The Complete Prep Guide for SAT® Writing

Student writing the lecture on wooden table
“Learn about what is tested on the SAT writing section, how to prepare for it and equip yourself with general grammar and punctuation rules to do well in the SAT writing section”
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Important SAT Update: Transition to Digital SAT
Effective December 3, 2023, the traditional paper-and-pencil format of the SAT has been discontinued. Starting in 2024, all students are required to take the Digital SAT, ushering in substantial changes in duration, format, material coverage, and question types. This shift to the Digital SAT represents a departure from traditional testing methods. It is crucial for students, educators, and test-takers to acquaint themselves with the new examination structure. Read more about the Digital SAT here.

As you prepare for the Writing section of the SAT® exam, you may have some questions. If you are looking for details about the SAT’s formatting, strategies for studying, or mistakes to avoid, you will find it all here. Click the links throughout the article for more specific breakdowns.

What Is Tested on SAT Writing?

The Writing and Language section of the SAT test assesses your ability to edit and improve grammar errors or weaknesses. After reading a passage, you will answer questions about improving the main points, grammar, punctuation, word choice, structure, or tone.  

To succeed with these questions, you will need to pay attention to the effect of a sentence or the function of a word. The results you receive from the Writing and Language section are combined with your results from the Reading section, then scaled to a Reading and Writing Score between 200 and 800 points. 

This section tests your command of evidence and your skills with words in context. It will also ask you about small detail errors and big picture mistakes.

Command of evidence questions ask you to improve the development of an argument. They will ask you to select the most effective introductory evidence, evaluate possible additions to an argument, or determine how data should be presented in the passage to mirror the data in a graphic. 

Words in context questions ask you to assess diction. Using the word’s context, you will have to choose the word that works best as a replacement or matches the passage’s tone. 

The big picture and small detail questions focus on structural errors. For big picture questions, you will need to spot and correct mistakes in a sentence’s function. For small detail questions, you will correct errors with punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure.

SAT Grammar Rules

The SAT exam evaluates your knowledge of several grammar rules. Here is a brief breakdown of each of them. You can read more detailed descriptions and tips here.

The first rule to note is that sentences and phrases must be concise and avoid redundancy. Wordiness is a common error, and you should know that the most concise answer is often the correct one.

The SAT exam tests grammatical errors with conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs. Conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs should logically join information. Relationships in comparison, similarity, contradiction, or causation are displayed through these words. 

You should also know how to fix grammatical errors with idioms. The proper use of gerunds, infinitives, and prepositions is central to idiom questions.

There are some commonly misused words tested throughout the Writing section. Some examples are “where” and “wear.” Pay attention to the contexts to decipher which word’s meaning is most appropriate.

Run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect. To fix or identify a run-on sentence, look out for comma splices. You should also track when two or more sentences are combined without punctuation. If the sentence connects independent clauses with a conjunctive verb and commas, then it is a run-on as well.

Punctuation errors are tested in the Writing exam, so be sure to refresh your skills with commas, dashes, colons, and semicolons. Look out for punctuation errors with lists, modifiers, and explanatory phrases.

Misplaced and dangling modifiers are grammatically incorrect because the modifier must be next to the thing it is describing.

Grammatical errors with parallelism are typical: look for consistent forms with nouns, gerunds, or verbs when items are listed. You should also pay attention to consistency in verb tense when analyzing the parallel structures in a sentence.

Pronouns need to be in agreement, which means that the pronoun must agree with the word it replaces (the antecedent) in number and person. You will also need to resolve errors with pronoun case: this means that the subject cannot be used as an object, and the object cannot be used as the subject.

Verb Tense errors are typical. Practice recognizing each verb tense (conditional, past, past perfect, present, future, present perfect). Some inconsistent verb tenses flag errors with parallelism. Other times, the tense used does not make sense for the context.

Subject/verb agreement errors occur when singular subjects are tethered to plural verbs or when plural subjects are tethered to singular verbs.

