SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The 12 Hardest SAT Writing Questions Ever

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | May 22, 2015 2:30:00 PM

SAT Writing

 

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You’ve been studying hard, and now the time has come to really test what you have mastered! Are you ready to try out 12 of the toughest questions to grace the new SAT Writing and Language section?

I've combed all the official practice tests to find the absolute hardest SAT Writing questions. If you get all of these right, you're truly a master of this section.

 

Why Should I Care About the Hardest Questions?

Knowing what to do when you hit tough questions is a key part of your test-taking strategy that you should work out ahead of time. Your target scores will help you determine what to do.

 

700 - 800 scorers

Are you looking to score between a 700 and 800 on Reading and Writing? If so, these are the sorts of questions that you'll have to master in order to get your score where you want it to be.

 

500 - 600 scorers

In contrast, if you are looking to score in the 500 – 600 range on Reading and Writing, you don't have to answer every question correctly on SAT Writing to hit your target score. So, if you're taking the test and run across a question as confusing as the ones listed below, you officially have permission to guess! 

Either way, good study strategies are your best bet for getting the score you want. Not sure how to start? Check out our guide to studying for the new SAT, and then read our complete explanation of all the grammar rules that the SAT Writing section will test. 

 

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Don't worry, it's not as bad as it seems.

 

Which Questions Are the Hardest?

As a quick refresher, the SAT Writing and Language section asks multiple choice questions based on long reading passages. The questions test your understanding of grammar, punctuation, word choice and idioms, and writing logic. For a full overview of all the grammar tested on the Writing SAT, see our guide.

The College Board used to rank SAT questions according to difficulty, but they no longer do this. So how did I pick out the hardest questions? And what makes some questions harder than others?

Even though the revised SAT no longer features trick questions, there are still many times when several of the answer choices seem to be valid. Sometimes, this is because questions test several skills at the same time: a punctuation detail combined with your ability to understand the logic of a passage, for instance, or a grammar rule combined with correct idiom usage. Other times, this is because questions make you simultaneously focus on a small sentence-level issue and a larger problem involving several paragraphs.

 

body_20questions.jpgDon’t worry, there are really only 12.

 

Spoiler Alert

Before I show you the hardest SAT Writing questions, I have to write a little spoiler alert

These are real questions taken from the official full-length practice SAT tests. If you’re likely to remember them and their answers forever, then it's probably best for you to read the rest of this article after you’ve taken all the practice SATs.

 

On to the Questions!

These questions represent a variety of concepts the SAT thinks students will struggle with the most. Remember: all of these questions come from long passages, since the entire Writing and Language section of the SAT is passage-based.

Try them out and see how you do - if you really want to challenge yourself, limit your timing for each question to 40 seconds.

Each question is followed by the answer and an explanation. 

 

Question 1

[1] The main environmental problem caused by the production of Greek yogurt is the creation of acid whey as a by-product. [2] Because it requires up to four times more milk to make than conventional yogurt does, Greek yogurt produces larger amounts of acid whey, which is difficult to dispose of. [3] To address the problem of disposal, farmers have found a number of uses for acid whey. [4] They can add it to livestock feed as a protein supplement, and people can make their own Greek-style yogurt at home by straining regular yogurt. [5] If it is improperly introduced into the environment, acid-whey runoff can pollute waterways, depleting the oxygen content of streams and rivers as it decomposes. [6] Yogurt manufacturers, food scientists; and government officials are also working together to develop additional solutions for reusing whey.

To make this paragraph most logical, sentence 5 should be placed

A) where it is now.
B) after sentence 1.
C) after sentence 2.
D) after sentence 3.

 

The Challenge

The main goal of this question is to see if you can figure out how a paragraph should flow logically.

What makes it hard is that two of the answers (B and C) seem equally logically plausible.

 

Answer

C

 

Explanation

In a paragraph, each sentence should introduce a little bit of new information, using what previous sentences said to push the point of the passage a little bit further.

Leaving the sentence where it is (answer A), or putting it after Sentence 3 (answer D) would make the paragraph sequence illogical. You’d suddenly be back to talking about acid whey in the environment after you’ve already explained how it can be disposed of properly.

It’s very tempting to put Sentence 5 after Sentence 1 (answer B). It seems plausible because Sentence 1 lays out the idea that acid whey is a problem, so ostensibly Sentence 5 could come next and spell out what the problem with acid whey actually is. But this is not the best place. You have to first explain that there is an overabundance of acid whey, and that it's difficult to dispose of it. Only then is it an ideal time to introduce the concept of “acid whey runoff.” 

