What's the Deal with Improving Sentences and the Essay? SAT Writing Guide and Advice

feature_booksandwriting.jpgHave you ever wondered what the SAT is looking for when they ask questions that are confusing? Look no further! In this post, we reveal the goals of the SAT Essay and Identifying Sentence Errors question types.


UPDATE: SAT Essay No Longer Offered

In January 2021, the College Board announced that after June 2021, it would no longer offer the Essay portion of the SAT (except at schools who opt in during School Day Testing). It is now no longer possible to take the SAT Essay, unless your school is one of the small number who choose to offer it during SAT School Day Testing.

While most colleges had already made SAT Essay scores optional, this move by the College Board means no colleges now require the SAT Essay. It will also likely lead to additional college application changes such not looking at essay scores at all for the SAT or ACT, as well as potentially requiring additional writing samples for placement.

What does the end of the SAT Essay mean for your college applications? Check out our article on the College Board's SAT Essay decision for everything you need to know.


What’s the Deal With the Essay?

This one’s simple: writing requires a multitude of subtle skills, from logic to word choice. But the SAT can’t score them all, so it chose a few: organization, evidence, vocabulary, thesis, sentence structure, and grammar. That leaves out factual accuracy, creativity, and a number of other subtle factors that make writing good or not-so-good. Thus, the SAT Essay is a beast unto itself, because those left-out aspects of writing actually turn out to be kind of important.

See, they’re not trying to find out if you’re a good writer;they’re trying to find out if you’re a competent writer, which means you can write on a specific topic with no preparation in a somewhat organized fashion.

This means that things like vocabulary and complex sentence structure only get you points if you use them appropriately. For example, many students’ essays substitute the word “lucid” for “clear,” when “clear” can actually mean many more things than “lucid” can: “lucid” only means “easy to understand.” So when students write “it is lucid that people need good jobs,” they are misusing the word: clear can mean obvious, but lucid can’t.

The takeaway here is this: the test only cares about staying on topic; using good, concrete examples; and organizing your thoughts in a logical way.

Everything else is too much work for their graders to assess in one or two minutes, so they ignore all of it. This “everything else,” notably, includes the accuracy of facts: as one recent New York Times article explains, “you can tell them the war of 1812 started in 1945,” and it won’t hurt your score one bit.


What’s the Deal with Identifying Sentence Errors?

These questions in the Writing section give you a sentence with four underlined parts and a “No error” option. Then they ask which underlined portion of the sentence contains an error, like so:

The Florida sunset being (A) best viewed from (B) the West Coast on a clear day (C) in the summer (D). No error. (E)

Again, the College Board has come up with a relatively clumsy way to test writing skills without carefully reading millions of essays. Because they have specific errors they want to test, and it’s sometimes hard to do that in a realistic way,  Identifying Sentence Errors questions often look like something nobody would ever write.

In the example above, they’re trying to test verb forms (‘being’ should say ‘is’). This is a common high schoolers’ error, and someone in high school might make it in a sentence like this:

The main problem with swimming being that I can’t text while I’m doing it.

But that error would be too easy, so they include other things that students think are errors (but are actually correct), and end up with weird sentences about Florida.

This is where SAT prep can come in handy: it helps you apply strategies like the one I’m about to explain. Here’s the key: don’t look at these like normal sentences; look at them like word equations, in which each underlined portion must be isolated and deciphered

The Florida sunset being (A) best viewed from (B) the West Coast on a clear day (C) in the summer (D). No error. (E)

(A): This word is a verb: does it agree with its subject? Yes. Does it work as the only verb in the sentence? No. Mark it as a possible error until you’ve looked at all the choices.

[B]: Is this the right word to use here? Can a sunset be “viewed from” somewhere? Yes it can. Moving on.

[C] Does this makes sense? Are all the words correct, and do they fit together correctly? Yes they do.

[D] Is this the right way to say during the summertime? Yes, it is.

Now go back to the one(s) you think could be the answer(s). How sure are you that [A] is wrong? Since an “-ing” verb can never be the only verb in a sentence (it needs a helping verb, like “is doing” or “can be seeing”), you can be sure it’s wrong. Mark it!


Other Posts You May Be Interested In:

What is a good SAT score?  A bad SAT score?

SAT Writing Guide Part I: Improving Paragraphs:

SAT Writing Guide Part III: Improving Sentences


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About the Author
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Dr. Fred Zhang

Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.

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