Everything You Need to Know about SAT Writing & Language to Work Towards a Perfect Score: Format, Content, Strategies, and Master Tips

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What is SAT Writing and Language? Why does your score matter? What are the key differences between ACT English and SAT Writing and Language, and how do you choose between them? What are key strategies and master tips to help you work towards a perfect score in SAT Writing and Language?

In this article, you will find the right answers to these questions as well as others. Let’s get started.

What is SAT Writing and Language?

The SAT Writing and Language test is a 44 multiple choice question test focusing on the following areas:

  1. Conventions of Usage
  2. Sentence Structure
  3. Conventions of Punctuation
  4. Development
  5. Organization
  6. Effective Language Use
  7. Data Graphics

SAT Writing and Language Test
Format44 Questions (4 Passages, Multiple Choice)
ContentStandard English Conventions & Expression of Ideas
ScoringEvidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 200 – 800, Writing and Language Test Score: 10 – 40
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time35 minutes

Why the SAT Writing and Language Score Matters

  1. The Truth: Your Test Prep Scores Matter for College Admissions: It’s one of the sure things in the college admissions process: your scores on the SAT and ACT do matter. All colleges in the country and abroad consider students’ ACT scores and GPA during the admissions process. Each college has a unique process and considers the two factors differently. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most colleges look for a minimum score on one of these two tests as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the college or university of your choice.
  2. You’re Investing in Your Future – Higher Test Prep Scores Equal More Merit Based Scholarships: More importantly, college is often the most expensive financial decision most families make. More points on either standardized test (SAT or ACT) will put you in the running for merit based scholarships and financial aid. While test prep resources may cost some time and money in the short term, merit aid saves you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition in the long term
  3. Your Test Prep Scores Impact Your Future Major: A high score in the Writing and Language section can make up for less-than-perfect scores in other areas of the test. A high grade in the Writing and Language section can help you to compete effectively for a place at the colleges or universities to which you are applying. Moreover, if you expect to major in mathematics or science, your SAT Writing and Language score may have a significant impact on your overall application.

SAT Writing and Language Scores

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the SAT Writing and Language test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for incorrect or omitted answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 200 – 800. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.

SAT Writing and Language: Format and Structure

The test consists of four passages. Each passage is followed by 11 multiple-choice questions. Some of the questions ask about a certain word or sentence, while others require you to understand an entire paragraph or sequence of paragraphs.

According to College Board, the passages topics are the following:

  • Careers: technology, business, health care…
  • Humanities: arts, literature, non-fiction narrative…
  • Social studies: history, psychology, anthropology…
  • Science: chemistry, physics, biology…

One of the most important points for getting a perfect score in SAT Writing and Language is to know the type of questions in the test and the skills assessed. You need to be familiar with the test and its style. SAT Writing focuses on many skills. College Board wants to make sure you can use the English language effectively where you can come up with ideas, deliver a message and prove your point as well as supporting that with information interpreted in a chart. You need to prove that you understand sentence structure and can use punctuation marks correctly.

Compared to the previous SAT Writing and Language tests, the current version of the test focuses more on how the language functions in different contexts. An example question would ask you to improve the meaning of a sentence or flow of ideas in a paragraph. Furthermore, there is less grammar and more emphasis on the writing style like redundancy and word choice. The point here is to test your knowledge in clear, concise and logical writing.

Let’s take a look at the types of questions:

  1. Conventions of Usage and Grammar

The purpose of these questions is to assess your understanding of usage and grammar in creating meaningful sentences. These topics include pronouns, subject-verb agreement, comparisons, idioms, and diction. 

  • Pronouns: pronoun questions often require you to determine if a particular pronoun should be singular or plural. Be aware of subjects/ objects/ possessives, compound phrases, and its vs it’s.

  • Subject-Verb Agreement: when assessing subject-verb agreement, do your best to ignore the extras and pay attention to the fact that singular subjects require singular verbs, wheres, plural subjects require plural verbs.
  • Comparisons: identify that the same types of ideas should be compared to each other.
  • Idioms: idioms are combinations of words when combined have agreed upon meanings.
  • Diction: diction is the choice of words used.

