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SAT Writing: What You Need to Know

by John Jones with Ian Lekus and Natalie Lempert

The Basics

The SAT’s Writing & Language section is one of the four scored sections on the test. The point totals from this section are combined with those from the Reading section to give the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score. This score, which has a maximum of 800, is then added to the score from the two SAT Math Sections, which also total 800, to give the highest possible score of 1600. 

The Nitty Gritty

The SAT Writing & Language section is best thought of as two tests in one. First, it is a test of standard written English — for example, punctuation, subject/verb agreement, verb number and tense, clarity and redundancy, sentence structure, and other mechanics of grammar. Second, it is a test of rhetorical skills — that is, whether the author has clearly and effectively organized their argument and evidence for the reader.

These questions are spread over four passages, each containing eleven questions. Each one of the passages is independent of the others and will contain most of the question types we mentioned above. You won’t have to confront all of the punctuation questions in one passage, for example, as they’ll instead be spread throughout the four passages.

The underlying topics of the passages will include science, humanities, social studies, careers, and history. However, it is not as important for you to understand the nuances of the authors’ arguments as it is on the SAT or ACT Reading sections. These essays simply provide context for the test to be able to ask us the types of writing and language questions the test writers are interested in.

The SAT or the ACT?

If you’ve taken both tests, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the SAT Writing section is directly modeled after the ACT English section. If you look at these sections together, you can see they are almost identical in content and goals, although the SAT Writing section will include a few tables and graphs and ask you to align the text with the data in those charts. On the ACT, most students will have 45 minutes to complete 75 questions spread over five passages, while on the SAT, they will have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions across four passages. Overall, the structure of the passages and questions is similar, and few students make their decision about which test to take based on the minor pacing and content differences between the SAT Writing and ACT English sections.

Overall Strategy

It might be helpful to think of this section as a visit from a bunch of your classmates who don’t write as well as you do. They know you have an ear for the teacher’s grading style, and therefore, ask you to help them edit their papers. What would my English teacher correct in this passage? Which answer options would we never hear coming out of their mouth?

As you work your way through the section, some errors will be easy to spot. Others, however, will be more difficult to find. The recurring theme of the section is the concept of the complete sentence: Do you have a subject and a verb? You want to read the full sentence of each question in checking to see if it is complete as it is written in the passage. Additionally, in case the underlined portion in the passage has an error, you want to confirm that the correction you select doesn’t create a sentence fragment or incomplete sentence. Finally, you want to make sure that the answer you have chosen did not introduce any new errors into the sentence or paragraph. Let’s take a closer look…

The Structure of the Questions

The questions of this section are distributed over four independent passages, each running about 400-500 words in length. The text of the passage is printed on the left side of the page, with questions appearing in a column on the right. Generally, each question is placed as close as possible to the relevant passage text (sometimes, this results in strange spacing in the passage on the left, while at other times, only one or two questions may appear in the right-hand column). Each question has a corresponding black box containing that question’s number that is placed within the passage near the words or sentence addressed in the question. The specific word or sentence portion you will be asked to edit is underlined. It is extremely important to remember that what is not underlined is fixed and cannot be changed. As such, we need to make sure that the correction we select not only fixes the problem in the underlined portion, but also does not cause an error when combined with the non-underlined portion of the sentence. There are no typos, so what remains outside of the underlined portion is what the SAT put there on purpose.

In addition to the boxed-question numbers within the passage, some passages will contain paragraphs where each sentence is preceded by a bracketed numeral: for example, [1]. This kind of paragraph will contain questions about the ordering of its sentences, the removal of a redundant sentence, or the possible inclusion of a sentence not already within the passage.

You will also see test questions on specific grammar rules and conventions. While you will not be tested on everything there is to know about punctuation, there are some fundamentals you will be certain to see. You may run into cases where the correct answer doesn’t quite sound right or where an incorrect answer sounds misleadingly familiar. Remember, the correct answer will be based on the formal rules of written English rather than on the everyday speech patterns and quirks we all use in conversation. Your ear can help you narrow down the possible answer choices but won’t always be enough to identify the correct answer.

The Content of the Questions

Broadly, the questions on this section break down into (1) either identifying and correcting grammatical errors or (2) selecting the best-worded option of the answer choices presented. These two types of questions are roughly evenly divided throughout the Writing section, but this does not mean that they appear in any particular order.


