Don’t Make These 7 Common SAT Writing Mistakes
The College Board states that the purpose of the SAT Writing section is to test your everyday editing skills. You are asked to read, find grammar and structural errors, and fix them. These are skills that you have already acquired through years of writing papers for class, so this section could be a great way to earn points.
Unfortunately, the College Board knows how to structure its exam to ask questions that can easily confuse the careless test-taker. When taking the SAT Writing section, it’s helpful to know what to expect on this section and what tricks to look out for.
We at CollegeVine are here to help you reach your ideal score on the SAT Writing Section; in that spirit, here’s 7 common SAT writing mistakes that you should avoid when preparing and taking this section of the SAT.
The Structure of the SAT Writing Section
At its most basic level, the SAT Writing section is a series of 44 multiple-choice questions that you have 35 minutes to answer. In the new version of the SAT Writing test, all questions are passage-based, and some include graphics for you to analyze. To learn what else is different with the new SAT Writing and Language Test, see our Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Writing and Language Test.
The passages generally cover topics in Career, Science, Humanities, and History/Social Studies. Not to worry, you won’t need to have any prior knowledge in any of these subjects beforehand. All of the information you’ll require will be in the passage itself.
Furthermore, the test questions are designed to test a few basic skills. A little over half of the questions will ask about the following:
- Command of Evidence: Analyzing the way a passage develops its ideas. For example, a Command of Evidence question might ask, “what choice [from the passage] provides the best evidence for the following statement.”
- Words in Context: Improving word choice, making passages more concise. Here’s an example of a Words in Context question: “As used in line [number], [word or phrase] most nearly means…”
- Expression of Ideas: Changing the structure of a passage to better its organization and impact. For example, you could be asked, “The writer is considering deleting the underlined sentence. Should the sentence be kept or deleted?”
These types of questions test your understanding of development, organization, and effective language use.
The other half of the questions in this section test your mastery of standard English conventions. These include recognizing punctuation errors, changing words and clauses, and editing comma use. All of these are the building blocks of writing.
For more information about the structure of the SAT Writing section, check out the College Board website.
How is the SAT Writing Section scored?
The new SAT gives an overall score from 400-1600. In addition, each individual section is given a raw score in the range of 200-800. However, your raw score from the Writing and Language section will be combined with your raw score from the Reading Section to give you your raw score in that category.
You will also receive a list of subscores that are meant to provide further insight into your achievement. The Writing and Language Test has four subscores: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, and Standard English Conventions.
These subscores are identical to the type of questions mentioned above! Thus, your Writing and Language subscores provide great insight into which skills you are strongest in and which you need to refine some more.
7 Common SAT Writing Mistakes
1. You didn’t practice enough
Since the SAT Writing and Language test is meant to test practical skills that most students have developed over the years, it is easy to view it as an easier section and not properly prepare for it. You should try not to fall into this trap.
Like every section of the SAT, the questions and passages are filled with nuances and hard-to-detect errors that can make a seemingly easy question more challenging. Only through practice questions and a thorough review of basic grammar conventions will you be able to catch these subtleties. For more information about using practice tests as a study tool, see How Many SAT or ACT Practice Tests should You Take?
Wondering where to look for SAT Writing practice? Here’s some sample questions created by the College Board.
2. Falling for the ‘No Error’ Trap
In any given SAT Writing test, you should expect that the Answer A: “NO CHANGE” will only be the correct answer around 20% of the time, with small variations from test to test. The careless test-taker will choose “NO CHANGE” far more than that, either because they are rushing through the section or because there is a grammatical error that they are missing.
This is not to say that you should never choose “NO CHANGE” during the SAT Writing section. However, be cautious when doing so. Double- and triple-check the question if you have extra time. More often than not, there is an error in the sentence or phrase that you may not see at first glance.
3. Skimming through the passages/ignoring the big picture
Since about half of the questions in the new SAT Writing section ask you to find basic grammatical errors, it is tempting to forget to read the passage for its content and jump to the underlined passages that are being asked about. This could get you into trouble.