So, putting Sentence 5 after Sentence 2 (correct answer C) uses information introduced in Sentence 2 and sets up what follows in Sentence 3, yielding this logical sequence:

  1. Sentence 2 explains why acid whey is a bigger problem for Greek yogurt.
  2. Sentence 5 explains how damaging acid whey can be if it’s allowed to enter the environment
  3. Sentence 3 sets up the different ways of disposing of acid whey.

 

body_yogurt.jpgYogurt: delicious in parfaits, apparently deadly for the environment.

 

Question 2

Typically, the ice sheet begins to show evidence of thawing in late summer, following several weeks of higher temperatures. For example, in the summer of 2012, virtually the entire Greenland Ice Sheet underwent thawing at or near its surface by mid-July, the earliest date on record.

A) NO CHANGE
B) However,
C) As such,
D) Moreover, 

 

The Challenge

This question is checking whether you understand how to use conjunctive adverbs, which are words that show how two sentences or two parts of one sentence connect to one another. 

It’s very hard to see the two sentences actually relate when reading them through a potentially wrong conjunction.

 

Answer

B

 

Explanation

One trick is just to cover up the conjunction that’s been put there, and read the two sentences without it. This way you can focus on the information that’s being presented and make up your own mind about how to make sense of the logical flow of this information.

In this case, we first get a sentence that explains what happens most of the time: usually snow melts in late summer. Then we get a sentence that contradicts the earlier one: in 2012, snow melted very early on. This means we need to find a conjunctive adverb that shows that the second sentence is an exception to the rule.

“For example” (answer A) means that what follows will demonstrate the rule, rather than break it. That’s not what’s happening here, so this is not the right choice.

“As such” (answer C) has to do with defining what just came previously. "As such" means, “given the definition of the thing just mentioned, here is an associated property of that thing.” But, we are not defining, but are showing how a pattern has been broken, so this is the wrong choice.

“Moreover” (answer D) means “in addition to, and potentially more convincingly,” and is used to add emphasis to an example or an argument. We aren’t doing that here, so this answer is incorrect.

“However” (correct answer C) is a conjunctive adverb that introduces a statement/idea that contradicts what has just been said, which is exactly what we need to do in this case.

 

body_iceberg-2.jpgAt this rate, our only source of polar ice will be old stock photographs.

 

Question 3

Also, studies have found that those students who major in philosophy often do better than students from other majors in both verbal reasoning and analytical writing. These results can be measured by standardized test scores.

Which choice most effectively combines the sentences at the underlined portion?

A) writing as
B) writing, and these results can be
C) writing, which can also be
D) writing when the results are

 

The Challenge

This question is testing your editing skills. In particular, it’s checking your ability to know when cutting something out is actually better than leaving more information in. 

The challenge here is that because the word “results” occurs both in the original text and in two of the answer choices, it seems like a key piece of the sentence. Instead, it's a red herring. 

 

Answer

A

 

Explanation

The secret to good editing is understanding the context. Here, we need to reread the two sentences to see what information we actually have.

In this case, there are no results mentioned in the first of these two sentences. What we do have is information about studies that show philosophy students performing better. But this better performance is not a “result” – it isn't a goal reached after a specific course of action. In other words, although philosophy students perform better, they didn't study philosophy in order to get better test scores. This means answers B and D are out.

Answer C is wrong because of the word “also.” This word seems to point to the testing being an additional example or piece of evidence – but there is nothing for it to be in addition to.

So, the right answer A is also the most economical, the one that removes everything that clouds the sentence’s meaning.

 

body_schoolofathens.jpgPlato and Socrates recommend at least ten years of philosophy grad school for optimal standardized test performance.

 

Question 4

The share of library materials that is in nonprint formats [1] is increasing steadily; in 2010, at least 18.5 million e-books were available for circulation.

At point [1], the writer is considering adding the following information.

—e-books, audio and video materials, and online journals—

Should the writer make this addition here?

A) Yes, because it provides specific examples of the materials discussed in the sentence.
B) Yes, because it illustrates the reason for the increase mentioned later in the sentence.
C) No, because it interrupts the flow of the sentence by supplying irrelevant information.
D) No, because it weakens the focus of the passage by discussing a subject other than librarians.

 

The Challenge

The SAT is full of these decision-tree editing questions, which ask you not only about correctly identifying editing changing, but also about justifying your answer.

This question is hard because two of the answers (answers A and B) seem plausible, since putting a list in dashes can either put an explanation or a set of examples into a sentence. 

 

Answer

A

 

Explanation

Answer C is wrong because there’s nothing irrelevant about the added text. The sentence and the addition are both talking about the kinds of materials available at the library.