These questions ask you to fix a specific violation of the rules of written English grammar – or, roughly a quarter of the time, to identify that yes, the original text does indeed adhere to those rules. Such questions will present you with four options for an underlined sentence, phrase, or word in the passage. Make sure to ask yourself if the sentence is complete. Does it contain both a subject and a verb? Are the subject and verb in agreement in tense and number? Are the pronouns correct in gender, case, and number? Have the punctuation marks been used correctly? These are the most important questions you will want to answer.

If you think the sentence is correct the way it is written on the page, just select answer “A: NO CHANGE” for this question. Choice A just repeats what is already printed in the passage without adding any additional changes. We often work with students who assume there must be an error in the text and that “no change” isn’t a legitimate option. It is. No, really, we promise it is. While the test writers can be sneaky in misleading students with trap wrong answers, “no change” isn’t part of those shenanigans, and if your gut and your brain say the text is correct as is, you should trust them.

Of course, if you think the sentence/word/phrase in question is not correct as it stands, select the other answer option that do you believe to be correct. Again — we can’t repeat this too often — read the entire sentence, not just the underlined portion of it.

Rhetorical Skills

These questions will test you on whether you recognize writing that’s precise, flows smoothly, and is clearly argued and organized. It is essential to note that many of these questions will ask you to choose among four options that are all grammatically correct but differ in other ways.

Transitions are a frequent topic here, whether that’s how best to move from one sentence to the next or one paragraph to the next. Some questions will ask you whether to add or delete a sentence (don’t stop with “yes” or “no” or with “keep” or “delete” — the explanation after “yes” or “no,” etc., must be correct) or for the best way to combine two sentences. Other questions will ask you to reorder the sentences in a paragraph or choose the right word from among options with similar meanings. Still other questions will refer to the author’s specific goal or style, such as which option provides the most specific and relevant information or which choice best maintains the tone of the passage.

Key Strategies

In preparing for the SAT Writing section, we encourage you to review the grammar topics mentioned above. It’s also a good idea to practice individual passages for content as well as entire sections for pacing. Any time you miss a question, we recommend being very specific in your notes about the exact reason you selected the incorrect answer and the grammar or usage rule that explains the correct answer. It can also be helpful to examine all of the answer choices for each question, understanding how they differ in terms of a potential fix of the error. In particular, we strongly recommend using process of elimination to narrow down your options. Furthermore, we suggest keeping the following concepts in mind as you consider the different answer choices.

Process of Elimination

My ninth-grade English teacher, Ms. Siegel, was my class’s grammar authority. She would drill us in class and sternly correct any errors in our understanding. When I prepare lessons for my students on the SAT Writing section, I am often reminded of Ms. Siegel and how she would point out the errors in the incorrect answer choices. Try thinking of the teacher, parent, or instructor in your life who is meticulous about the rules of grammar. When you find yourself comparing similar options and are unsure how to proceed, imagine this person speaking the sentence. Does it fit or does it not sound quite right? If it bothers your ear to hear them say it, eliminate that answer choice and look at the other options.

Even if haven’t had your own Ms. Siegel, maybe your parent or another adult in your life has been a stickler for grammar and other proper use of English. If this applies to you, try hearing them recite the answer options. You will be surprised at how many errors you can catch this way. Another option is to practice mumbling to yourself as you read through the answer options. Engaging your ears and the language center of your brain in this way will help you catch errors you might otherwise miss if you are only reading with your eyes. Practice using this strategy on sample passages. While you can’t do this under actual test conditions, mastering this beforehand can train you “hear” some potential errors as you read.

Know the Rules

So, we just told you to listen to your ear, and that’s very good advice — most of the time. But not always. This section is a test of some core rules of written English. The correct answer will not match the way we speak with our friends or even our parents or teachers 100% of the time. Take commas, for example: the instinct to align commas on the page with the pauses we speak works sometimes but doesn’t cover all comma uses. Or colons. Do you know why that last sentence has a colon? Check out that rule. How about misplaced modifiers? Those are some of the trickiest questions for students, not because misplaced modifiers are conceptually all that difficult but because our brains easily correct for those errors and they often sound just fine and we don’t notice them.

Context is Key

We’ve emphasized this point throughout this blog, but we want to be extra clear here: When answering a question, you must read the entire sentence through, NOT just the portion containing the underlined words. Do you need “its” or “theirs”? A singular or plural verb? Only by reading the entire sentence will you be certain to minimize subject/verb and other agreement errors.

