The Writing and Language Test on the SAT is a difficult challenge for many students, but making significant improvements in your score is possible. You may have to re-learn some grammar rules, especially if it has been awhile since you reviewed the basics, but it isn’t anything you cannot master!
What makes the Writing Test such a challenge? To begin with, the format of the test is daunting. With only 35 minutes to answer 44 multiple-choice questions, it is easy to focus on the fact that you are running out of time rather than on the questions!
Second, whether you have been speaking English your whole life or it’s your second (or maybe third!) language, the SAT tests Standard English Usage, which while “correct” for the SAT, is not always how we use English in our daily lives. The key is to learn that “correct” SAT grammar.
As a side note, this English teacher wants you to know that however you use English is okay! We all use the English language in different ways, which is what makes it a vibrant, living language. There really isn’t a wrong way to use it, as long as you are making yourself understood. Standard English is simply the most formal way to use it, particularly as used in college and career applications, which is why it is tested on the SAT.
Anyway, this guide will help you to understand the skills you need and to find the strategies that work for you to improve your score. You will show universities that you are ready for college-level writing, no matter the subject, and be more likely to be accepted into your preferred schools!
The trick to the SAT Writing and Language test is to move through them at a fast clip while still answering them correctly. There is no time to get stuck on a question. At the same time, however, you often have to figure out what the question is. Many of them do not have an actual question; they are simply a selection of slightly different answers. You have to look between the original passage and the changes in the answer choices to figure out what error(s), if any, you are looking for. This takes time. So, how do you save time?
Find a reading strategy that works for you. You might wish to read a paragraph and then answer all questions associated with that paragraph. You can choose to read and answer questions as you go. You can even go directly to the questions and focus only on the errors you need to correct. Whatever you choose to do, do not read the entire passage first and then answer questions. That will definitely take up too much of your time!
Another time saver will be developing your grammar and mechanics muscle memory. Ideally, as you read, you will notice the grammatical errors before you even look at the answer choices. You know exactly what to choose and can easily move on, rather than having to parse every choice.
Finally, be aware of your pacing. Notice when you spend more than thirty seconds on a question. If you are, skip it and move on. Either come back to it later or simply guess. Just do not forget to bubble something for that question before time is up!
Speaking of which, bubbling your answer sheet is one of those places in which you can save time. Rather than going back and forth for each question, you might choose to bubble at the end of each page or each passage. I prefer to bubble per page spread. For example, the left page and right page cover questions 3–7. I will answer all of those questions first and then transfer that sequence to the answer sheet.
I still have my English grammar textbook from high school. At 1,000 pages, it has everything I will ever need to know about the English language, which is why I kept it—it’s a great resource! However, you do not need 1,000 pages worth of English grammar knowledge to score well on the SAT Writing and Language Test. You need to focus on what is actually tested. What is that?
The College Board breaks down Writing questions into two categories: Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions. Expression of Ideas questions deal with the quality and clarity of the writing through development, organization, and effective language use. Different books or tutors will discuss these questions differently, but essentially they boil down to focusing on answers that are consistent with the sentence, paragraph, and passage while also maintaining clarity of language. Ideas should be arranged in a logical sequence, and sentences should not be wordy.
Standard English Conventions questions look simpler, as these are simply a series of answer choices, but they do require a strong understanding of grammar. You should be able to select verbs and pronouns that are in agreement with the rest of the sentence as well as transitions that correctly align with the logical sequence of the paragraph. Again, those questions boil down to consistency. You should be able to recognize complete and incomplete sentences and know how to fix them with correct punctuation, such as commas, semi-colons, colons, and dashes. Know the difference between contractions and possessive pronouns (its and it’s, their and they’re) as well as other commonly confused words. Notice the difference between formal and informal–slang–word usage. This may seem like a lot to you, but you probably don’t need to focus on all these. Take a practice test to determine your areas of improvement. If you do feel like you need a major refresher, working with a tutor or something like Khan Academy can help you cover the major topics in a short amount of time.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses in the areas mentioned above is key to dialing in your areas of study. Work through a full Writing and Language Test (four passages and 44 questions). At this stage, timing is less important. Your focus is on identifying areas to improve. As you check your answers, notice which questions you answer incorrectly. Do you need to review comma rules? Did some commonly confused words or preposition usage trip you up? If you are having trouble identifying why you got a question wrong, work with a tutor. They will have the expertise necessary to set you on the right path.
Once you begin to recognize question types and what they are testing, (e.g.: this is a comma question), you can ask yourself WHY you missed that question in particular. What did you not understand either about the concept or in the question itself that led to your incorrect choice? Taking the time to review your mistakes and actually learning from them will make those grammar rules stick. It’s not just about knowing that you, for example, must use commas to separate items in a series, but about being able to recognize a series in a sentence, especially if it is punctuated incorrectly.
All Writing and Language questions offer the “no change” option. Not every underlined word or phrase is incorrect! “No change” is the correct answer 25% of the time, and sometimes you might have two or more in a row. (Having them show up in a row will make you want to second-guess yourself, but trust your skills!) Again, knowing your grammar rules and being able to explain why the answer is already correct is important here. If you can explain why it is correct, you will be more confident in choosing “no change” when you need to. You can also use that 25% to gauge where you might need to rethink your answers. If it looks like you are choosing A too much, go back through those questions, identify the rule being tested, and justify the answer to yourself.
Finally, when practicing for the SAT Writing and Language Test, use questions formatted like they are on the actual test. The best options are to use the practice tests offered by the College Board on the SAT website. After that, use Khan Academy for more practice. The College Board has partnered with them to create Official SAT Practice, so the questions they provide will be like what you see on the test.
If you are working on practicing a particular concept, like commas, it is perfectly alright to use grammar worksheets for drills. In fact, when it comes to grammar rules, memorization and repetition are your best friends. Like math skills, you want to be able to do those Standard English Conventions questions in your sleep. That will improve your pacing tremendously and allow more time for the lengthier Expression of Ideas questions.
It is possible to improve your writing and language score, and the above tips will help you do it. The key is that you have to put in the work it takes to improve; so grab your pencil, and get started!
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