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The SAT Writing Test

Written by tutor Ellen S.

The writing section on the SAT is relatively new, and that can create problems since there are topics on it that are not generally taught in high school. The biggest problem area, by far, is the essay. So let's start with that.

The Essay

The essay on the SAT is a timed 25-minute writing assignment where you are given a single prompt and you must answer it in a clear, well-organized manner. High school classes don't generally discuss timed essay assignments, unless you're in a specialized course like the International Baccalaureate where timed essays are an integral part of the certification exams. This can create problems for students when they attempt to approach the SAT essay the same way they'd approach an at-home essay. The truth is, writing a timed essay is a completely different skill than writing an essay at home and must be practiced in a completely different way. This is just an overview, but I'm going to take you quickly through the main differences and give you some tips on how to prepare for them.

#1: You only have 25 minutes

This is by far the most readily-apparent difference, and it requires you to adjust your process in order to tackle it. Try it a few times, and you'll quickly realize that 25 minutes is not enough time to change your mind mid-stream. It's also not enough time to develop a really nuanced and complex opinion and get the paper written out completely. Depending on how quickly you write, it may even be a close call just getting a whole essay's worth of words out on the paper in the first place. But more on that in #3.

What this means is that you really, really need to pre-write. I know a lot of students skip prewriting; they figure they'll just work it out while they're writing the draft. But on a timed essay, you don't get a draft - by the time your body paragraphs are down, time is almost up - so prewriting is absolutely essential. Start by jotting down your main opinion in one sentence - that'll become your thesis later on - and make yourself an outline of main points with examples for each one. Be brief, but be thorough, and make sure you're organized before you start writing. Remember, the essay graders are looking for organization and clear expression of opinions. What your opinion is is not nearly as important as how well you communicate it - so get organized!

#2: You have no choice of prompt, and no warning about what the topic will be

In your average English class, you know a bit about the essay you'll be writing long before you get the prompt. You know which book you've been reading; you know what sorts of topics your teacher has been discussing. Your teacher probably even gives you a selection of prompts, so that you can choose the one that interests you most - or in my case, avoid like the plague the ubiquitous prompt about gender roles in society. On the SAT, no such luck. You get one prompt, and that's it. Fortunately, there are some consistencies you can look for.

The SAT essay prompts generally take the form of the statement of an opinion, and then asking whether you agree or disagree with that opinion. Sometimes they cloud the question, but it almost always comes down to a "Do you agree or disagree?" format. Knowing that, the first step is to decide if you agree or disagree, and then write that at the top of your pre-writing paper so you keep it in the front of your mind as you write. Always return to that central idea of "agree or disagree?" whenever you feel lost.

#3: You're writing everything out longhand

Don't discount the time sink that writing out an essay longhand can cause. Particularly now that computers are used for almost every writing assignment, students tend to forget how long it takes them to actually write. With only 25 minutes to work with, I like to set a schedule. Take 5 minutes for pre-writing - you want that part to go fast - 15 minutes for writing the body paragraphs, and the last 5 minutes to write your intro and conclusion and to proofread and edit. Most of your editing should be done while you're writing - say each sentence to yourself and work it around before you write it out. And yes, I always leave the introduction for the end - just skip the first five or six lines on your test booklet and start right into the body paragraphs. It's far, far easier to write an introduction when you know what you're introducing.

For more help, check out our in-depth lesson on the SAT essay!

But of course, the essay isn't the only part of the Writing section - there are multiple choice questions to be considered. The most important thing to remember during the writing section is that it's a writing section, not a reading section. Keep that distinction clear in your mind, and remember that the test creators are trying to trip you up with writing errors, not reading comprehension. That's a different section entirely. There are three types of multiple choice questions, but they all follow the same basic concept as far as testing goes: they want to see if you remember your grammar rules. A few tips to avoid the biggest pitfalls:

Identifying Sentence Errors

These are in some ways the easiest of the bunch, because you don't need to know how to fix the errors, you just have to see that they're there. Sometimes one of the underlined portions will just sound wrong to you, and that makes things easier. But if not, it can help if you try to figure out what the test makers are suggesting might be wrong with their choice of underlining. For example, you might look at a sentence and immediately see that one of the underlined portions is the word "their" referring to the subject of the sentence. Obviously, they're asking you "Is this the correct word to refer to that subject? Should it be a 'his' or a 'hers', or maybe an 'its'?" Once you figure out why they've underlined that section - why someone might think that was wrong - you can just check quickly and make sure it is the correct possessive, or the correct conjugation of that verb, or the correct placement of that apostrophe. A lot of the nitpicky grammar rules show up in these questions, so brush up on your third grade grammar!

Improving Sentences

These involve going one step further than just identifying the error; now they're asking you to fix it. You can start the same way, though - just look for any glaring errors in the sentence and go from there. Some common ones to check for: is it actually a whole sentence? Sentences need to have a subject and a verb at the very least. Are the commas in the right places? If there are two commas in the sentence, you should be able to take out whatever's in between them and have the sentence still be complete without it. Do you see the phrase "being that" anywhere in the sentence? That's a huge no-no and will almost always be an error. Also, remember as you complete these questions that the point of the writing section is to improve the quality of the sentences without changing their meaning. Pay careful attention to whether your answer choice actually changes what the sentence means. "A painter depicting classic scenes in his paintings" is not the same as "a painter in his paintings depicting classic scenes." The second one has him jumping through the looking glass and getting stuck inside his own artwork. Or, my favorite example from Peterson's "Master the SAT": "We bought a piano from an old lady with intricate carvings." Wait, what?

Improving Paragraphs

Remember, this is a writing section, not a reading section. The reason they're asking you questions about this paragraph is because they want you to fix the grammar/word choice/writing errors in context.

The two questions I ask my students when faced with one of these problems are:

  • Why is this question in the writing section, as opposed to the reading section?
  • Why is it in the Improving Paragraphs section rather than simply being an Improving Sentences question?

The purpose of paragraph questions is to see how well you understand the way that context changes writing choices. For example, a question might ask about a sentence in the paragraph and give you answer choices starting with five contrasting transitions. They're asking about the context - does this sentence need a "Therefore" or a "Nevertheless" or maybe an "In spite of this"? All three will be grammatically correct, but only one makes sense in context. That's why it's in a paragraph question.

Overall the Writing section is sometimes seen as easier than the two original sections, but there are some twists to it that can make it just as difficult to consistently score high, particularly since we don't generally cover grammar in school past fourth or fifth grade, so by the time we get to SAT level, most of us have gotten a bit fuzzy on the details. Overall, I suggest staying very aware of the distinction between a reading section and a writing section, and remembering that grammar mistakes are the top priority. Even if an answer choice sounds the best, if it's got a grammar error in it, it's wrong. There's a reason they phrase the instructions as "Choose the best answer" - sometimes none of them are exactly what you'd say, but one will be better than the others. Go with your gut - and brush up on those grammar rules!

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