Answer D is also wrong – the passage as a whole is not specifically about librarians, so there is no reason that this insertion would have to be.

To eliminate answer B, we have to realize that the added text doesn’t give a reason. Providing a list of types of materials doesn't explain why there are so many e-Books.

Instead, the added text supplies a definition for the non-obvious term “nonprint formats,” by giving a list of examples that fall under this nonprint category. This means answer A is correct.

 

body_library.jpgNonprint, huh. How long until we no longer think of bookshelves when we say the word "library"?

 

Question 5

The first time I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, I expected to be impressed by its famous large paintings. For example, I couldn’t wait to view painter, Georges Seurat’s, 10-foot-wide A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in its full size.

A) NO CHANGE
B) painter, Georges Seurat’s
C) painter Georges Seurat’s,
D) painter Georges Seurat’s

 

The Challenge

To get this one right, you have to know how to punctuate modifiers. A modifier is a piece of a sentence that is used to explain, define, or clarify some other part of the sentence.

What makes this one hard is figuring out whether this modifier is necessary to the sentence or not.

 

Answer

D

 

Explanation

Modifiers come in two flavors. Some are so necessary to the sentence that it would lose its meaning without them; these don't get set off by commas. Others are not crucial for the sentence to make sense; they do get surrounded by commas.

In this case, the modifier is “George Seurat.” Now ask yourself – is this piece of information necessary to make the sentence work?

One trick is to read the sentence without the modifier to see if the sentence still makes sense. Here, we’d just be left with the strange formulation “I couldn’t wait to view painter’s 10-foot-wide A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” That is clearly not correct, since you need the name George Seurat to make the word "painter" have any meaning. This means that the modifier "George Seurat" is crucial.

Since answers B and C neither surround the modifier with commas nor take them all out, they both are incorrect.

Crucial modifiers don’t get set off by commas, so the right answer is D, the one that leaves the commas out.

 

body_seurat.jpgHere is what that giant painting looks like, by the way.

 

Question 6

It has long been known that the sea otters living along the West Coast of North America help keep kelp forests in their habitat healthy and vital. They do this by feeding on sea urchins and other herbivorous invertebrates that graze voraciously on kelp. With sea otters to keep the population of sea urchins in check, kelp forests can flourish. In fact, even two years or less of sea otter presence can reduce the sea urchin threat in a coastal area. Without sea otters present, however, kelp forests run the danger of becoming barren stretches of coastal wasteland known as urchin barrens.

What was less well-known, until recently at least, was how this relationship among sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp forests might help fight global warming. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 40 percent. A recent study by two professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Chris Wilmers and James Estes, suggests that kelp forests protected by sea otters can absorb as much as twelve times the amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as those where sea urchins are allowed to devour the kelp.

A) NO CHANGE
B) dispatch
C) overindulge on
D) dispose of

 

The Challenge

Words that seem similar but have crucial differences in meaning are at the heart of this tricky question. From the context, it’s clear that the word has to have something to do with making less of something – but since all of the word choice options carry this connotation, it’s challenging to figure out which one fits best.

 

Answer

A

 

Explanation 

“Dispatch” means to send away, or to deal with efficiently. The kelp is certainly going away, but the sea urchins aren’t sending it anywhere, so this (answer B) is not the right word.

“Overindulge on” can mean overeat. The sea urchins are certainly eating the kelp, so answer C is a tempting choice. However, “overindulge” carries a moral judgment with – it’s describing an action that is being done despite the knowledge that doing so much of it is wrong. The sea urchins aren’t equipped to deal with right and wrong – and they also aren’t overeating the kelp. They are eating as much as is in their nature to eat. So, scratch that answer.

“Dispose of” is another tempting word choice. It means “to get rid of,” which is definitely what is happening to the kelp at the hands of the sea urchins. Answer D could arguably fit into the sentence without a problem, except that we have a word that is even better.

“Devour” means to eat copious amounts of in a short time. This exactly describes what the sea urchins do, so answer A is undoubtedly the best choice in this context. Not only does it mean just what the passage needs it to mean, but it also echoes a piece of the previous paragraph, where the sea urchins were described as “invertebrates that graze voraciously on kelp.” Graze voraciously = devour.

 

body_seaurchin.jpgIf the only other option is picking these horrific-looking things up by hand, I say let the sea otters have at them.

 

Question 7

Circadian rhythms, which are controlled by the bodies biological clocks, influence body temperature, hormone release, cycles of sleep and wakefulness, and other bodily functions.