  1. Sentence Structure

The intention here is to test your understanding of the relationship between clauses and how to create meaningful sentences. Topics include: fragments, run-ons, conjunctions, sentence parallels, and modifiers.

  • Fragments: fragments are incomplete sentences. All complete sentences must have a subject, a predicate, and a complete idea. Pay attention to verbs ending in ‘ing’.
  • Run-ons: run-on sentences result when multiple independent clauses are improperly joined. Run-ons are often fixed with periods, semicolons, and commas.
  • Conjunctions: conjunctions are used to connect ideas (often independent clauses) within sentences. The most commons conjunctions include and, but, or, for, nor, yet, and so.
  • Sentence Parallels: sentence parallels are when things or ideas should also be in the same grammatical form. They often appear as lists.
  • Modifiers: modifiers are descriptive words or phrases that elaborate on a sentence. Always check for modifying phrases that appear at the beginning of a sentence and ask who or what is being modified. The modifier should be describing the subject that directly follows the modifier.

  1. Conventions of Punctuation

The purpose of these questions is to assess your understanding of punctuation. Topics include semicolons, colons, commas, and apostrophes. 

  • Semicolons: semicolon questions often ask you to choose whether a semicolon, comma, or no punctuation should divide certain clauses. Be aware of run on sentences.
  • Colons: colons are most commonly used to introduce lists or elaborate on an independent clause.
  • Commas: commas are used as scene setters, to join to independent clauses and conjunctions, to offset nonrestrictive clauses, and to separate lists.
  • Apostrophes: apostrophes are used to indicate possession or replace missing letters in contractions. Watch out for singular possessive vs plural possessive.

  1. Organization

Organization questions are concerned with an individual sentence, paragraph, or entire passage. The point here is to know how to structure a paragraph or passage by choosing replacement options for designated words or phrases. Questions typically deal with the way in which ideas are organized within the passage. Skills tested include the use of introductions, transitions, and conclusions.

  • Organization: semicolon questions often ask you to choose whether a semicolon, comma, or no punctuation should divide certain clauses. Be aware of run on sentences.
  • Transition: transition questions ask you to choose the most logical sequence from one idea to another. Look for contrasting and supporting clauses as well as which connections have the best flow.

  1. Effective Language Use

In this area, you must be able to identify style, the tone, and voice of a passage along with the author’s intention in writing. You may be asked to add or delete words and images as well as to eliminate redundancy.

  1. Development

Development questions target the overall purpose of a passage, addition, and deletion sentences. They often require you to evaluate the evidence most relevant to the focus of the passage.

  • Main Idea: the main idea is the central point or purpose of a passage. When approaching these questions, it is best to stay on point.
  • Addition/ Deletion: Most addition questions will often ask you to find the best position to include a new sentence within a paragraph, whereas deletion sentences will ask you to judge if removing a sentence is appropriate.

  1. Data Graphics

Data graphics questions ask you to interpret patterns or relationship in charts or tables. You will need to connect the main idea of the passage to the pattern or relationship demonstrated in the table. When approaching these questions, it is often best to let the answer choices guide you and note the labels of the x and y axis.

Key Differences between SAT, ACT, and PSAT Writing and Language

During the college admission process, colleges do not usually prefer one test over the other (if they do, they will tell you). As a rule, the ACT and SAT tests are treated equally in the admission process. Both tests have points of similarity and points of difference. In our experience if the decision is difficult for you to make, practice both tests under real test conditions, score yourself, and pay attention to your strengths in each test as well as your rate of improvement as you continue to practice. In addition, consider carefully the difficulty of all the sections before making a final decision.

Given that both tests have slightly different questions with different nuances and timing, we strongly recommend for you to take practice tests under real test conditions to evaluate which test may be in your best interest.

SAT Writing and Language TestACT English TestPSAT English Test
Format44 questions, 4 Passages, Multiple Choice 75 questions, 5 Passages, Multiple-choice 44 questions, 4 Passages, Multiple Choice
ContentStandard English Conventions & Expression of IdeasUsage and Mechanics, Rhetoric, Expression of Ideas Standard English Conventions & Expression of Ideas
ScoringEvidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 200 – 800, Writing and Language Test Score: 10 – 40 English score: 1 - 36Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score: 160 – 760, Writing and Language Test Score: 8 – 38
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 secondsAverage of 25 secondsAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficultyQuestions are not in order of difficulty
Time35 minutes45 minutes35 minutes

Key Strategies For Preparing and Taking The SAT Writing and Language

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Now that you have learned about the SAT Writing and Language, including its format and the way in which it is scored,it is time to learn key strategies for getting a top score in SAT Writing.