Illogical Comparisons occur when a text compares two things of different categories. They also occur when a text compares something to everything.

SAT Punctuation

Comma errors are common with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. A restrictive clause cannot be removed from the sentence without affecting the meaning of the sentence.

If a clause is essential to the logic of the sentence, it is a non-restrictive clause, and it should have commas around it. Commas should not surround clauses that are crucial to the meaning of the sentence. 

Appositives are phrases that do not include verbs. Because the sentence could function without these phrases, they should be surrounded by commas as well. Look out for errors with commas in lists. Remember, commas should be placed after each item and before “and” and the last item.

A sentence that begins with a dependent clause should grab your attention. You should make sure that a comma always follows the dependent clause.  The same rule goes for sentences that begin with modifiers, so be sure that a comma follows the descriptive clause. 

A sneaky error with punctuation occurs when a comma is placed between an adjective and a noun. You should know that semicolons should be used between complete thoughts.

If a semicolon is used to separate one incomplete thought and one complete thought, you will need to make a correction. Colons should be used to link one independent clause to another independent clause, so be sure that the clause before the colon is a complete sentence. 

If the colon cannot be replaced by a period, then you need to edit the punctuation. Dashes should be used to distinguish a clause that is not essential or to precede an explanatory phrase. Sometimes colons are used to introduce a list as well.

Possessives and Apostrophes on SAT Writing

A possessive is used to display an item’s ownership. To indicate a singular noun’s possession add an apostrophe and an “s” to the end of the word. If a noun is plural and does not end in “s,” you will do the same thing. If a noun is plural and ends in “s,” add an apostrophe to the end of the word. 

Start these questions by finding out if the noun is possessive, then decide if it should be in the singular or plural possessive form. To score well on these questions, pay attention to contractions and possessives, and be sure that apostrophes are used accurately for the word’s meaning.

SAT Vocab Tips

You may come across a word in question with a definition you do not know. Breaking down word roots, prefixes & suffixes is a strategy for finding the meaning of words you may not know. You can break down the word and use the definitions of the parts to guess the meaning of the whole word. This kind of strategy can help you improve word choice, define word meanings, and make inferences for terms you may not know the definition of.

Complete Parts of Speech for SAT Writing

The SAT test will assess your use of nouns, verbs, conjunctions, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions in the Writing Section.

You should know how to use a noun as a subject, an appositive, a direct object, an indirect object, an object of a preposition. You should also know about nouns in the plural form, possessive nouns, using a gerund as a noun, and using an infinitive as a noun.

You should also know the types of verbs, how to conjugate them, and proper verb tenses.

Learn how to use the three types of conjunctions: subordinating, coordinating, and correlative. Subordinating conjunctions unite dependent clauses with independent clauses. 

Coordinating conjunctions combine like words or clauses. Correlative conjunctions are conjunctions that belong together.

Pronoun case, pronoun agreement, non-personal pronouns, and possessive pronouns will be tested on the SAT exam.

Adjectives and Adverbs
You should know how to use proper and common adjectives, possessive adjectives, and demonstrative adjectives. You should also know how to use a verb as an adjective and a noun as an adjective.

You will need to know how to pinpoint the difference between using an adjective and using an adverb on the SAT test.

Prepositional Phrases
Lastly, note that prepositional phrases must contain a preposition and a noun or pronoun. The noun or pronoun is called the object of the preposition. If a pronoun is used in a prepositional phrase, it must be in the objective case.

Adjectives vs. Adverbs in SAT Writing

The difference between an adjective and an adverb is important. Adjectives are words used to describe or alter nouns and pronouns, while adverbs change adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Pay attention to what is being altered by adverbs and adjectives. If the altered word is a noun or pronoun, then an adjective should be used. If the altered word is a verb, adverb, or adjective, an adverb should be used.

Idioms Questions On The SAT

When preparing for the Writing section of the SAT exam, spend some time going over the grammar errors with idioms. Some idiom questions include mistakes with prepositions. To resolve errors with prepositions, look at the surrounding contexts, and decide if a preposition has been used correctly. 

