The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Writing Multiple Choice
“The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
- Michel de Montaigne
Overview and Important Reminders for SAT Writing Multiple-Choice
The remaining three SAT question types are all part of the Writing Section of the SAT. We’ll get into the specifics of each question type in a minute, but first we need to clear up a few misconceptions that often keep people from doing as well on SAT Writing as they could.
Let’s get started.
The Big Secret(s) Of SAT Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
There are a lot of important things about this part of the SAT that you probably don’t know. We’ll start with the biggest one, which is that you may not even need to worry about the SAT Writing section at all.
Many Schools And Scholarship Programs Don’t Even Consider The Writing Section
The Writing section is a relative new-comer to the SAT, since it was only added to the test in 2005. (It has existed on the PSAT for longer than it has on the SAT, and there used to be an SAT Subject Test in Writing, but the Writing section as we know it on the SAT 1 has only existed since 2005.)
Many schools don’t like the SAT Writing section for a couple of reasons. The SAT Essay is widely thought to be a terrible measurement of writing ability, for one thing. And we also have to remember that the entire point of the SAT is to allow colleges to make meaningful comparisons among current applicants and the applicants from previous years; since colleges only have a few years of data from the Writing section, as opposed to decades of data for the other two sections, many schools trust the Writing scores a lot less than they trust the other two scores.
With each passing year, it stands to reason that more and more colleges will start to feel comfortable enough to trust the Writing section. Even now, it’s definitely trusted a lot more than it was when it debuted in 2005. Still, between the section’s relatively poor design (which we’ll talk about in the rest of this section) and the relative lack of historical data, I would expect that there will be plenty of schools that ignore the SAT Writing section for the foreseeable future.
If you’re wondering whether your target schools care about the Writing section, the best thing you can do is track down their admissions statistics on the Internet, or even call up the admissions office of each school and ask directly if they consider the SAT Writing section. You can do the same thing for any SAT-based scholarships you might be competing for. If it turns out that none of your target schools or programs cares about this part of the test, then you can focus even more intently on raising your scores in the other sections, and leave this part of the test alone.
Generally speaking, the larger state schools seem to be the ones that place less emphasis on the Writing section, though there are plenty of more selective private schools that also say they don’t care about it very much. And, just anecdotally, I can tell you that I’ve been called on by prestigious admissions consultants to help students raise their Reading and Math scores in a last-ditch effort to get them up before an application deadline, but no admissions professional has ever asked me to do that for a client’s Writing score, even when the client’s Writing score was only average.
Again, these things can change from year to year and from school to school, so you should always verify on your own whether your target schools will care about your Writing score. I just want you to be aware that many seem not to.
The SAT Writing Section Doesn’t Always Reflect The Way Anyone Actually Speaks
The approach that most people take to the Writing section is to trust the way a sentence sounds to them. If they think it sounds like something they would say, they’re happy. If not, they try to find a way to change it that would bring it more in line with how they talk.
The problem with this should be obvious if you’ve been reading this book straight through from the beginning: the SAT doesn’t do much of anything the way regular people do it.
So we’ll find a bunch of arbitrary rules and patterns on the Writing section, just as we do on the other two sections. (Remember that being “arbitrary” isn’t the same thing as being “unpredictable” or “pointless.” When I say the rules are arbitrary, I mean that the College Board had to make some arbitrary decisions in setting up the rules that the Writing section would follow. But the rules are totally predictable and consistent from one test date to the next. They’re just not always based on the way educated people actually speak or write.)
For example, as we’ll see in a few pages, the College Board wouldn’t be okay with a sentence like this:
They said it was going to rain today.
This is a totally normal English sentence, but it breaks a certain SAT rule about the use of the pronouns “it” and “they.” I’ll cover that rule when we talk about Identifying Sentence Errors questions.
This next sentence would also not be acceptable on the SAT Writing section, even though it’s a perfectly grammatical English sentence:
My house is much bigger than John.
That sentence would break the SAT’s unwritten rule about comparisons needing to be made between similar things. Again, we’ll talk about that rule when we discuss the Identifying Sentence Errors questions.
For now, I just want to make it clear that there are specific test-design principles that SAT Writing questions must always follow, and those principles don’t always line up with our natural instincts as speakers of English.
And this talk of different question types brings me to my next big secret.
There Are Two Different Standards For Correct Sentences On The SAT Writing Section
Most test-takers assume that every question on the SAT Writing section follows the same standards. But this is not the case.
There are two major types of multiple-choice questions on the Writing section of the SAT: the Identifying Sentence Errors questions, which are numbers 12 through 29 on the large Writing sub-section in each SAT, and the Improving Sentences questions, which are numbers 1 through 11 on the large Writing sub-section and numbers 1 through 14 on the short sub-section at the end of the test. (There’s also a third question type that is basically a hodgepodge of the other two, with some ideas from the Passage-Based Reading questions thrown in as well. Those are the Improving Paragraphs questions, and they run from numbers 30 to 35 on the large Writing sub-section.)
