SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The New SAT Writing: What's Changing?


March 5, 2016 shall be a monumental day in SAT history. The format of the SAT will officially change for the first time since 2005. Each section of the test, including SAT Writing, will undergo significant changes.

In this article, I'll explain the content and format changes to SAT Writing and provide guidance for how to prepare for the SAT Writing and Language section. If you follow the advice in this guide, you'll be prepared to get an amazing score on the SAT Writing in 016 and beyond.


Big Overall Changes

SAT Writing will now be known as SAT Writing and Language. Furthermore, SAT Writing and Language and SAT Reading will be combined to give you one section score out of 800, and the maximum score on the new SAT is 1600. You’ll receive an SAT Reading and Writing score out of 800 and an SAT Math score out of 800.

On the new SAT Writing, you'll have 35 minutes to complete 44 questions, and Writing and Language will always be the second section of the test.

Also, the essay is no longer part of SAT Writing. The essay is separate, and it’s optional for test-takers. However, keep in mind that some of the colleges you apply to may require you to do the essay. Sorry.



milena mihaylova/Flickr 


4 Key Changes to Format and Content

In addition to the significant overall changes to SAT Writing, the content and look of the SAT Writing section will be dramatically different.


#1: All Questions Will Be Passage-Based

On the new SAT Writing, none of the questions will be based on individual sentences in isolation. There won't be any sentence improvement or identify the error questions. All of the questions will come from 4 passages, and the presentation of the questions will look almost identical to that on the ACT English section. This is what the SAT Writing questions will look like:




The questions will ask you to edit an underlined portion of the passage, direct you to a specific location in the passage, or have you think about the passage as a whole. You'll be tested on your knowledge of grammar, writing style, and the content of the passages.


#2: There Are Fewer Grammar Questions and More Style Questions

The old SAT Writing emphasized specific grammatical rules like subject-verb agreement, parallel structure, and equivalent comparisons. The questions testing your knowledge of these grammar rules could be tricky because these rules are often violated, and the grammatical errors were presented in ways that made them difficult to spot. The old SAT was notorious for using tricks to disguise common grammar errors.

On the new SAT, there are far fewer questions testing your knowledge of these rules, and there are more writing style questions. The new SAT emphasizes writing style topics like wordiness and redundancy, word choice, and macro logic. Instead of focusing on specific grammar rules, the new SAT focuses on testing your knowledge of clear, concise, and logical writing.




#3: It Tests Punctuation

On the old SAT, punctuation was only really tested on questions having to do with run-on sentences. However, on the new SAT, you’ll have to know when and how to use commas, semicolons, and colons. Don't be too scared, though; the punctuation rules for the new SAT aren't that complicated if you take the time to learn them.

Here’s an example punctuation question from one of the College Board’s practice tests. Check out #4:



This type of question didn’t appear on the old SAT. For this question, you need to know that commas separate items in a list. The comma after “yogurt manufacturers” indicates that you shouldn’t use a semicolon or colon after “food scientists.” In answer choice D, the comma after “and” is unnecessary. The correct answer is C.


#4: You'll See Graphs and Charts

Additionally, on the redesigned SAT Writing, there will be data interpretation questions on which you'll have to determine how and if the data from a graph or chart fits in the passage. On the old SAT Writing, there were no graphs or charts, so this is a significant change.

Take a look at this example question:




We’re looking for the lowest temperature; therefore, we need to find the lowest average daily low in the winter, which is 12 degrees. The correct answer is B.


How to Prepare for the New SAT Writing

Now that we know the major changes to the redesigned Writing section, let's discuss how to study for SAT Writing and Language.


#1: Focus on Writing Style

On the old SAT Writing, memorizing and understanding a handful of grammatical rules would enable you to get a good score. Now, because writing style is emphasized, you should pay more attention to word choice, sentence construction, and paragraph construction.

There is more reading comprehension incorporated into the redesigned SAT Writing. You need to understand why certain words or sentences are used in a given passage, or if they should be replaced with other words or sentences.

On the old SAT Writing, improving paragraphs was the smallest subsection. On the new version, those types of questions have become more important. I recommend reviewing the content-based style questions on the improving paragraphs subsection because there are more content-based style questions on the new SAT.