There aren’t any rules for making this decision: instead, you will likely have to go off what sounds the best. Some idiom questions also include errors with gerunds and infinitives. You can learn more about them in the article linked above.

Strategies for SAT Writing

Here are some strategies to help you prepare for the Writing section: 

Start by understanding the grammar rules. It is a good idea to practice identifying and correcting errors with each rule that the SAT tests. 

Take some time to review the formats of the question types. Pay attention to the subsections each rule is tested in to get an understanding of what to expect. Learning structural details can benefit your time efficiency.

It is crucial to gain experience with practice questions that are as close to the official test questions as possible. Practice can also help you study efficiently.  If you learn that you perform significantly higher on relative pronoun questions and significantly lower on idiom questions, you use that information to shape a study plan around your weak points. 

As you practice and prepare, do your best to create a realistic testing environment and only take the breaks that are allowed on the official exam.

You should be able to explain the grammar rule that is in question, and an excellent way to practice this is by tracking the process that led you to select your answer. Don’t just go off the answer that sounds right: use reasoning and evidence to choose your answers. 

You should remember that you can establish what you need to study and how much room for error you have by setting goals. These goals should be specific to the Writing section of the exam, but you can use your performance in other sections to guide your expectations.

This means that if you struggle with the Reading section of the SAT exam but find that your Math section results are consistently high, then your goal scores for the two sections will vary. 

A final tip for the Writing section is to note the parts of speech in the underlined text.
If you can’t spot an error right away, you should look for the common mistakes (like subject-verb agreement, run-on sentences and fragments, pronoun agreement, and wordiness ) first.

Improving Your SAT Writing Score

You can improve your Writing score by understanding the format of the Writing section. Sentences in question are underlined and tagged with a number to signal their correlating questions. 

Test questions and passages are organized side by side, so you can easily maneuver back and forth between reading and answering. It is a great idea to practice timing yourself for each question.

Getting comfortable with the time limit and the fatigue that occurs throughout the exam’s length can improve your scores as well. As you practice, gather data about your weaknesses, and practice the questions and rules that trip you up. Taking time to understand your mistakes will largely benefit your scores.

Common SAT Writing Mistakes Students Make

As you prepare for the Writing test, it can be helpful to know the more common mistakes students make. You should start by noting that making decisions based on what sounds right will lead to errors, especially with grammar questions. 

You should also know that some students make mistakes attempting to make a correction. Sometimes an answer choice that seems like an improvement is just an option to replace one mistake with another mistake.

The SAT exam has many questions with gerunds in the Writing section. They are commonly misused in wordiness questions, sentence fragment questions, and parallelism questions.

You may come across a gerund that could be replaced by more concise phrasing or a gerund that disturbs the sentence’s parallel structure. You may also find a gerund in place of a verb. 

Mistakes are commonly made when rushing through answer choices. It is important to read each answer choice. In some cases, multiple answers could be correct, but there is only one answer that is the most correct.

Lastly, be sure to spend time understanding rules with dangling modifiers, idioms, pronoun antecedents, and faulty comparisons. These are commonly missed throughout the Writing section.

The Hardest SAT Writing Questions

You can benefit from practicing these question types: punctuation questions, paragraph flow questions, conjunctive adverbs questions, word choice questions, pronoun and antecedent questions, modifier questions, noun usage questions, faulty comparison questions, parallel structure questions, redundancy questions, and deciphering proper evidence. Questions that deal with these topics or rules are more complicated, but they are manageable.

These tips, details, and strategies can help shape your study plans in preparation for the Writing section of the SAT exam. You can practice any of these rules or apply any of the linked resources to get ready for test day.

Try out UWorld’s SAT Prep Course for more study tools and realistic practice exams. We also offer detailed question explanations to guide a thorough understanding of your mistakes. 

You can use the prep course to get data about your performance and use that data to set goals and streamline your study plan. Try it out!

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