Remember that half of the questions include Command of Evidence questions, which require you to understand the structure of the passage. These questions might ask you to identify an appropriate introductory or concluding sentence for the passage or to place an additional sentence at the most effective point in the passage. Answering these questions requires you to know what the passage is about and think critically about what it is discussing.
Thus, it is imperative that you don’t skim the passages. It is worth taking a few minutes to understand the big picture of the piece of writing so that you don’t miss something important.
4. Unfamiliar with grammar rules
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably know most of the standard conventions of the English language simply by speaking it every day. However, there are less common grammar conventions that native English speakers tend to forget sometimes. For example, some native English speakers mix up the words “who” and “whom” on a daily basis.
Thus, even if you speak English fluently, it is worthwhile to go over grammatical concepts and focus on those that you do not usually follow in your everyday life. To determine which grammatical concepts you may want to focus on, make a note of which concepts you get stuck on when you take practice tests.
Still unsure of what grammar rules to study? Here’s some helpful SAT grammar rule flashcards.
It is important to note that if English is your second language, you are not at a disadvantage! In fact, the new SAT provides special accommodations for ESL students in order to ensure that everyone is tested fairly. For more information about these accommodations, visit the College Board website.
5. Misreading Questions
When there is a time crunch, the first thing to be sacrificed when answering questions is accuracy. Sometimes, students read a question so fast and think they know the answer right away, when in fact they missed a key word or phrase in the question such as “not” or “except.” These words tend to completely change what the question is asking, and ignoring them could lead you to the wrong answer.
Thus, when reading questions, slow down. Read the question at least twice. Circle or underline those keywords that define what the question is asking. Make sure you’re giving the right answer to their question, not your own.
6. Running out of time
The SAT Writing and Language section is a bit of a time crunch. You have 35 minutes to read multiple passages and graphs and answer 44 questions. Overall, you usually have less than a minute per question.
This does not mean that it is impossible to finish this section in the time allotted. It just means that you need to use your time well during the exam and know when to move on. If there is a question that is stumping you, don’t spend five minutes on it. Spend a minute max, circle or star it, and move on. If you have time at the end, you can come back to it.
For more information on time management during the SAT, check out How to Pace Yourself on Every Section of the SAT.
When skipping questions on your first pass through the section, however, don’t leave them blank. You will not be penalized for wrong answers, so choosing a random answer will give you a better chance to earn points than not doing so.
7. Panicking/Thinking Too Hard
When it comes to the SAT Writing and Language section, it is sometimes beneficial to trust your instincts. Sometimes the answer to a question is obvious, but you overanalyze and start second guessing yourself. This can eat up time and decrease your accuracy.
Thus, when answering a question in the SAT Writing and Language Section, remember that the answer that feels the most natural to you is probably the right one. Just imagine that you are reading and editing you or your friend’s paper for class. How would you phrase a sentence or structure the passage if this was your own writing?
If there isn’t an answer that seems naturally correct, do not worry. Just think back to the practice questions you did and try to decide what concept or convention this question may be testing. If you can recognize what the question is trying to test from a similar practice problem, you may get a hint as to what the right answer is.
Lastly, if you find yourself stumped or you think you are going to run out of time, don’t panic. Getting overwhelmed is the quickest path to making simple mistakes on the exam. If you can feel yourself getting nervous, stop testing and take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that you are well prepared for this exam, and get back to it!
Although the SAT Writing and Language Section is meant to test practical skills that you should already have, it is very easy to make simple mistakes that could negatively affect your score.
However, if you adequately prepare and are mindful during the exam, you could be well on your way to earning your goal score!
Think you may need some personalized help with the SAT? The CollegeVine SAT Tutoring Program provides you with two personal tutors, both of whom are experts in the section of the SAT they are teaching. Our tutors, unique strategy, and countless SAT resources have earned our students an average verbal score and math score of 780 out of 800.
To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine blog posts:
Want more SAT tips sent to you?
Sign up below and we'll send you expert SAT tips and guides.