SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Improve Your SAT Writing Score: 8 Key Strategies

Posted by Allen Cheng | Oct 7, 2017 5:30:00 PM

SAT Strategies, SAT Writing

 

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Are you struggling with SAT Writing + Reading scores between 300-500? You're not alone - hundreds of thousands of students are scoring in this range. But many don't know the best ways to break out of this score range and score a 600 or above.

Here we'll discuss how to improve SAT Writing score effectively, and why it's so important to do so. Put these principles to work and I'm confident you'll be able to improve your score.

 

Brief note: This article is suited for students scoring below a 600. If you're already above this range, my perfect SAT score article and perfect SAT Writing article is more appropriate for you. But you might still read this article since some of it will apply to you.

In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring high is a good idea, what it takes to score a 600, and then go into test strategies.

Stick with me - this is like building a house. First you need to lay a good foundation before putting up the walls of the house and pretty windows. Similarly, we need to first understand why you're doing what you're doing, before diving into tips and strategies.

(In this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 600. But if your goal is a 500, these concepts still equally apply).

 

Understand the Stakes

At this SAT score range, improving your low SAT Writing score to a 600 range will dramatically boost your chances of getting into better colleges.

Let's take a popular school, Penn State University, as an example.

Its average SAT score is a 1270. Its 25th percentile score is a 1180, and 75th percentile is an 1370.

Furthermore, its acceptance rate is 51%. In other words, a little more than half of all applicants are admitted. But the lower your scores, the worse your chances.

In our analysis, if you score around a 1180, your chance of admission drops to 25%, or around 1/4 chance.

But if you raise your score to a 1370, your chance of admission goes up to 75% - a great good chance of admission.

For the Writing section, this is especially true if you want to apply to humanities or language programs. They expect your Writing score to be better than your math score, and if you score low, they'll doubt your ability to do college-level humanities work.

It's really worth your time to improve your SAT score. Hour for hour, it's the best thing you can do to raise your chance of getting into college.

Curious what chances you have with an 1300 SAT score? Check out our expert college admissions guide for an 1300 SAT score.

 

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Know that You Can Do It

This isn't just some lame inspirational message you see on the back of a milk carton.

I mean, literally, you and every other student can do this.

In my work with PrepScholar, I've worked with thousands of students scoring in the lower ranges of 300-500.

Time after time, I see students who beat themselves up over their low score and think improving it is impossible. "I know I'm not smart." "I've just never been good at writing, and I can't see myself scoring high." "I don't know what to study to improve my score."

It breaks my heart.

Because I know that more than anything else, your SAT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.

Not your IQ and not your school grades. Not how Ms. Anderson in 9th grade gave you a C on your essay.

Here's why: the SAT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you get the sense that the questions are nothing like what you've seen in school?

You've learned grammar before in school. You know some basic grammar rules. But the SAT questions just seem so much weirder.

It's purposely designed this way. The SAT can't test difficult concepts, because this would be unfair for students who never took AP English. It can't ask you to decompose Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The SAT is a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country.

So it HAS to test concepts that all high school students will cover. Subject verb agreement, run-on sentences, pronoun choice, etc. You've learned all of this throughout school.

But the SAT still has to make the test difficult, so it needs to test these concepts in strange ways. This trips up students who don't prepare, but it rewards students who understand the test well.

 

Example Question

Here's an example: find the grammar error in this sentence:

The commissioner, along with his 20 staff members, run a tight campaign against the incumbent.

 

This is a classic SAT Writing question. Try to solve it before reading on.

 

The error is in subject/verb agreement. The subject of the sentence is commissioner, which is singular. The verb is "run," but because the subject is singular, it should really be "runs."

If you didn't see an error, you fell for a classic SAT Writing trap. It purposely confused you with the interrupting phrase, "along with his 20 staff members." You're now picturing 20 people in a campaign - which suggests a plural verb!

The SAT Writing section is full of examples like this. Nearly every grammar rule is tested in specific ways, and if you don't prepare for these, you're going to do a lot worse than you should.