What are content-based style questions? Basically, they're the questions that require reading comprehension. On the old SAT Writing, on the improving paragraphs subsection, there were grammar questions asking how to revise or combine sentences. Additionally, there were style questions that asked whether to add or delete sentences from the passage and where to place certain sentences within a passage. These questions test your reading comprehension and understanding of the passage, and you'll see a lot of them on the new Writing section.

Here's an example of a content-based style question from the old SAT Writing improving paragraphs subsection:


The correct answer has to logically follow sentence 7 and connect to sentence 8. It's essential that you understand the content and purpose of these sentences to determine the right answer.

These types of questions rely on your reading comprehension, and they play a larger role on the new SAT Writing. You can use these types of questions from the old SAT Writing to help prepare for the new test.



There are more reading comprehension questions on the new SAT Writing. (cheerfulmonk/Flickr) 


#2: Study ACT English

The new SAT Writing is strikingly similar to ACT English, and even though there is limited information about the new SAT, there is a wealth of information about the ACT. Undoubtedly, studying for ACT English will help you get ready for the new SAT Writing.

Many of our previous articles on ACT English will help you prepare for the new SAT Writing. You should review these articles:

Furthermore, even though there are no graphs or charts on ACT English, there are on the ACT Science section. If you need more practice interpreting data from graphs or charts, you can practice with questions from ACT Science. Keep in mind that most of the ACT Science questions are more complex than the data interpretation questions on the new SAT Writing.

#3: Don’t Completely Neglect Studying Grammar

There are still grammar questions on the redesigned SAT Writing, even though knowing grammar rules isn’t as important on the new SAT.

Check out this grammar question from one of the new SAT practice tests:



This question tests two grammar rules that were often tested on the old SAT: subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement. The subject of the sentence is Harvey Houses, which is plural; therefore, you must use a plural verb. Furthermore, because the pronoun “its” refers to the Harvey Houses, you must use the plural pronoun "their."  The correct answer is B.

Here are some of our grammar articles that are relevant for the new SAT. The links are for our ACT English grammar articles because the presentation of the questions is basically the same as that of the new SAT:

Make sure that you know and understand each of the grammar rules that is tested on the new SAT Writing. Also, you should be able to correctly answer practice questions related to each rule.



Grammar nerds like me can still have fun on the SAT! (George Williams/Flickr)


#4: Review the New SAT Practice Tests

The College Board released four SAT practice tests. You should practice the SAT Writing questions and review the answers and explanations. From my experience with the old SAT and the ACT, the best way to prepare is by practicing with real or realistic questions.

Khan Academy also has practice questions and videos explaining examples from the new SAT. Use these free resources available to you to get ready to get a wonderful SAT Writing score.


#5: Get Your Read On

As I've mentioned, on the new SAT Writing, reading comprehension is more important than on the old SAT Writing. Additionally, the redesigned Writing section more strongly emphasizes knowledge of vocabulary and an intuitive grasp of English.

The more you read, the more you’ll strengthen these skills that are necessary to do well on the redesigned SAT Writing. High-level reading will be especially helpful. If you can do college-level academic reading or read articles from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, you’ll be preparing yourself to excel on the new version of the test.


Do You Even Have to Take the New SAT?

If you’ve already taken the old SAT and you’re in the class of 2017 or 2018, you may not not need to take the new SAT However, if you’re not happy with your score on the old SAT, you should take the new SAT or the ACT. Find out if you got a good score on the old SAT.

Also, read our guide on the new SAT vs. the ACT to help decide which test is best for you. For current high school juniors, we generally recommend taking the ACT because there is much more available material to prepare for the ACT vs. the new SAT. However, you should still take a look at the new SAT practice tests to determine if the new SAT may be a better fit for you and your skill set.


What's Next?

Because the maximum score will be different on the new SAT, find out what a good score is for your target school on the new SAT.  

There are only 4 new SAT practice tests, so learn more about smart alternatives for SAT practice tests to be able to better prepare yourself.

Finally, if you plan to do the essay, make sure you familiarize yourself with the new essay prompts.



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Justin Berkman
About the Author

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.

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