If you've noticed that the SAT Writing section seems to be confusing, that's because it's intentionally designed to be that way.
But we're going to let you in on something that the College Board doesn't want you to know: there are a few key secrets that will help you understand this part of the SAT, and knowing them makes it much easier to crack. Read on to learn how to take this section of the SAT into your own hands.
In this article, I am going to show you:
- How the SAT Writing tries to trick you with "normal"-sounding English
- How the SAT Writing tests unusual grammar and style rules that your English class may not have focused on
- The top concepts that the SAT Writing test over and over and over again
- Why this predictability matters and how to use it to your advantage
Without further ado, let's dive into one of the number one ways the SAT Writing counts on making you mess up.
Everyday English Is a Trap
Did you know that the English you speak every day is probably grammatically incorrect? The College Board does, and in fact they were counting on that when they designed the SAT Writing. Each of the sentences below has at least one error. Can you spot them?
Kim and me attended the civil rights conference that was held at school today. We discussed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, debated different modern-day issues, and were talking about freedom of speech. We learned that if someone is different to you, you should respect them for who they are.
The SAT tests everyday incorrect English to see who knows what "sounds" right, and who actually knows the different grammar rules.
There are two main strategies that the test writers use to do this. The first is that they will give you a deceptively simple-looking sentence that sounds normal but actually has a tricky grammar error. The second is to give you a ridiculously convoluted sentence that hides a simple grammar mistake.
They are testing you: can you see through their sentences to the grammatical structures underneath?
Let's look at an example. Here is something I recently heard on a well-known televised cooking competition:
She sliced the Wellington, and gave it to Nick and I to garnish.
Though a lot of people talk this way, it's not correct. Why? "Nick and I" are both objects of the preposition "to", and therefore "I" should be in the objective case — "me".
In colloquial English use, you will often hear people misusing pronoun cases. This is one of the many "everyday English" mistakes that the SAT will throw at you.
Not sure what a pronoun case is? There’s a guide for that.
At other times, the SAT will hide simple grammatical errors in a very wordy sentence.
The lamb is not properly cooked, and having to apologize to the guests for his mistakes are the most embarrassing thing about participating in Hell's Kitchen.
If the above sentence just read, "Having to apologize are the most embarrassing thing," most people would immediately spot the error. The SAT adds extra unnecessary phrases and clauses to make these simple error more difficult to spot.
Now that you know the main way that the SAT Writing tries to trick you, you can use it to your advantage.
Remember that you cannot just use your ear to know if a sentence is correct or incorrect. (Unless you have an exceptionally-trained ear, of course! But most people who speak everyday English do not.
Remember that the SAT cares about correct grammar over awkwardness. Just because a sentence is phrased very oddly doesn't mean it's incorrect. Look for the same things that you would look for in a more normal-sounding sentence (like subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, etc.) to see if it's grammatically correct.
Remember, the SAT doesn't care if something is awkward.
This is why it's so important to understand what the SAT thinks is grammatically correct, as opposed to what you think sounds good. Many of these grammar rules you will be familiar with, but other may come as a surprise to you, and that's because...
SAT Writing Doesn't Always Test Normal Grammar Rules
Some of the rules they test you on seem downright arbitrary, and, in fact, they are.
In theory, you will have learned many of the more "normal" rules in your high school English class. As discussed above, though, this doesn't mean that these concepts will be covered in as straightforward a way as you are used to.
Other times, however, you will need to learn the SAT's weird "grammar" rules, which mostly focus on style, and what the SAT thinks sounds correct! Don't be fooled by these just because they are not the same as what you have covered in class.
Here are some of the top stylistic rules the SAT Writing favors:
1. Pronouns must have a clear antecedent.
The antecedent is the noun that the pronoun is replacing. On the SAT, the antecedent must actually be referenced in the same sentence, or a very nearby sentence in the case of Improving Paragraphs.
If it not 100% clear - and spelled out - what the pronoun is referring to, it's incorrect in the SAT's eyes.
Let's look at an example:
Melissa hurried into the theater and tried to find her seat, relieved that it had not already started.