A) NO CHANGE
B) bodies’ biological clocks’,
C) body’s biological clocks,
D) body’s biological clock’s,

 

The Challenge

At the heart of this question is knowing how to properly make nouns into plurals and possessives, and when to use one or the other. What makes this sentence doubly confusing is that when you say the sentence out loud, clearly both nouns - "body" and "clock" - need to end in an “s” sound.

 

Answer

C

 

Explanation

To figure out whether nouns should be plural, possessive, or both, you have to understand the context of a passage.

Here, the sentence is explaining how circadian rhythms affect the human body.

Because we are speaking in general terms, the word “body” should be singular. That means that the original wording (answer A) is wrong: “bodies” is the plural form of “body.” 

Answers B is wrong for the same reason: “bodies’ ” is the plural possessive of “bodies,” meaning “belonging to several bodies.”

So, what belongs to the human body in the sentence? Several timing mechanisms called biological clocks. Does anything belong to these clocks? No. Thus, answer D is wrong: “clock’s” the possessive form of “clock,” meaning “belong to a clock.”

The right answer C uses the singular possessive form of the word “body” and the regular plural form of the word “clock”: "body’s biological clocks," meaning "the clocks that belong to a generic human body."

 

body_baby-2.jpgSome adorable circadian rhythms at work.

 

Question 8

In 1883, he placed an advertisement seeking educated, well-mannered, articulate young women between the ages of 18 and 30. Response to the advertisement was overwhelming, even tremendous, and Harvey soon replaced the male servers at his restaurants with women.

A) NO CHANGE
B) Response to the advertisement was overwhelming,
C) Overwhelming, even tremendous, was the response to the advertisement,
D) There was an overwhelming, even tremendous, response to the advertisement,

 

The Challenge

One of the things that the SAT tests is your understanding of redundancy, where the same piece of information or description is needlessly repeated.

What makes this question complicated is the way the original passage is punctuated, and the fact that three of the answer choices contain both original adjectives, making it seem like these adjectives are important to the sentence. 

 

Answer

B

 

Explanation 

Setting off the word “tremendous” with commas, and modifying it with the intensifier "even,” makes it sound as if the word “overwhelming” doesn’t fully convey the enthusiasm of the women answering the ad. This can lead you to think that you need the phrase “even tremendous” to really sell how gung ho women were to work for Harvey.

In reality, “overwhelming” and “tremendous” both mean “surprisingly large and robust,” so using both is repetitive.

Thus, the correct answer is B, which is the only choice that deletes the repeating (redundant) adjective.

 

body_harveygirl.jpgHarvey House: basically the Hooters of 19th century America.

 

Question 9

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, one of Russia’s greatest art museums, has long had a productive partnership with a much loved animal: the cat. For centuries, cats have guarded this famous museum, ridding it of mice, rats, and other rodents that could damage the art, not to mention scared off visitors.

A) NO CHANGE
B) scaring
C) scare
D) have scared

 

The Challenge

Here, the challenge comes in two parts. First, you have to be able to recognize the grammar of parallel structures. And second, you have to know how to match verb tenses inside a sentence.

 

Answer

C

 

Explanation

There are many different verbs in the sentence, so the first thing to do is the figure out who is doing the action of the verb in question – the cats or the rodents. Who or what is doing the scaring?

The cats here do two things: they guard the museum, and they rid it of pests. This means that it’s the mice and rats that scare visitors.

After realizing this, we can see that the phrase “not to mention” sets up our parallel construction: rodents could do (verb 1) one thing, not to mention do (verb 2) another thing. This means that verbs 1 and 2 have to be in the same tense and form. Verb 1 is in the present tense: “damage.” So the matching version of verb 2 has to be answer C, “scare.”

 

body_hermitage.jpgThen they'll have to get dogs to catch the cats, then goats to catch the dogs, then cows to catch the goats... all in the museum that Catherine the Great built.

 

Question 10

At the same time, a social and civil rights movement for Mexican Americans was working to raise awareness of Mexican American cultural identity. Artists associated with this began to rediscover and promote the work of the Mexican muralists, particularly Siqueiros.

A) NO CHANGE
B) it
C) them
D) this movement

 

The Challenge

To get this question right, you have to have a solid grasp of pronouns and their antecedents, the nouns that pronouns stand in for. This question is hard because the problem with this pronoun isn't agreement (the usual pronoun/antecedent issue), but instead clarity.

 

Answer

D

 

Explanation 

If there are too many nouns that could be a particular pronoun’s antecedent, then that pronoun needs to be replaced with a noun for clarity.