 

STRATEGY #1: Understand The Overall Format of the SAT Writing Language Test in Terms of Your Time

A few immediate need to knows – 1) the entire SAT Writing-Language Test is 44 multiple choice questions in 35 minutes 2) scoring ranges from 200 – 800 3) the questions are not in order of difficulty and 4) during the SAT Writing-Language Test, you are asked to read 4 essays of roughly the same length and answer questions about grammar, style, and strategy. The point being is that by understanding the format and types of questions, you’ll become more accustomed with an approach, pace, and style.

 

STRATEGY #2: Master Grammar and Rhetorical Skills by Heart to Choose the Most Straightforward, Logical Answer

SAT Writing Language questions are looking for answers that often result in the most straightforward, logical sentence structure. If you are able to learn grammar and rhetorical skills by heart (approximately 50% of the test) then you’ll only improve your confidence and become more encouraged! You need to know all of the grammar rules tested on the SAT Writing Language Section and how to apply them appropriately. After having a strong foundation, attempt to maximize your time by finding the choice that provides all the necessary information for the sentence to make grammatical sense.

In addition to the grammar rules, you’ll also need to know rhetorical skills that test you in your writing and sentence organization. In short, make sure to practice the rhetoric skills and grammar rules to choose the most straightforward answer, but also learn the specific strategies involved to maximize your time. Certain grammar rules and rhetorical skills appear far more often than others.

The most common grammar rules you should be aware of include:

  • Elements of Punctuation: commas, independent clauses, dependent clauses, apostrophes, semicolons, colons, dashes, and unnecessary punctuation
  • Grammar and Usage: possession, subject/verb Agreement, pronoun number agreement, word use, preposition, verb tense, diction, and faulty modifiers

Furthermore, the most common rhetorical skills include:

  • Organization and Sentence Structure: transition statements, appositives, and addition and deletion sentences
  • Style: idioms and redundancies
  • Strategy: addition or placement, conciseness, deletion, omitting unnecessary info, summarizing, and author intent and tone

 

STRATEGY #3: Stay Focused on The Underlined Portions of The Sentences

One quick tip is to always read the sentence prior and sentence after to better understand the context of the underlined sentence. Interesting as a passage may be, your task is not to appreciate the content of the passage as a work of literature, but to look for the specific areas that the test writer is testing for. Remember to read smart and find the tell-tale clues that are scattered through the test.  Keep your cool; keep a positive attitude.  You can do this!

One of the first questions that students ask is whether they should read the entire passage before beginning with the questions. The answer is: do what works best for you based on your practice. For most students, however, skimming lines and slowing down when you get to underlined word works best. As you read smart, you should also be aware of how the passage unfolds, because there may be questions about organization, placement of sentences, and the addition or deletion of evidence.

That said, learning to think like a test writer is key to success. It’s no mystery, for example, that the College Board is interested in basics of punctuation; sentence structure; logical organization, and use of evidence.  Let’s go over these categories one by one.

 

STRATEGY #4: When You See a Word or Words Underlined Together With a Mark of Punctuation or a Blank Space, Assume that Punctuation is Being Tested

During your practice runs, you’ll need to review the use of commas, colons and semi-colons, and dashes. Be aware of which marks of punctuation can join independent clauses (complete sentences) and which cannot. For example, if you have two independent clauses with a comma between them, you’ll know that you’re in the presence of that notorious beast: Comma Splice aka Run-On Sentence. Look for options like a semi-colon.

In short, USE COMMAS WHEN:

  • If a sentence begins with a phrase that sets a time, place, or purpose.

After students take their SAT and receive their scores, students then often begin to investigate the college application process.

  • When two independent clauses are joined by a conjunction (and, but, or), there should be a comma placed before the conjunction.

