To excel at the New SAT writing section you just can’t cram in a bunch of grammar rules, ignore the grammar rules or think that doing a bunch of practice tests will make the difference. Success on the New SAT Writing section will be a combination of grammar fundamentals, and a sense for the types of questions you’ll see and how to approach them.
First off, here’s what you’ll have to know in terms of grammar basics: punctuations, sentence structure and usage (I’ll go through each below).
Do you know the difference between an em-dash and a semicolon? Do you know when to break up two clauses with a comma? Do you know how to avoid a comma splice? Questions addressing these issues—and there will be quite a few—fall under punctuation.
If you know the difference between a dependent and independent clause, you are already off to a good start. It’ll help to be familiar with some punctuation too, since you’ll have to know when to use a comma or when to use a semicolon; if you’re separating clauses.
Does the subject agree in number with the verb (The students in my dorm is studying, is incorrect), do the pronouns agree with the nouns, and are you using the correct phrase? All of these issues fall under usage.
The three topics are vast and it would be a bad idea to crack open a grammar book hoping to master all the nuances entailed in each. The truth is that the SAT writing only tests a small and idiosyncratic section of these grammar fundamentals. The best way to figure out which is to take practice tests, preferably from the College Board, to get a sense of just how, let’s say, commas are tested. When it comes down to it, much of these fundamentals are treated at a high level. If you have a basic understanding, you should do pretty well.
What makes the writing section tricky, assuming you have a decent sense of grammar, are the questions that ask you to consider context. What I mean by context are the sentences that are not part of the sentence in question (or parts of the sentence that are not underlined) that provide clues for what the answer is. Sometimes you’ll have to analyze the entire paragraph and try to figure out what the best placement for the sentence is. Other times you’ll have to look for how ideas are expressed in a previous sentence, so that you can make sure they are parallel in the answer choice you choose.
The best way to improve in this area is to do the practice questions in the College Board book. You’ll get a sense of how the College Board creates trap answers, or perhaps more succinctly, traps. An excellent technique for improving is to mark the ones you got wrong, once you’ve finished a section, to make sure you don’t write down the incorrect answer next to the question. That way you can have a second shot at answering the question. Often you’ll catch the answer right away. Other times you’ll have to think a little. It is during this time that you’ll pick up on ways the test makes getting the right answer difficult.
You’ll also want to go back and figure out why you missed the question in the first place. Struggling here is actually a good thing because it means that you are learning to understand the test at a deeper level. Of course, if you can’t figure it out after a few minutes you can look at the reasoning in the College Board explanations, but I have to warn you, the College Board does not get paid to write explanations and it shows.
Improving at the SAT writing will require a combination of grammar fundamentals, and the question types and traps that are particular to the New SAT. The best way to do that is by cracking open the latest College Board study guide and doing some practice questions or taking a practice test.