Most people would have no trouble understanding this sentence. It's clear from the context that Melissa is relieved that whatever show she is seeing in the theater has not started yet. However, in the SAT's eyes, this sentence would be incorrect because we don't have an explicitly-stated antecedent for "it". According to the SAT, the only things that "it" could refer to are either "theater" or "seat" - and neither of those makes sense!
2. Always use "and" instead of other connecting words
The SAT Writing also tests you on your ability to state something in the most straightforward and concise way. By their standards, "and" is the most straightforward way to join things together. So, if you see a sentence trying to replace "and" with another connecting word - such as "plus" or "as well as" - it is incorrect.
Note that this does not apply to joining independent clauses together for compound sentences. Only FANBOYS conjunction can be used for that task.
Let's look at an example:
Amanda took one job in a restaurant plus one in a hotel.
This would be considered incorrect. Instead, try this:
Amanda took one job in a restaurant and one in a hotel.
3. Only similar things can be compared
We have a whole article on this topic if you want to go into it in more depth.
The basic idea is that the SAT only wants you to compare two similar things. Obviously this has nothing to do with being grammatically correct English — it's just the SAT's preference. For example:
John's car was newer than Jerry.
Grammatically this makes perfect sense: Let's say that Jerry is 30 years old, but John's car is only 5 years old. However, in the SAT's eyes this is a mistake because a car and a person are too dissimilar to be compared. Let's look at another:
Kim Kardashian was jealous because her selfies were not as popular as Khloe.
Beware of selfie rage.
Again, strictly from a grammar point of view, this is a correct sentence. One might hope that a human being is more popular than a selfie. However, the SAT does not want you to compare Kim's selfies to Khloe; instead, it wants you to compare Kim's selfies to Khloe's selfies. This is how the sentence would look corrected:
Kim Kardashian was jealous because her selfies were not as popular as Khloe's selfies.
Now we are comparing selfies to selfies, which are two similar things, and therefore this comparison has the SAT's blessing.
4. Don't delete something unless it is redundant
This doesn't come up too frequently, but occasionally an Identifying Errors question will give you something like this:
As part of his annual payment, he receives a bonus every year.
According to the SAT, this kind of redundancy is incorrect. This goes back to our rule of making everything concise as concise as possible — if you have already been told that something happens annually, you don't also need to be told that it happens every year!
5. Be careful of using "because" with nouns
The SAT Writing will occasionally use two constructions with the word "because", and both of them are considered incorrect.
The first is something that has become common slang recently: because + noun
For example, to paraphrase a recent Carl's Jr. commercial,
We made a disgusting hamburger with a hot dog on top of it because America.
This, unfortunately, will never be correct.
Similarly, occasionally the SAT will use the following incorrect construction: noun + is because of
Let's look at an example:
The drought in California is because of the lack of rain.
So, how do you make sure you always catch these problems?
Whenever you see the word "because", make sure that it is joining two clauses. A clause is something that has both a subject and a verb. Alternately, "because of" can be used as a preposition with a noun object, but in that case make sure that the rest of the sentence makes sense on its own if you get rid of the prepositional phrase!
To fix the above sentences, we would say:
We made a disgusting hamburger with a hot dog on top of it because we have misunderstood what America needs.
There is a drought in California because we have had a lack of rain.
There is a drought in California because of the lack of rain.
6. If more than one answer is grammatically correct, choose the most concise answer that has the fewest extra words.
Many students mistakenly think that having more words makes a sentence sound more academic, but this is not the case. The SAT Writing will always be looking to see if you can spot the most direct and concise way of saying something. So when two or more answers are equally grammatically correct, go for the most concise answer.
These six rules are important to know, along with the more basic grammar rules that you've learned in school. This is because....
The SAT likes to test the same thing - over and over and over again.
Good news! Though the SAT does try to trick you in the ways we discussed above, it's otherwise very consistent and easy to predict. It really only focuses on a few different concepts, and will test you on those concepts repeatedly.
The below graphs show SAT Writing’s favorite question types grammar rules to test. If you master those main concepts, you will be a step ahead in conquering this section.