Moreover, you’ll often have to read not just the entire sentence but also the sentences before and after the underlined text. A redundant word or phrase might be in the sentence before. You’ll need to read the previous sentence when there’s a question about transition words or phrases, and you’ll have to check through the rest of the paragraph when you’re asked to pick which sentences best introduces the information that follows. Of course, the questions that ask you to potentially move sentences around also demand that you read most or all of a paragraph.

Less is More

The SAT Writing Section rewards is brevity — that is, using fewer words to get the same point across. Check that your options are not overly wordy, don’t contain redundant words or phrases, and in general, steer towards the shorter answer choice. This is not to say that the shortest answer is always correct — it is the majority of the time but not 100% of the time.

High school students often pick up the habit of thinking that a wordy sentence makes them sound smarter. The SAT Writing Section is a good opportunity to start breaking that unproductive habit before the required writing seminars you’ll take as a college freshman. The SAT is clever at trapping students with extra adjectives and seemingly helpful phrases. For example, “Maria apprehensively approached the edge of the cliff with great trepidation.” Both “apprehensively” and “with great trepidation” mean “fearfully”; either will do, and there’s no need for both. Or take, “After the test, I am going to a party, a social gathering featuring conversation, music, and food.” Well, that is what a party is, right? A social gathering? Do we really need to say both “party” and “social gathering”? No. Couldn’t we just leave the rest of that sentence after ‘party’ unsaid? Yes. The “social gathering” aspect of the word “party” is implied in the definition of the word.

Strategies for your SAT Writing Goals

As mentioned earlier, your overall score on the SAT will combine your performance on the reading, writing, and two math sections. Scores for the Writing section range from 100 to 400, based on how many of the 44 questions you answer correctly. There is no scoring penalty, so do not leave any question blank and do make sure to bubble in answers for every question.

For any questions you are unsure of while working through the section, it’s better to make a quick decision and bubble in a best guess or circle the question number in your test booklet as a reminder to come back to it later before moving on to the next question. Your chances of reaching your desired score depend on your seeing all of the questions, so it’s best to make an educated guess and move on than to run out of time. You are going to answer the majority of the questions correctly, so let’s make sure you allow yourself to see all the questions in order to maximize your chances of getting the score you want.

If your goal for the SAT is to generally improve your Writing score, keep in mind that it may be easier to reach your overall goal by learning more grammar rules rather than by aiming to conquer the subtlest reading questions. On any standardized test, in any section, you always want to target the easy points first.

Here are some specific tips for reaching the score you want.

250 out of 400

In order to reach a score of 250, you need to correctly answer about 22 questions, which works out to 5-6 questions per passage and roughly half the section in total. Aside from what you probably already know about grammar, try increasing your strength in correctly identifying subject/verb (dis)agreement. Alternatively, you could work on firming up your grasp of punctuation in order to help you reach this score.

300 out of 400

To hit a score of 300, you need to pay more attention to detail. To answer correctly about 8 of the 11 questions in each passage, you should have a growing mastery of both punctuation and subject/verb agreement issues. Additionally, you should be developing an awareness of how some other parts of speech are tested, including pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. You should be reading the sentence in question very closely. Even if you are not yet an expert in grammar and usage mechanics, you can confidently compare the answer options for each question to at least be able to determine what topic is being tested.

350 out of 400

Now, we are really gaining confidence in this section. To reach a score of 350, you will need to correctly answer 10 of the 11 questions in each passage. At this point, you are an expert on the punctuation being tested: commas, colons, semicolons, apostrophes, and dashes. Additionally, you are comfortable with pronoun placement, identification of misplaced modifiers, creating parallel structure, and correcting unequal comparisons. Finally, you’re thorough in examining context to help you answer the rhetorical skills questions. You know how to find clues to the answer within the wording of the question. Is the question emphasizing context within the larger work, asking you to identify a specific error, or pointing to another placement for the sentence? You have all of these answers.

400 out of 400

In order to get a perfect score in this section, you will need to put all the elements together. Read the question and relevant sentences thoroughly. Identify grammar errors and ways to improve sentences phrasing. Choose and reorder sentences based on context and desired emphasis. You’ll move methodically through the section, making sure not to dwell too long on any one question or type of problem. You’ll also be able to correctly identify and revise errors in the commonly tested themes: wordiness, relevance, and flow. 


Regardless of your target score, timed practice, and deliberate, detailed review of prior errors will help you take the necessary steps to higher scores. Test prep takes patience and consistency, and if we don’t make mistakes, we’ll never learn how to get better. We hope we’ve helped you better prepare for what is ahead. If you have any questions, please let us know!

Good luck!

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