Here's the good news: this might have been confusing the first time, but the next time you see a question like this, you'll know exactly what to do: find the subject and the verb, and get rid of the interrupting phrase.

So to improve your SAT Writing score, you just need to:

  • learn the grammar rules that the SAT tests
  • study how the SAT tests these grammar rules and learn how to detect which grammar rule you need in a question
  • practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes

I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this. First, let's see how many questions you need to get right to get a certain score.

 

What It Takes to Get a 600 (or 30) in SAT Writing

If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test. Remember that we're aiming for a Writing test score of 30, out of 40.

Writing is a little more complicated than Reading and Math because of the essay. Your raw score on the multiple choice section is combined with your essay score to give your final Writing score out of 800.

Here's the raw score to SAT Writing Score conversion table. (If you could use a refresher on how the SAT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)

Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled Raw Scaled
44 40 32 30 20 23 8 14
43 39 31 30 19 22 7 13
42 38 30 29 18 21 6 13
41 37 29 28 17 21 5 12
40 36 28 28 16 20 4 11
39 35 27 27 15 19 3 10
38 34 26 26 14 19 2 10
37 34 25 26 13 18 1 10
36 33 24 25 12 17 0 10
35 32 23 25 11 16    
34 32 22 24 10 16    
33 31 21 23 9 15    

 

Notice that if you're aiming for a 30/40 on Writing, you need a raw score of 31-32, or around 77%.

This means you need to answer a bit above 3/4 of all questions right.

Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 30. For example, if you're scoring a 23, you need to answer 10-11 more questions right to get to a 600.

Once again, if your goal is a 500, or a 25 in Writing, the same analysis applies.

 

OK - so we've covered why scoring a higher SAT Writing score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.

Now we'll actually get into actionable strategies that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.

 

Strategies to Improve Your Low SAT Writing Score

Strategy 1: Get Used to the SAT Writing Passage Format

The SAT Writing format has a pasage on the left hand side, and questions on the right. The questions are indicated in the passage by underlines and a number marker.

Take a look:

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This is a little odd to get used to, because you need to alternate between reading the passage and answering questions about grammar and writing style. This gets tricky because some of the questions require you to understand the passage as a whole. Darting your head left and right to answer questions can make you lose concentration.

In what order do you read the passage and answer questions? We recommend this passage strategy:

  • Read every sentence to completion. 
    • If the sentence has an underline in the middle, don't stop reading the sentence. Finish reading it so you understand what it's about.
  • Go back to the question and answer it.
  • If the question has multiple questions tagged, tackle them one at a time.

We find that this strategy works the best for lower-scoring students. It strikes a good balance between comprehending the passage and answering questions quickly.

Do NOT do this: read the entire passage, then answer the questions. It's usually not important to comprehend the entire passage, like you need in SAT Reading. Most questions are very focused sentence by sentence, such that you don't need other sentences to answer them correctly.

You can read more about tackling SAT Writing passages here.

 

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Strategy 2: Know What's Being Tested on SAT Writing

Now that you're comfortable with the SAT passage format, it's important to know what's actually being tested.

Yes, you know that grammar skills are being tested, but which ones?

And do you know what rhetoric/style skills are being tested?

When you go into battle, you need to know your enemy. Here's a great breakdown at a high level of what's tested on SAT Writing.

And here's a great listing of the top 12 SAT grammar rule you should know. I won't list them here, since the article I linked is a much better explanation.

All these skills brings us to:

 

 

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Strategy 3: Learn the Most Important Grammar Rules. Ignore the Others

There's just no way around it. You need to know what the most important grammar rules are and how they work.

The good news is, certain grammar rules are far more common than others when it comes to the SAT. For example, punctuation is the #1 grammar rule on the test, and almost 6 times more common than modifiers!

And overall, there aren't THAT many grammar rules that you need to master. In this sense, it's a bit easier than SAT Math, where there are over a dozen unique skills you need to do well.

What this means is that you can get more bang for your buck, if you study correctly. Instead of reading a book cover to cover, you should be focusing on the most critical grammar rules to improve your score most.

