• A Preview of the Test

• How Colleges Use the Test

• Format of Test Questions

• How the Essay Is Scored

• To Guess or Not to Guess on Short-Answer Questions

• How to Find the Best Answers

Overview of the Writing Test

The entire SAT lasts three hours and forty-five minutes, including one hour for the Writing Test.

The Writing Test is divided into three sections:

Section 1: An essay question (25 minutes)

Section 2: Multiple-choice questions (25 minutes)

Section 3: More multiple-choice questions (10 minutes)

The first twenty-five minutes of the SAT is devoted to Section 1 of the Writing Test. During that time you will be asked to write an essay in response to a given topic.

Section 2 of the Writing Test is given later in the exam. It consists of three types of multiple-choice questions that ask you to (1) correct poorly written sentences, (2) find grammar and usage errors in a set of sentences, and (3) revise an early draft of a given essay.

Section 3, lasting ten minutes, is administered toward the end of the SAT. It contains additional multiple-choice questions on correcting poorly written sentences.

Altogether then, the SAT Writing Test consists of an essay question and two sections of multiple-choice questions.



NOTE: Every SAT also contains a tenth section that doesn’t count in calculating your score. It’s an experimental section included by the College Board to test potential questions in writing, math, or critical reading for use on future SAT exams. The experimental section is not identified.

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Your score on the test adds an important dimension to your college admissions profile. It shows admission officials how well you write, especially how well you write under the pressure of time. This information suggests your potential for success in college courses that require writing. In particular, your essay provides evidence of

images The depth of your thinking. You reveal the depth of your thinking by responding perceptively to the topic, or question. Your response also shows whether you can devise a thesis, or main idea, and develop it insightfully.

images Your ability to organize ideas. You show your ability to organize ideas by arranging material according to a logical, sensible plan.

images The way you express yourself. You reveal your ability to express yourself by accurately and succinctly conveying your thoughts to the reader.

images Your mastery of standard written English. You demonstrate your use of standard written English by writing an essay relatively free of errors in grammar and usage.

The multiple-choice questions deal with everyday problems in grammar, usage, style, word choice, and other basic elements of writing. Instead of asking you about obscure matters of grammar, the questions will ask you to identify common sentence errors and to improve sentences and paragraphs.

Although most colleges use the results of the SAT Writing Test as a criterion for admission, some colleges also use scores to determine academic placement. A high score may entitle you to waive a freshman composition course. A score that suggests deficiencies may place you in a remedial writing program to be completed either before classes begin or during the first semester. To understand just how your score will affect you, consult the literature of the colleges to which you are applying. Or, here’s another idea: bring up the use of SAT scores during your interview with a college admissions official.


Your essay will be read by two experienced evaluators, most likely high school or college teachers trained to judge the overall quality and effectiveness of students’ essays. Neither reader will know the grade that the other reader has given your essay. Nor will they know your name or the name of your school. Each reader will assign your essay a grade on a scale of 1 (low) to 6 (high). Your essay’s subscore will be recorded as the sum of the two scores (2 to 12).

On the multiple-choice questions, you’ll earn a point for each correct answer and lose a quarter of a point (0.25) for each wrong answer. An item left blank will neither add to nor take away from your score. A machine will score your responses to forty-nine questions and will report a subscore on a scale of 20 to 80.

Before scores are sent out, the College Board will convert the two subscores to the SAT scale of 200–800. Your total for the Writing Test, along with your scores in math and critical reading, will be reported to you, to your guidance counselor, and to the admissions offices of the colleges you designate.


Subtracting credit for wrong answers on multiple-choice questions is meant to discourage blind guessing. If you haven’t a clue about how to answer a question, leave it blank. If you can confidently eliminate one of the five choices, it probably pays to guess. The odds are one in four that you’ll be right. These are not terrific odds, but suppose that on four questions you eliminate one wrong choice and you guess four times. If you guess right just once, you’ll earn a point and lose three-quarters of a point, a net gain of one quarter. If you leave all four blank, you will gain nothing. Yes, it’s a gamble because you could make four incorrect guesses, but the chances of losing every time are only one in four. And you could get lucky and hit two, three, or even four correct answers.

TIP images

If a question stumps you completely, don’t try to answer it.

When a question gives you trouble, and you can’t decide among, say, three choices, common wisdom says that you should go with your first impulse. Testing experts and psychologists agree that there’s a better than average chance of success if you trust your intuition. However, there are no guarantees, and because the mind works in so many strange ways, relying on your initial choice may not always work for you.

Another piece of folk wisdom about guessing is that if one answer is longer than the others, that may be your best choice. That’s not information you should depend on. In fact, since economy of expression is a virtue in writing, a shorter choice may more often be the best answer. The truth of the matter is that you can’t depend on tricks or gimmicks on the SAT.


By reading these words you’ve already begun preparing for the exam. Actually, you began years ago when you first wrote words on paper and a string of school teachers began hammering the basics of English grammar into your head.

But that was then. Now it’s time to brush up on your grammar, become acquainted with the precise format of the test, and develop a number of useful tactics for writing the essay and answering the multiple-choice questions.

Once you have finished reading these introductory pages, take the diagnostic test in Part II. Afterwards, check your answers and identify the questions you missed. By doing so, you can tell not only how much studying you need to do but what material to study. If, say, you couldn’t finish writing the essay in the allotted twenty-five minutes, you’d do well to read the pages of Part III that discuss planning and composing an essay. Or, if you missed a couple of multiple-choice questions related to pronoun choice or parallel structure, study the relevant pages in Part V, and do the practice exercises.