Many students assume that taking subject tests are not necessary for the college admission process, but they are best to research their target schools and application requirements.

  • When clauses provide nonessential information about a subject they are offset by commas. Think of nonessential information as if you can remove it from the sentence without disrupting the flow of the sentence, then it is nonessential information.

My best friend, David, is taking the bus.

  • When you are attempting to separate items in a list.

During dinner, we discussed politics, religion, and history.

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Semicolons, like period, are used between two independent clauses. A semicolon indicates that two ideas are related. Watch out for run-ons and comma splices.

Embrace played a major role in my understanding of the SAT Writing Language Test; they made the test approachable and fun.

Colons are most commonly used to introduce lists or to elaborate further on a point.

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STRATEGY TIP #5: Be aware of Verb Tense and Subject Verb Agreement

One of the biggest issues about sentence structure concerns the use of verbs. Remember that verb tenses should remain consistent unless the sentence indicates a change in time.

  1. If a verb is underlined, look first for subject-verb agreement. Then check for tense.
  2. Because the subject will often be separated from the verb by intervening phrases (especially prepositional phrases) don’t get hindered by nouns that have nothing to do with the main verb.
  3. When you think you’ve found the subject, “speak” it mentally along with the verb. Your inner-ear will help you know whether the verb needs to be singular or plural.

When referring to verb tense, be aware of the has, have, or had dilemma.

In short,

  • Past tense is used to describe completed actions
  • Present perfect tense is used to describe actions that are still continuing and typically contain auxiliary verbs such as “has” or “have”
  • Past perfect tense is used to describe completed actions that occurred before other actions and typically use the auxiliary verb “had”

 

STRATEGY #6: Questions About Evidence Will Often Ask Where a Sentence or Detail Should be Added to Achieve a Specific Effect

A. As you learn to read smart, attempt to follow the way that an argument unfolds.

B. If you find yourself thinking, “Why did the author put this sentence here?” and if the sentence is underlined, be aware you’ll probably need to consider relocating it. 

C. Because this category of question will point to placement before or after other sentences, ask yourself where the sentence would make the argument flow most smoothly.

D. If the sentence presents evidence, ask yourself where that evidence is needed in order to drive home a point.

 

STRATEGY TIP #7: Be Careful about Inferences and Deductions

When asked to draw an inference or make a deduction, ask yourself what you think the author would say. Stay focused on the context of the sentence or word that is underlined.

A. On occasion, questions on the SAT will set you up to choose a point of view that you may believe in, but which the passage does not support.  Remember that your responsibility is to the text in front of you.

B. This is not an English class where you are encouraged to “argue” with the author’s point of view. Stay with the text.

C. If you are asked to infer the meaning of a word, look for the context.  While the SAT can still assume that you should know the meaning of a word, the ACT will give you context clues to help narrow your choices.

D. You can also supply a word that you already know that makes sense of a sentence. Then try to align that word with one of the choices in the question.

 

STRATEGY #8:  Be Honest About What You Need to Improve Your Score.

With a bit of honesty about what you don’t understand, you can take charge of your learning in ways that help you to master the SAT and to enhance your skills as a life-long learner.

 

STRATEGY #9: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Practice deeply! This is not just taking random math practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified. Start by taking several authentic Math SAT diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, we would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question 2) what you believed the question was asking and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.

 

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Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best personal and online tutoring services to help you achieve to the best of your ability.

Test Day and Beyond

Readying Yourself The Day Before The Test

  • Plan how you will get to the test site. If it’s in a large school or office building, be sure to find out which door you should enter to register for the test. If you haven’t been in the building before, find out how to get to the room.
  • Set two alarms. Even though alarms rarely fail, it can happen. You always want to have a backup.
  • Pack your items the night before.
  • Review the test directions so you’re aware of what is expected on test day.

What To Pack

  • Photo admission ticket and valid photo ID: A valid driver’s license, school, or state-issued ID are acceptable. Remember that the photo must resemble you on the day of the exam and comply with the rules posted on www.collegeboard.org/sat.
  • Several number 2 pencils with soft erasers.
  • Approved calculator with fresh batteries.
  • Watch
  • Snacks
  • Water in a clear bottle, label removed.