What does this tell you? Top secrets for Improving Sentences
Around ⅙ of the time, the sentences will be correct as is. Many students are afraid to choose this option, or to choose it too often. If you finish this section and you haven’t had any (A) answers, you can assume you probably went wrong somewhere!
Over half the questions will test the same four concepts:
- Wordiness, especially through gerunds, participles, and use of the passive voice. If you see an answer choice that contains a lot of -ing or -ed words, and the same idea is expressed more succinctly and directly in another option, go for the other option.
- Fixing comma splices, run-ons, or incorrect conjunctions. Therefore, make sure that you understand how to use semicolons to connect two independent clauses instead of commas.
- Fixing dangling or misplaced modifiers. Whenever you see a clause or phrase describing something, make sure it's next to the thing it’s describing.
- Using correct parallel structure. If similar ideas can be expressed through similar language, do it! For more information on this, see our guide to parallel structure.
What does this tell you? Top secrets for Identifying Errors
About ⅙ of the time, the correct answer will be (E), No Error. These questions can occur back to back.
Over 25% of the questions are all about verbs: either subject-verb agreement, or correct verb tense/form. Make sure to see our guide all about how verbs are used on the SAT Writing section, and you will be well on your way to understanding this section.
One of the other most common mistakes is in pronoun-antecedent agreement. This topic is all about attention to detail - make sure you match up pronouns to what they refer to and check that plural pronouns match with plural nouns. Check out our guide to parts of speech for more info on when to use which pronoun.
What does this tell you? Top secrets for Improving Paragraphs
Most questions in this section are about how to improve sentences - meaning that you will use the exact same skills that you need for Improving Sentences questions.
The other main question types in this section focus on context. In order to understand how to use transitions and where to add or delete info, you need to be able to understand how sentences are working in the paragraph as a whole. This skill is unique to this section of the Writing SAT. For more info about how to master this section, see our guide on how to approach Improving Paragraphs questions.
Why does predictability matter?
As you have just seen, the SAT writing section actually does not cover that many different topics, and very few concepts will be focused on in detail. This means that you can focus your studying.
Especially if you are aiming for a score around 500 - 600, you should focus on learning the most commonly-tested concepts. When you do this, you will soon start to notice that a lot of the questions look similar. This is a good thing — it means that you're learning to beat the SAT at its own game!
This is why practice is particularly important for this section of the test and can lead to a big score improvement. If you're used to the kinds of questions that you will see over and over, you will immediately recognize the kind of question you are being presented with.
For effective studying, you should work with real question from past SAT tests. You can find some here.
When you start to notice patterns, write them down. For example, when a question makes a point of mentioning time, it's most likely going to be a verb tense question. You will start to notice a lot of patterns like this that will alert you to what kind of question you are getting.
This will help you immediately spot what the SAT is asking for and will make the questions easier to answer.
Now that you know this, you can...
Use the Test to Create Your Strategy
Now that you know the SAT writing section is going to be very predictable and follow a certain pattern, you can use this fact to your advantage. Create a plan that you can use to attack each question type.
Try using the following steps when working on this section of the test:
1. When you read the sentences and answer choices, always eliminate any obvious grammar errors first.
2. Next, eliminate any answers that are structurally identical. They can't both be correct, and therefore neither one is correct.
3. Take a closer look at the question, and see if you can find any of the most common errors that the SAT Writing tests. For example, check that subjects and verbs agree, that pronouns have an obvious antecedent that they match in number, that the verb tense is correct, that there are no run-ons, and that parallel structure is used correctly.
Going through this list of potential issues will allow you to answer the vast majority of the questions.
4. If you are still stuck between a few answer choices that both seem grammatically correct, always choose the most concise answer, with the fewest gerunds and extra words.
You May Now Dominate the Test
Understanding how the test works puts you in a position of power.
Get excited - you know the secrets now!
Instead of feeling helpless or uncertain about SAT Writing questions, you can confidently attack them, confident that you already know everything they're going to ask you.
Keep calm and test on. Nerves contribute to careless errors. Because you now know what to expect, you have nothing to fear!
Now you know what to look for, so go out and conquer the grammar concepts you need to learn.
If you want to test yourself, try out some of the most difficult questions you will find on SAT Writing.
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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.