The Identifying Sentence Errors questions only test your knowledge of the rules of SAT grammar. They test things like subject-verb agreement, the correct formation of irregular verb tenses, making sure you use “nor” with “neither,” and so on. But they don’t test the “awkwardness” of a sentence at all.
In other words, they only test whether the strict rules of grammar are being followed in the sentence; they don’t test whether the sentence could be expressed in a more pleasing way apart from its grammatical mistakes.
The Improving Sentences questions, on the other hand, do reward you for creating a sentence that is both grammatically acceptable and as pleasing to the College Board’s ear as possible. This means you will sometimes see Improving Sentences questions with more than one grammatically acceptable answer choice, and your job will be to choose the grammatically acceptable choice that also does the best job of following the SAT’s style guidelines. (These style guidelines are never spelled out by the SAT, but I’ve figured them out by looking at a whole bunch of real questions from the College Board and looking for patterns over the years. I’ll share them with you when we get to our discussion of the Improving Sentences questions a little later.)
So the Identifying Sentence Error questions are purely about SAT grammar, while the Improving Sentences questions combine SAT grammar and SAT style.
This means that some phrases that would be acceptable in correctly phrased Identifying Sentence Error questions are incorrect for the Improving Sentences questions. This can happen if the phrase is grammatically correct but still “awkward” in the eyes of the College Board.
Now that we’ve talked about some of the most important parts of the SAT Writing section that come as a surprise to most people, I’d like to explain how I think you should try to improve your score on this section. In some ways it’s a little different from what I recommend you do on the other two sections.
How To Improve Your Score On The Writing Section
Most people try to improve on the Writing section by memorizing a lot of grammatical rules and then looking for opportunities to apply them to the test.
This doesn’t work, for reasons we just discussed. For one thing, the rules of “SAT grammar” aren’t always the same as the normal rules of grammar that you might learn from an English teacher or find on the Internet. For another thing, we have to keep in mind that different question types on the Writing section reward different things: some are only concerned with SAT grammar, while others rely on SAT grammar and SAT style together.
So I usually advise my students to learn what the SAT rewards on the Writing section by becoming very familiar with real SAT Writing questions written by the College Board, which we can find in the Blue Book. If you work with those real questions and pay attention to the principles of SAT grammar and style that I share with you in this book, you’ll quickly develop strong instincts about what the College Board rewards and punishes on this part of the test.
I used the word “instinct” in that last sentence very deliberately, because over the years I’ve seen that most test-takers aren’t very familiar with formal English grammar. This is especially true for native speakers of American English, because most American schools don’t teach grammar. For most American students, the only grammar they’ve ever formally studied is the grammar of the foreign language they take, and that grammar may not bear much resemblance to English grammar.
I don’t think it’s important to develop any technical knowledge of the names of different parts of speech, different semantic roles, and so on. The Writing section is different from the Math section in this regard. The Math section will use technical math words like “hypotenuse” or “integer” in its questions, so you need to know those words if you want to score high. But the Writing section never asks you to identify a helping verb or subordinating conjunction by name, so we don’t actually have to know any of that jargon to be able to identify correct answers consistently.
In other words, if you can tell that a particular phrase on the Writing section is something that the College Board won’t like, because similar phrases have always been wrong in the questions you’ve analyzed in the past, then it doesn’t matter what label you would put on the mistake.
As an example, I often work with students who use the word “parallelism” to refer to a wide variety of situations—everything from normal subject-verb agreement (which isn’t really an instance of parallelism) to a properly formed corollary conjunction (which is kind-of-maybe parallelism). But as long as their understanding of parallelism lets them answer questions correctly, nothing else matters as far as the SAT is concerned.
Instead of trying to learn formal English grammar, I would advise you to try to develop the right instincts for this section, without worrying about identifying and classifying different types of phrases.
You can develop those instincts by reading the rest of this section, paying attention to the rules and patterns I explain, and to the sample solutions I provide. If you take those things to heart and then try your hand at some practice questions from the Blue Book on your own, you should see improvement. The more questions you encounter and the more you practice implementing the ideas in this book, the higher your score will go.
Of course, if you would like a formal explanation of SAT grammar that uses words like “gerund” and “copular,” you can find my Writing Toolbox as an appendix at the end of this book. It gives you a formal explanation of all the points of SAT grammar. But you’ll probably find that you don’t need it.
Now let’s dive into the question types on the Writing section in more detail. We’ll start with the Identifying Sentence Error questions.