We've disscted every practice test available, and we've figured out how many questions will appear on each test for every skill. Here's the list: 

 

Skill Questions per Test

Grammar

 
Punctuation 4.5
Sentence Structure 3.8
Conventional expression 2.5
Agreement 2.3
Possessives 2.3
Parallel structure 2
Pronouns 1
Verb Tense 1
Modifiers 0.8

Rhetoric

 
Sentence Function 8.5
Concision 4
Transition 3.8
Logical sequence 2.5
Precision 2.3
Quantitative 1.5
Style and tone 1.5

 

Now the list isn't that useful without practice. Now that you know this list, you need to practice the most common skills over and over again. This will get you the biggest bang for your buck for every hour you spend studying. 

This is how I designed our PrepScholar SAT program to work. We customize your study program to your strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to spend study time on what is really going to improve your score. You don't have to find your own practice questions or decide what to study in what order. We do it all for you.

 

 

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Next strategy: find your weak links and fix them.

 

Strategy 4: Find Your Grammar Weaknesses and Drill Them

If you're like most students, you're better at some areas in SAT Writing than others. You might know pronouns really well, but you'll be weak in sentence constructions and fragments. Or maybe you really like parallel construction, but have no idea what faulty modifiers are.

If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. You have a lot of schoolwork, you might be an athlete or have intense extracurriculars, and you have friends to hang out with.

This means for every hour you study for the SAT, it needs to be the most effective hour possible.

In concrete terms, you need to find your greatest areas of improvement and work on those.

Too many students study the 'dumb' way. They just buy a book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve, they're SHOCKED.

I'm not.

Studying effectively for the SAT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to cover your bases with a very thin layer of understanding.

What these students did wrong was they wasted time on subjects they already knew well, and they didn't spend enough time improving their weak spots.

Instead, studying effectively for the SAT is like plugging up the holes of a leaky boat. You need to find the biggest hole, and fill it. Then you find the next biggest hole, and you fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.

How does this relate to SAT Writing? You need to find the grammar rules that you're having most trouble in, and then do enough practice questions until it's no longer a weakness. Fixing up the biggest holes.

For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is, and why you missed it. When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you then need to find extra practice for this grammar rule.

Say you miss a lot of questions related to commas (a very common SAT Writing mistake). You need to find a way to get lesson material to teach yourself the main concepts that you're forgetting. Then you need to find more practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes.

This is the best way for you to improve your Writing score.

Bonus: If all of this is making sense to you, you'd love our SAT prep program, PrepScholar.

We designed our program around the concepts in this article, because they actually work. When you start with PrepScholar, you’ll take a diagnostic that will determine your weaknesses in over forty SAT skills, including individual grammar rules. PrepScholar then creates a study program specifically customized for you.

To improve each skill, you’ll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score. For example, if you're weak in Subject/Verb Agreement, we'll give you a dedicated quiz focused on that skill so that you master your weakness.

There’s no other prep system out there that does it this way, which is why we get better score results than any other program on the market.

Check it out today with a 5-day free trial:

Improve Your SAT Score by 160+ Points, Guaranteed

 

 

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Learn how to eliminate answer choices systematically.

 

Strategy 5: Don't Pick Answer Choices Based on "Sounding Weird". Don't Guess Randomly

The SAT tests proper English grammar very strictly. Imagine that it's a 60-year-old English professor who speaks like he came from 1850.

A lot of the language will sound strange to you because it's never how you would phrase sentences yourself in real life. For example:

"The students for whom the scholarships were designed left the school voluntarily for health reasons."

This sentence is 100% grammatically correct. But you probably wouldn't talk like this to your friends or to your teachers.

Students often fall for weird-sounding language because it seems like there must be an error. But the SAT (sneaky like it always is) knows this about you. And it designs traps for students to fall into.

Here's what you should do instead. For every wrong answer choice that you eliminate, you should justify to yourself clearly why you are eliminating that answer choice.

