Mistakes
While doing a bunch of practice problems will help you prepare for SAT Writing, if you keep repeating the same mistakes, your score is not going to improve. You need to understand why you're getting certain questions wrong so that you can reduce your weaknesses and raise your score.
One of the most common mistakes students make in their SAT preparation is that they don't take the necessary time to comprehend their mistakes and figure out how to correct them in the future. Understanding your mistakes can be more difficult than just doing practice problems, but it's essential if you want to keep improving your SAT Writing score.
How to Understand Your Mistakes
Fully understanding your mistakes takes diligence and organization. Here is the process that I recommend to grasp why you made each mistake and how to improve for the future; this process is somewhat rigorous, but it's also the best way to prepare for SAT Writing:
- On every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about.
- When you grade your test or quiz, review every question you marked or answered incorrectly. This way you'll be reviewing all your missed questions and the questions on which you were able to guess correctly.
- On your computer or in a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Create different sections for each grammar skill and put the question in the appropriate section.
Try to determine why you got questions wrong on your own. However, if you're having trouble figuring out your mistakes, the College Board website has an official test with explanations. Also, Khan Academy has helpful explanation videos for some of the questions on this test.
Take notes on what you specifically missed and how to improve in the future. Be as specific and as thorough as possible.
For example, don't just write that you missed a subject-verb agreement question and need to do more subject-verb agreement questions. Write down how the subject-verb agreement error was presented. Was the subject placed after the verb? Did you get confused by an interrupting phrase? What resources will you use to fully learn this rule and address your weakness?
Don't just take notes on your content issues. Also, write down any information about your careless mistakes and what steps you'll take to prevent making them again. Do you need to read the question more carefully? Do you need to look at the answer choices more closely?
You want to really dig into why you're missing questions and focus on specific ways to improve.
#3: Identify Your Weaknesses and Drill Them
If you do a thorough job of categorizing your missed questions and taking notes, you should be able to identify your weaknesses.
When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, find extra time to practice the areas where you're struggling. Maybe there's a specific grammar rule like illogical comparisons or parallelism that is causing you problems. Do extra content review and practice problems related to those rules.
The best SAT prep books and websites will have real or realistic SAT practice problems for each specific skill that is tested on SAT Writing. (We obviously believe PrepScholar qualifies, and it's designed to customize your SAT prep to focus on your weaknesses.) Furthermore, you should keep going over all of the questions you missed and marked.
By focusing your studying on the areas where you're having the most difficulties, you'll be using your time most efficiently. Spending the majority of your time practicing stuff you already know is not an effective use of your time.
Strengthen your weaknesses!
The following tip relates to the approach you should use to answer SAT Writing questions.
#4: Practice Relying on Grammar Rules to Answer Questions
Don't rely on what sounds right to answer SAT Writing questions, except on idiom questions.
Many of the SAT Writing sentences are lengthy or use uncommon phrases. The sentences might sound odd to your ear, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. Similarly, some of the sentences contain grammar errors that are so common that these sentences are likely to sound fine to you.
As such, it's vital that you practice approaching the test from a logical standpoint. Every time you answer a question, you should be able to justify your choice with a specific grammar rule.
Here's an example of how you would rely on grammar rules to answer SAT Writing questions. The explanation I give to the question is similar to the thought process you should use when answering SAT Writing questions. Now, take a look at this question from a real SAT:
Frequently on tour, a band called the Chieftains revered internationally as spirited performers of traditional Irish music.
(A) revered internationally as spirited performers
(B) revered internationally and they are spirited performers
(C) is revered internationally for its spirited performances
(D) is revered internationally as giving spirited performances
(E) are revered internationally as being spirited performers
Explanation: When I first read the sentence, I immediately noticed that it does not express a complete thought. It’s a sentence fragment. The word “revered” is used as a participle and not a verb. I assumed that the correct answer would add a verb to fix the sentence fragment.
Immediately, I eliminated answer choices A and B because they don’t fix the sentence fragment. Then, I had to determine whether to use the singular verb “is” or the plural verb “are”. Because the subject is “band”, which is singular, the verb should be in the singular form. I eliminated E because that would be a subject-verb agreement error.
Answer choice D is incorrect because “as” is the wrong word. This is an idiom error, the only type of error in which you may have to rely on your ear for what sounds right.
The correct answer is C. The sentence fragment has been corrected, the subject and verb agree, and “for” is the correct preposition to use in this sentence.
When you're doing practice questions, be able to explain and justify your answer choices with your knowledge of SAT grammar.
#5: Determine If You Have Time Management Issues. If So, Address Them
How To Determine if You Have Time Management Issues
Find an official SAT practice test, and take only the Writing sections. For each section, use a timer and treat it like a real test.
If time runs out for that section and you're 100% ready to move on, then move on. If you're not ready to move on, keep on working for as long as you need. For every new answer or answer that you change, mark it with a special note as "Extra Time."
When you're ready, move on to the next section, and repeat the above until you finish all Writing sections.
Grade your test using the answer key and score chart, but we want two scores: 1) The Realistic score you got under normal timing conditions and 2) The Extra Time score.
If the difference is more than 4 raw points, then you need to address your time management issues.
How To Improve Time Management Issues
Generally, time management improves as you become more familiar and confident with the content.
If time management is a lingering issue for you, monitor your time spent per question. You should have a target time of 45 seconds for each improving sentences question and 30 seconds for each identify the error question. No question should take longer than 1 minute.
When you're doing your practice questions, keep track of how long you're spending on each individual question. Focus on finishing each question in the target time.
For my final tip, I want to remind you about the shortest subsection on SAT Writing.
#6: Don't Forget Paragraph Improvement
Because there are only 6 paragraph improvement questions on each SAT, you should spend the majority of your time preparing for the sentence improvement and identify the error subsections. However, make sure you practice paragraph iprovement questions as well.
Some paragraph improvement questions are similar to improving sentences questions, but others are unique to this subsection. Here are the major types of questions you will find on paragraph improvement:
Macro Logic: how paragraphs relate to each other and to the main idea
Transitional Logic: how sentences and ideas connect to each other
Redundant Sentences: whether sentences or ideas are extraneous and can be deleted
Conciseness and Style: how to choose words to express ideas succinctly and clearly
When you practice paragraph improvement questions, you should use the same approach as for the other two subsections. Categorize your mistakes, take notes on why you made mistakes and how to improve, identify your weaknesses, and then spend extra time improving those weaknesses.
Review this article on how to approach paragraph improvement.
If you make a commitment to following the six tips I just gave you, I guarantee you'll be giving yourself the best chance to succeed on SAT Writing. Whenever your motivation starts to wane, think about your goals and why you want to do well on the SAT Writing section.
Review the article on how to get an 800 on SAT Writing. It offers more depth some of the methods I presented in this post.
Also, you'll want to check out the articles on my top study strategies and test-day tips for SAT Writing success (coming soon).
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.