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8 SAT Writing Tips You Need To Know

The SAT can be a difficult exam. Especially if you struggle with writing.

Lucky for you, we’ve put together our best tips for the SAT Writing section here below!

Not satisfied? Give us a call or check out our SAT prep courses today! We’d love to help you or your child excel on the big test.

Read The Passages Paragraph By Paragraph & Then Answer The Associated Questions

Many of the questions on the SAT Writing Test require knowledge of the entire paragraph to be answered correctly—so read the paragraph in full first, and then move on to the questions.

Many students complete the SAT Writing Test by reading the passages from the beginning, and then answering each question as they arrive at it. However, the test will be easier to complete, and you’ll get more questions correct, if you wait to answer the questions until after you’ve read the entire paragraphs in full. This is because many of the questions are about things like the main idea, or transitions, where it is necessary to understand the content of the entire paragraph, rather than merely the short underlined portion, in order to answer correctly.

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In addition to leaving you with more of the information you need to answer the questions correctly, reading paragraph by paragraph will also save you time—it takes up precious minutes answering question by question, flipping back and forth between the scantron sheet and the test so many times. Answering questions in paragraph clusters cuts this time down.

Understand Transition Words & Their Uses

Transition words—also known as conjunctions—provide clues for sentence order and paragraph organization questions.

Some of the toughest questions on the SAT Writing Test require students to rearrange the order of sentences or paragraphs. If you struggle with these types of questions, conjunctions are a good way to find clues about how to answer. Conjunctions describe the relationships between words and sentences, they’re good markers of what information should come before or after any other information. Words like ‘but,’ or ‘however,’ for instance, describe a contrast, so the information that follows these words should contrast with the information that came before. Words like ‘therefore,’ or ‘in conclusion,’ on the other hand, announce to the reader that a point is about to be made, so they should come before an idea is summed up. Knowing transition words well will help you answer these types of questions with ease.

Know The Difference Between A Main Idea & A Supporting Detail

A main idea is referenced repeatedly throughout a paragraph or passage, whereas a supporting detail is mentioned only once or twice.

Many of the questions on the SAT Writing Test require you to identify the main idea of a paragraph or passage, or provide a supporting detail for a main point. While the distinction between a main idea and a supporting detail is relatively straightforward, many students struggle with these questions.

A main idea is the thesis of a paragraph or passage—it’s the point that the author is trying to prove. The main idea will be repeatedly referenced, either directly or indirectly, throughout the course of the paragraph or passage. A supporting detail provides evidence or proof in support of the main idea, and is mentioned only once or twice. Recognizing this distinction will help you answer all those questions related to author purpose and building an argument.

Know The Rules Of Grammar

While the rules of grammar aren’t the most exciting thing in the world, they will help you immensely on the SAT Writing Test.

Many students—including those who are excellent students of writing and English—rely on their ‘ear’ to tell them where to insert a comma or use a semicolon. While this method works most of the time, knowing the rules of grammar—where to put commas and other punctuation marks, how to place modifying phrases, preserve parallelism, match verb with subject, et cetera—will ensure that you don’t get any problems wrong on the test.

Don’t worry if you didn’t learn these rules in school, or if you learned them so long ago that you’ve practically forgotten them. The rules themselves—especially those that are immediately relevant for the SAT Writing Test—are relatively easy to learn, something you can do in a few hours. If you’re struggling on your own, you can always sign up for classes or tutoring with Prep Expert, and have one of our expert tutors help you navigate the rules of the English language.

Pay Close Attention To Detail

Know the difference between things like ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ or you will lose lots of points on the SAT Writing Test.

So many of the questions on the SAT Writing Test come down to very minor details—where do commas go, for example, or what verb tense is most appropriate. To give perhaps the most extreme example, many of my students, no matter how many times I remind them, consistently get the difference between the words ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ wrong. ‘Its’ is the possessive form of the pronoun it (for example, “The dog wagged its tail”), whereas ‘it’s’ is a contraction for the words ‘it is’ (as in, “It’s raining outside”).

If you go too fast on the SAT Writing Test, you are going to miss many of these small distinctions, losing a lot of points in the process.

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So, be sure to keep a deliberate pace and double-check that you’ve made the right choice before you bubble it in on your scantron sheet. To assuage your fears about time, I can tell you that most of my students have no trouble finishing the SAT Writing Test on time. Whereas the Reading and Math tests are rather time-sensitive, the Writing Test requires much less re-reading, and has relatively fewer two-step critical thinking questions, so it’s more generous time-wise.

Hide Modifying Phrases To More Easily Spot Subject-Verb & Noun-pronoun Errors

If you boil sentences down to their basic parts by hiding modifying phrases, it’s easier to notice grammatical mistakes.

Many of the questions on the SAT Writing Test relate to subject-verb disagreement or noun-pronoun disagreement. For example, if I have a plural subject like ‘dogs,’ I need to use a plural verb like ‘run,’ rather than the singular verb ‘runs,’ in association with it. Or, if I use a singular noun like ‘my brother,’ I need to use a singular pronoun in association with it, like ‘his,’ rather than a plural pronoun, like ‘their.’

In order to make the exam more difficult, the College Board hides many of these mistakes—which are readily noticeable when they appear relatively close to each other in a sentence—behind modifying phrases. An example of this: “My sisters, who just got a new dog, likes animals.” In this incorrect sentence, a singular noun (‘likes’) is paired with a plural subject (‘sisters’). However, because the modifying phrase (“who just got a new dog”) ends with a singular subject, some students will be thrown off and see no problem with the subject/verb.

So, in order to avoid making a mistake like this, know that a simple trick is to obscure the modifying phrase with your finger, or draw a line through it with your pencil. Modifying phrases always follow the subject that they modify, and are preceded and succeeded by matching punctuation (usually commas, but sometimes dashes or parentheses.) Obscuring these phrases boils the sentence down to its bare parts (subject, verb), and makes it much easier to see mistakes. Look at my sentence without the modifier: “My sisters likes animals.” See? The problem is much easier to spot now.

Know That Verb Tense Should Only Change Under Two Circumstances

Recognize situations when verb tense should shift, which are only when a time word or conditional word is used.

The SAT Writing Test will include questions that require you to spot errors in tense—when a sentence or paragraph has unnecessarily shifted into the past or future. In order to answer these questions correctly, know that, in general, whatever tense a piece of writing is written in—past, present, future, or any of their variations—it should stay in, except under two circumstances. Verb tense can shift if there is a time word, or a condition word, used.

For example, if I am writing in the present tense, but then use the condition word ‘if,’ I have a reason to switch into the future tense. Or, if I use the time words ‘last Wednesday,’ I have a reason to shift into the past tense.

Look out for these words to help you determine whether a verb shift is appropriate. If not, you’ll want to select an answer choice that corrects the error.

Look Out For, And Eliminate, Informal Language

Eliminating informal language helps preserve the tone of passages and paragraphs.

The SAT Writing Test also wants to see that you know how to identify and maintain tone throughout the course of a paragraph or passage. All the writing on the test should have a formal, academic tone. So, if you see a word like ‘icky,’ know that it needs to be replaced with a more formal, academic word, such as ‘unappetizing’ or ‘unpalatable.’ Even when a passage is written in a personal way, informal words like these still have no place.



Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.