For most grammar type questions, you're looking for the best replacement for the underlined section. Here's an example:

 

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(SAT questions only have 4 answer choices, but I'm just using this for illustration.)

Here's my thinking as I go through the question the first time:

  • I'm getting from this question that nitrogen can kill plants and animals, so researchers want to prevent accumulation of nitrogen. This makes logical sense to me.
  • A: This sounds plausible to me. I don't see any errors. I'm keeping this answer choice as a possibility.
  • B: This is strictly grammatically correct, but "plants and animals can be killed" is now in its own clause because it's been separated by the semicolon. Now the sentence is not communicating that nitrogen is killing plants and animals. It's just saying "plants and animals can be killed." By what? I'm feeling negative about this as the answer choice.
  • C: This is a comma splice grammar error. "That is what can kill plants and animals" is an independent clause, and to join 2 independent clauses, I know you need a comma AND a conjuction like "and."
  • D: This is also a comma splice error. Plus, "they" isn't the right pronoun to use. Nitrogen is singular, so you would need to use "it."
  • E: This fixes the comma splice error in D, because now it uses a comma AND "and." But it still has the "they" pronoun error. "They" needs to be "it" because Nitrogen is singular.
  • Because of all this, I've eliminated every answer choice except A. A is the correct answer.

 

Now, I'm not literally thinking all these words in my head. I'm eliminating quickly as I read, because I'm detecting the grammar error.

It's like if I told you, "The bee fly to the hive." You know this is wrong instantly if you say it aloud because it feels wrong. After a few more seconds, you'd be able to point out that "bee" is singular and "fly" is plural, so we have a subject/verb agreement error.

By learning more grammar rules and practicing them, you'll be able to do this elimination very quickly and naturally. You'll pinpoint exact reasons that a phrase has a grammar error and use that to eliminate answer choices.

This is a lot better than guessing based on things "sounding weird" and you'll get many more questions right.

 

Strategy 6: Be Careful About Choosing "NO CHANGE" Too Much 

In SAT Writing, most questions have a NO CHANGE option. A is the answer choice that doesn't change the underlined section.

The SAT loves tricking students using these answer choices, because it knows that students who don't know grammar rules won't see anything wrong with the sentence. NO CHANGE is a really easy answer to choose when a question doesn't set off a grammar alarm in your ear.

Be very careful whenever you choose one of these NO CHANGE answer choices. Typically, these are correct answers around 25% of the time - not much more. If you find that you're choosingNO CHANGE 40% of the time or more, you're definitely not detecting grammar errors well enough.

Every time you choose NO CHANGE, try to doublecheck the other answer choices to make sure you're not missing a grammar error. Especially take note of grammar rules that you tend to ignore mistakenly. Like I mentioned in Strategy 2 above, if you study your weaknesses, you'll be able to know which grammar rules you're weak at, and pay special attention to.

Here's an example problem that many students would choose NO CHANGE to:

 

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Try to solve this question. 

 

If No Error was your first thought, try to review the other answer choices before finalizing your answer:

  • A: Sentence sounds OK as is, let's look at the other answers.
  • B: "one's" lifetime - OK, so it's changing from "our" to "one's." I do know from English that I shouldn't be using "I" in my essays, so maybe this is better.
  • C: "his or her" - similar to "one's" and it allows for various genders. Not sure whether this is better or B...
  • D: "their" - wait a minute, this is different from the other answer choices because it's plura form, while "one's" and "his or her" is singular. Wait - what's the "lifetime" referring to? It's to "students" at the beginning of the sentence, which is plural and third person. I definitely need "their" here!
  • Let me review the other answer choices. Nope - they're definitely incorrect, since they are either singular or first person.

 

By reviewing the answer choices one last time, and using Strategy 4 to eliminate only based on sound reasoning or grammar rules, we found that C was the right answer.

PS: You'll see how the same grammar rules come up over and over again - you just have to learn the patterns to do well on SAT Writing. These are the strategies we teach you in PrepScholar so you become a grammar expert.

