SAT Writing Section


The SAT Writing section consists of three distinct sections: a 25-minute essay section; a 25-minute multiple choice section with questions called Identifying Sentence Errors, Improving Sentences, and Improving Paragraphs; and a 10-minute multiple choice question with Improving Sentences questions only. The multiple-choice portions of the section mainly test grammar and punctuation.

The essay makes up 30 percent of the SAT Writing score. The total number of questions correct from the remaining two multiple-choice Writing sections make up the other 70 percent of the score. There is a quarter-point penalty for incorrect guesses on the multiple-choice portions of the Writing section. The essay is judged on its own unique scale, which is explained in further detail below.

Writing the SAT Essay

The essay question will begin with a quote (or quotes) and then will ask a question related to the quote. The answer sheet booklet contains two pages with a total of 46 lines for the essay. It is important to directly answer the question that follows the quote. The quote should be reflected in the essay, whether the writer directly mentions it or indirectly touches on the topic or theme of the quote in some way.

Essays that are completely off-topic will receive a score of zero, so stick to the point. The essay will be based on the student's opinion, so there will be no right or wrong answer. However, essays will be scored more highly if writers can back up their opinions with supporting points.

A good rule-of-thumb is to aim to write an essay that is about 300-to-400-words-long. Of course there is no word counter on a paper test, but if the essay is in the 300-word range it will be long enough to have substance, but will still fit in the space allotted.

As this essay is opinion-based, there is a lot of flexibility on how to write it. It's best for writers to think for a minute before putting pencil to paper. Drafting a quick outline in the testing book might also be helpful. The essay should begin with a paragraph that clearly states the position the writer is trying to take. The first paragraph should also give a hint of how the writer will argue the position. The middle paragraph or pararaphs should provide supporting thoughts and details that strengthen and further explain the position being taken. Finish with a concluding paragraph that ties everything together.

The College Board cautions that carefully explaining supporting points might be more helpful than including as many supporting points as possible. "An essay with one or two thoughtful well-developed reasons or examples is more likely to get a high score than an essay with three short simplistic examples," it states.

While reviewers are aware that this essay is being written in under the the pressure of a time limit, it is important to remember neatness, grammar and punctuation. Illegible handwriting could negatively impact a well-thought-out essay. As grammar and punctuation are important skills tested in the SAT Writing section, saving a few minutes to read the essay and make sure it follows the rules of grammar and usage is recommended.

Preparing for Grammar Questions

There are three types of multiple choice grammar questions in the Writing sections of the SAT: Identifying Sentence Errors, Improving Sentences and Improving Paragraphs. A 25-minute multiple choice grammar section somewhere in the middle of the test contains all three types of questions. A shorter 10-minute multiple choice grammar section at the very end of the test contains only Improving Sentences questions.

Grammar questions are not arranged in order of difficulty, although in the longer multiple choice section the improving paragraphs questions are in the back. This is convenient because while not necessarily harder, they take more time to read, so students are better off finishing all the shorter questions first.

Because all three types of grammar questions draw from the same grammar rules, here is an overview of the some of the rules to remember. An explanation of how the three types of questions differ from each other follows.

There are a lot of rules of English grammar, but some appear more frequently than others among the SAT multiple choice grammar questions in the SAT Writing section. A few grammar rules that are almost guaraneed to be tested on the SAT include

  • Parallel Structure: When things are listed in a sentence they should all be treated in a parallel way. This is a common rule tested on the SAT. It is likely that the test will include a sentence like, "I like to read, to ride my bike and eating dessert." (In this example, "eating" is not treated in the same way as the other verbs in the sentence and is incorrect.)

  • Subject-Verb Agreement: The SAT likes to test subject-verb agreement by inserting a confusing clause after the subject to put distance between the subject at the verb. Identify the subject of a sentence and try to mentally block out the clauses. Then find the verb to make sure there is subject-verb agreement.

  • Verb Tenses: If a sentence starts out in the past, all the verbs should be past tense. Make sure verbs in the same sentence don't jump from past to present to future, which is confusing for the reader.

  • Pronouns: There are several things to look out for when it comes to pronouns. First, it should be clear what noun a pronoun is modifying. Consider this: "Since she was still unpacking, Mary bought Jane closet organizers for her new apartment." The pronoun (she) is positioned as if it is modifying Mary, but Jane is the one who has a new apartment and is probably unpacking. This is an example of confusing pronoun placement. Also, if a pronoun is plural, it should be replacing a plural subject. Students should make sure there is agreement between pronouns and the subjects they are replacing. Finally, it is important to remember which pronouns are subjects of a sentence (I, she, they) and which ones are objects (me, her, them).

  • Adverbs: Adverbs usually end in "ly" and they modify verbs, as opposed to adjectives, which modify nouns. Remember, you eat quickly, not quick.

