The SAT Writing Section (Multiple Choice): Here’s What You Need to Know
This is a continuation of our last post covering the SAT Essay section as we explore the ins and outs of SAT Writing. The Writing and Language section comes second out of the five sections (they are, in order: Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, Math with Calculator, and Essay (Optional)). This is good news for you, if you don’t especially like grammar and writing analysis. Your brain will still be alert and engaged when you get to this section.
It might not be much comfort to you, but this section used to be a lot harder. There was increased focus on obscure grammar rules, and the sentences were deliberately awkward and awful. That’s not to say those elements aren’t still around. They are. They’re just not as bad.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll be working from this practice test and giving you tips and tricks as you prep for the Writing and Language section. Bear in mind that the test is designed to be deliberately tricky and confusing. You’re doing battle with it. These concepts are different from what you’re used to doing in school, so it takes work to master this particular skillset.
Let’s start with the basics: unless you get extra time, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions. That’s less than one minute per question. Sounds hard? It is, but there’s plenty you can do to make things quicker for you.
At the top, there’s a paragraph that tells you what the questions will cover. Read it now and skip it during the test, because it’s always the same. The gist is: some questions will address the expression of ideas, some will address grammar issues, and some will focus on the entire passage. Sometimes, there’ll be a “No Change” option (more on that later). There’s also a sentence about adding or changing graphs, but that won’t really change the question type so just ignore it for now.
So, the three types of questions you’ll see are grammar (small details), expression (medium details and ideas), and big picture (large, holistic concepts). It’s important to know this now, because it’ll play an important role in your strategy later on. For now, just skip the instructions and dive right in.
Read the Questions First
Unless you’re a fast reader who retains information quickly, it’ll be hard to cram in the entire passage first, then read the questions, then reread looking for the right context clues. The passage is broken up into chunks, so read the questions for the first chunk right away. You don’t need to memorize them or even parse out the details just yet. What you’re looking for is question type.
Take the first section of the first passage on the practice test, for example. Here are your questions:
- A) NO CHANGE B) However, C) Furthermore, D) For example,
- Which choice best maintains the style and tone of the passage? A) NO CHANGE B) eliminating C) ousting D) closing the door on
- A) NO CHANGE B) savings increase C) increases savings D) also it increases savings
- A) NO CHANGE B) quantities (which C) quantities which D) quantities; (which
Before I even read the essay, I can tell what the question types are:
- Grammar: what transition fits best?
- Expression: what phrase fits best within the essay?
- Grammar: which word choice is best?
- Grammar: which word choice is best?
This means that there are no questions asking about this section from a big picture perspective. All of them focus on the details. So, while understanding the gist of this section is important, I don’t need to understand it deeply. The questions are asking me specifics, not generalities. You may get a big picture question later, but those are often structured towards the end of the passage once you’ve read it. Once you’re done with this chunk, move on to the next.
In order to identify questions properly, you’ll need to practice this. At its simplest level, you’re looking for how comprehensive the questions are. Knowing what’s being asked means that you can read the passage with the questions in mind. When you know there’s a big picture question, you’ll be doing more work to understand what the passage as a whole is saying or arguing. When there are grammar (small) or expression (medium) questions, you’ll be paying attention to the detailed words in the sentence and the tone of those sentences.
If it helps, you can write B, E, and G beside each question to identify them as big picture, expression, or grammar. But if it doesn’t help, just get the gist of the questions and then start reading the passage.
Answer the Questions as You Go
This sounds counterintuitive, so it’s going to take some practice. But as you read the relevant sentence or sentences, you’ll want to go to the corresponding question and try to answer it then and there. It’ll break up the flow of your reading, but remember that you’re working under timed conditions and this is the best way to answer all the questions (unless, again, you’re a fast reader or your working style is such that you can’t multitask in this way. You’ll know if it’s the latter if this method just does not work for you at all. In that case, skim a chunk of the passage quickly first before moving on to the related questions).
Remember, you can write all over the test booklet. Draw a line between the number in the passage and the question. So draw a line between the number one in the essay to the first question, for example. This will make it easier for your eyes to go back and forth between passage and question.
Answer the questions in order, as they go through the passage chronologically. Don’t read too far ahead unless the question calls for it. Minimize the information your brain is working with to the most important details and ignore everything else.
There Is No Perfect Answer
Now we’re looking at content. Take the first question:
Over the past generation, people in many parts of the United States have become accustomed to dividing their household waste products into different categories for recycling. (1) Regardless, paper may go in one container, glass and aluminum in another, regular garbage in a third.
As a reminder, the question asks:
- A) NO CHANGE B) However, C) Furthermore, D) For example,
This is a grammar question, so we’re looking at the transition specifically and whether it works. Here you’ll also see that dreaded “No Change” answer, which is designed to be terrifying because it opens up a world of possibilities where none of the available answers are right. Here, we see where the test is trying to intimidate you, but don’t worry just yet.
Look at the sentences. The subject matter is boring, and that’s by design—the testers are hoping you might get so bored you forget what’s going on and select the wrong answer. The sentences themselves are also simplistic and not written very well. That’s also by design. So much of your schoolwork is focused on finding the “right” answer, to mean the most perfectly correct expression of an idea. Here, you’re just trying to select the least awful answer. It takes work to migrate your expectation from best to not as awful, so this will require practice.
So, in the case of this question, the first sentence identifies an idea: people divide their waste for recycling. The second sentence gives examples. Before you look at the (not great) answer choices, ask yourself: what word would you use as a transition? I myself would say “For instance.” And there, as D), is For example. That’s close enough to what I was looking for. It’s still not a great sentence or a great transition, but it does the job.
“No Change” will still be tricky, but if you get the answer right in your own mind for each question before you look at the available answers, you won’t be led down the wrong path. If you can’t really think of anything that’ll make the sentence better, or if each of the answer choices actually make the sentence worse, “No Change” is your best best. Also, you could get “No Change” once throughout the whole test or you might get it 10 times. The test isn’t functioning based off of any pattern, so you might get a few “No Changes” in a row. Not very nice, but that’s the tricky nature of the test.
A Word on Graphs
Sometimes you’ll be asked to refer to a graph that’s in the passage or might be added. Take the following example:
In spite of all compost’s potential uses, however, most of this so-called waste is wasted. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over (5) 13 million tons of metal ended up in US landfills in 2009, along with over 13 million tons of yard debris.
The question reads:
- The writer wants to include information from the graph that is consistent with the description of compost in the passage. Which choice most effectively accomplishes this goal? A) NO CHANGE B) 6 million tons of rubber and leather C) 10 million tons of textiles D) 33 million tons of food waste
There is a graph at the end of this passage that gives various values of waste in landfills. Feel free to refer to it if you want, but notice that you’re not really being asked to read the graph. You’re being asked to select the best example that fits in the sentence (this is an expression question). So you actually don’t need the graph at all. The first sentence is talking about compost, so D) is the right answer because it’s also talking about compost/food waste.
Don’t let the graphs trip you up. They’re there for a very simple reason, which is to provide options for examples in a sentence. This is not the science section; you don’t have to understand the graph in detail, just as you don’t need to understand the passage in detail either.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Let’s say you’re trying these techniques and they’re just not working. Or, even worse, let’s say you’re just not getting what the questions are asking or what the right answer could possibly be. Now what?
Talk to your English teacher. Work with a classmate who really gets this. Study up on the concepts using free Khan Academy resources. There are many ways to caught up on concepts you’re missing. The more practice you do, the more patterns you’ll see. Often, it’ll be one or two types of questions that regularly trip you up. So practice.
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