That is the problem with this passage: in theory, the pronoun “this” could refer to: “cultural identity,” “awareness,” or “social and civil rights movement.” So leaving it as is (answer A) doesn't fix the problem.

Replacing “this” with “it” (answer  B) isn't a good solution – like the original "this," the pronoun “it” could also have any one of those nouns as its antecedent. 

Replacing “this” with “them” (answer C) creates a logical problem. The antecedent of "them" would be "Mexican Americans," which would mean that the artists being discussed were associated with themselves. 

The right choice, answer D, is simply to add a clarifying noun to the confusing pronoun. Writing that the artists were associated with “this movement” simplifies the sentence and allows the passage to flow.

 

body_Siqueiros.jpgOne of Siqueiros's murals, "El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo."

 

Question 11

The designer envisions the game’s fundamental elements: the settings, characters, and plots that make each game unique, and is thus a primary creative force behind a video game.

A) NO CHANGE
B) elements: the settings, characters, and plots that make each game unique—
C) elements—the settings, characters, and plots that make each game unique—
D) elements; the settings, characters, and plots that make each game unique;

 

The Challenge

One of the things the SAT tests is how to punctuate explanationsThis question is hard because it mixes up two different kinds of explanatory punctuation styles: dashes and colons.

 

Answer

C

 

Explanation 

Different kinds of explanations are punctuated in different ways. In this case, the structure of the sentence is:

designer makes game elements + list of game elements + this means the designer is the game creator

When we lay it out this way, we can see that the bit in the middle (the list of game elements) is an explanatory modifier for the vague term “game’s fundamental elements.” This modifier not crucial to the sentence, since the sentence will make perfect sense without it. Instead, it's a parenthetical aside that clarifies something.

The original punctuation (answer A) and the punctuation in answer B focus on the list aspect of the modifier. You can tell because each suggests introducing the set of game elements with a colon. This would work fine if the list ended with a period, but since it doesn’t, these options are out.

Answer D suggests using semi-colons to set off the examples. However, semi-colons are either for separating lists where a single list item has commas in it (not the case here), or for separating independent clauses (also not the case here). So answer D is wrong.

Answer C fixes the sentence by setting off the set of examples with dashes, which are basically like parentheses you can wrap around a piece of a sentence that interrupts the main train of thought.

 

body_minecraft.jpgThe brilliant minimalist design of Minecraft makes every player the creative force behind the game.

 

Question 12

Some people buy organic food because they believe organically grown crops are more nutritious and safer for consumption than the people who purchase their conventionally grown counterparts, which are usually produced with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

A) NO CHANGE
B) the purchase of
C) purchasing
D) DELETE the underlined portion.

 

The Challenge

This question is checking to see whether you can spot an illogical comparison. However, the answer choices make it seem as though this is actually a question about the correct form of the word "purchase."

 

Answer

D

 

Explanation

One trick to remember is that the word "than" announces that a comparison is about to happen. This is your cue to check whether the sentence is setting up an illogical comparison.

In this case, the sentence is trying to compare organic and conventional food, which means that conventional food has to immediately follow the word “than.”

The original text (answer A) is worded so that it incorrectly compares “organically grown crops” with “people who purchase.” This doesn't make sense, so the sentence can't be left as is.

Answers B and C change the comparison, but still ends up comparing “organic crops” with “the purchase” or the act of "purchasing." You can compare crops with a purchase, so these answers are out.

Correct answer D, however, eliminates the problem and fixes the sentence so that like is compared with like: “organically grown crops are more nutritious and safer for consumption than their conventionally grown counterparts.” 

 

body_vegetables.jpgConventional, organic - once you throw them on the grill, it's all good.

 

The Bottom Line

The hardest questions on the SAT Writing and Language section are challenging because they:

  • test several grammar, editing, or punctuation skills at once
  • have two or more very plausible answer choices
  • have answer choices that make it look like the question is testing one concept, when it's really testing something totally different

One way to work through these difficult parts of the test is to cover up the answer choices (including the original text), and read the parts of the passage that aren't in question. This way, you can form your own uninfluenced opinion about:

  • the logical progression of the passage's argument
  • the way the different sentences, or the different parts of one sentence, relate to one another
  • how you would fill in the missing piece

Then, you can find the answer choice that most closely matches your own thoughts, rather than being led astray by working backwards from the answer choices. 

 

What’s Next?

Did you make any mistakes? If so, you can use these problems to help pinpoint the areas you struggle with and focus your studying to get a great score on SAT Writing.

Want to learn other strategies for SAT Writing? Check out our articles on improving your score, getting a perfect score, and how best to study.

 

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.



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