  • Sentence Fragments: Sentences must have a subject and a verb or they are not sentences but fragments. The exception is a dependent clause that might have a subject and a verb but it also has a modifier that indicates it doesn't stand alone. For example, "When I went to the store." In this case "when" is a subordinating conjunction and it is clear that some other part of the sentence is missing. The SAT usually works a few fragments or clauses into the grammar portion of the test.

  • Run-Ons and Comma-Splice Sentences: Separate, independent thoughts have to be either separate sentences (with periods) or connected by a conjuction (such as and or but). They can't be separated by commas alone. The classic example is "I came. I saw. I conquered." That famous Latin quote is three separate sentences in English. If those three independent thoughts were separated by commas instead of periods, it would be a comma-splice sentence. If they were written as one sentence with no punctuation in the middle, it would be a run-on.

  • Diction: Diction may seem like more of a vocabulary issue than a grammar one, but it's tested in the SAT Writing section anyway. Sometimes two words sound similar but have completely different meanings. When the wrong one is used, that is a diction error. Examples, of words that lead to diction errors would be allude and elude, or principal and principle.

  • Double Negative: Double negatives are not allowed. The SAT sometimes tries to make it tricky by using words like "barely" and "hardly" that might not seem completely negative. The sentence "I can't hardly wait" is a double negative and it's incorrect.

Grammar Question Types

The three different multiple choice grammar questions in the SAT Writing section test the same skills, however they each have a different format. While there is a penalty for guessing incorrectly on these questions, students should be able to eliminate at least some of the choices quickly, making the odds of guessing correctly pretty good. The only time it would make sense not to guess for these questions would be if time ran out and a test taker did not get the chance to even look at the last few questions. 

  • Improving Sentences Questions

    The Improving Sentences questions are the most common of the multiple-choice questions in the SAT Writing section. This is because they are part of the 25-minute multiple choice grammar section and they are also the only type of question in a short 10-minute grammar section at the end of the test.

    These questions present a long sentence with a portion of it underlined. There are then five choices of how to replace the underlined portion of the sentence. The first choice is identical to how the sentence was originally written. In other words, if choice A is selected, this means the test taker believes the sentence is already correct and none of the other choices would improve it. Choice A is the correct answer approximately 20 percent of the time, so if it looks like the sentence is correct as written, it probably is. These questions test all the common rules of grammar outlined above.

  • Identifying Sentence Errors

    The Identifying Sentence Errors questions present one sentence in which four different words or phrases in the sentence are underlined. The test taker must identify the error in the sentence. There are five possible choices – choices A through D represent each of the four underlined areas, and the fifth choice is "no error." There is never more than one error per sentence. There are no errors in the sentence about 20 percent of the time, so again, don't hesistate to select this choice if everything looks right. These questions are similar to Improving Sentence questions except instead of focusing on one particular spot in a sentence, there are several spots in the sentence that need to be reviewed for possible mistakes. These questions contain many of the common grammatical outlined above.

  • Improving Paragraphs

    The Improving Paragraphs questions begin with a reading passage that is usually about four paragraphs long. Each sentence is identified with a number before it. There will then be grammatical questions that follow. It is worthwhile to read the reading passage quickly before beginning the questions to understand the context of the questions that will follow.

    Most of the questions will refer to a particular sentence or pair of sentences and will reprint the sentence or sentences that need to be modified along with the question. In other words, for most questions, if you have read the passage once, even in just a cursory fashion, there is no reason to go back and find the sentence that needs to be fixed.

    There are three different types of Improving Paragraphs questions. The first type of question asks readers to revise a particular sentence. This type of question will always reprint the sentence that needs to be fixed, so there is no need to go back and re-read the passage. These questions test the same skills as the Improving Sentences and Identifying Sentence Errors questions that have already been described. The question will ask students to choose the best way to revise the sentence listed and will offer five possible revisions. One word of caution, there is no choice for "no errors" on these questions. Every choice modifies the sentence in some way, and the test taker has to select the choice that is grammatically correct and is the most fluid and understandable.

    Another question type will ask students to combine two sentences. The two sentences that need to be combined will be reprinted along with the question. Again, this should eliminate the need to go back and re-read the passage. Since these questions involve combining two separate sentences, they will also involve conjunctions. Pick a sentence choice that contains a conjuction that joins the two thoughts smoothly without changing the meaning of what the two sentences were trying say.

    The final type of question refers to content. This question might ask, Which of the following sentences should be inserted in the passage after sentence 6? It might ask which sentence would best precede or follow the passage. Alternatively, it might ask, what is the best description of the passage as a whole? For these questions, it might be necessary to go back and review to the passage a bit. Look at the answer choices and skim the part of the passage where they answer choices are supposed to be placed. Consider whether a new sentence would help improve the flow of the passage and help the author transition between ideas.