Be especially careful about choosing NO CHANGE at the end of each section. These are the hardest questions in all of SAT Writing, and the SAT is trying extra hard to trick you by disguising the grammar rules. If you're not sure, it's better to just skip it and not guess.

 

 

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Strategy 7: Don't Spend More than 30 Seconds per Question

Of all sections, SAT Writing has the least amount of time per question. In one section, you get 35 minutes to answer 44 questions, which means only 48 seconds per question!

Even worse, you have to read the passage to answer the questions!

If you find yourself spending more than 30 seconds on a single question, skip it for now. You might have enough time to come back to it. But the more important thing is that you need to get all the points you can.

Having the timer end before you can get to the last question is one of the worst things you can do on a test - you weren't able to give all questions a chance. This is especially important in Writing because the questions are not in order of difficulty (while math is). So you might have a really easy question at the end!

You definitely want to avoid sucking up 2 minutes on a single question. This is taking up way more time than a single question deserves, and you're better off spending that time on other questions to get extra points.

This requires discipline during the test, and many students ignore the clock until it's too late. Don't run out of time.

 

Strategy 8: Understand All Your SAT Writing Mistakes

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.

Too many students scoring at the 400-600 level refuse to study their mistakes.

It's harsh. I get it. It sucks to stare your mistakes in the face. It's draining to learn difficult concepts you don't already understand.

So the average student will breeze past their mistakes and instead focus on areas they're already comfortable with. It's like a warm blanket. Their thinking goes like this: "So I'm good at subject/verb agreement? I should do more subject/verb agreement problems! They make me feel good about myself."

The result? NO SCORE IMPROVEMENT.

You don't want to be like these students. So here's what you need to do:

  • 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 single question that you marked, and EVER incorrect question, even the hard ones. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
  • 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. Have separate sections by grammar rule (subject/verb agreement, pronoun reference, faulty modifier, etc).

It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.

By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.

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No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.

 

 

Strategy 9: Go Deeper - WHY Did You Miss a Writing  Question?

Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't know this material." That's a cop out.

Always take it one step further - what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?

Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a question, and how you take the analysis one step further:

Content: I didn't learn the knowledge or grammar rule needed to answer this question.

One step further: What specific knowledge do I need to learn, and how will I learn this skill?

 

Incorrect Approach: I knew the content or grammar rule, but I didn't know how to approach this question.

One step further: How do I solve this  question? How will I solve questions like this in the future?

 

Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or I missed a grammar rule I already knew

One step further: Why did I misread the question? Why did I miss this grammar error? What trick did the SAT play on me? What should I do in the future to avoid this? 

 

Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're missing questions.

Yes, this is hard, and it's draining, and it takes work. That's why most students who study ineffectively don't improve.

But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.

In my PrepScholar program, we force students to review every single question that they miss so that each question becomes a chance to learn something new.

 

In Overview

These are the main strategies I have for you to improve your SAT Writing score. If you're scoring a 350, you can improve it to a 500. If you're scoring a 440, you can boost it to a 600. I guarantee it, if you put in the right amount of work, and study like I'm suggesting above.

Notice that I didn't actually teach you that many grammar rules. I didn't point to any tricks that you need to know, or specific grammar rules that will instantly raise your score.

That's because these one-size-fits-all, guaranteed strategies don't really exist. (And anyone who tells you this is deceiving you). Every student is different.

Instead, you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.

This is really important to your future. Make sure you give SAT prep the attention it deserves, before it's too late, and you get a rejection letter you didn't want.

If you want to go back and review any of the strategies, here's a quick listing:

 

 

What's Next?

We have a lot more useful guides to raise your SAT score.

Read our guides to improving your Math and Reading score.

Read our top 15 tips to improving your SAT essay score

What's a good SAT score for you? Read our detailed guide on figuring out your SAT target score.

Want a bunch of free SAT practice tests to practice with? Here's our comprehensive list of every free SAT practice test.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

Check out our 5-day free trial today:

Improve Your SAT Score by 160+ Points, Guaranteed

 

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.



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