The writing section of the SAT seems to get the least love; fewer tutors and teachers focus on it, fewer students ask about it, and some admissions committees (adcoms) have not always given it equal consideration. That’s always struck me as pretty strange, because the writing section is relatively easy to study for and improve on, and the lessons learned are massively helpful if you’re going to be spending much time writing essays in college—which most students absolutely will.
And even if the writing score may get a bit less attention by some adcoms, that’s definitely not the case across the board, and improving your writing score, like any SAT section score, will bring up your total score, which always looks good. And really, anything that looks good on your college application is worth fighting for, especially when it’s as doable as SAT writing.
Not your Average Writing Lesson
Depending on where you live and what the standards are like at your high school, it’s very possible that you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the type of grammar that’s on the SAT.
I know I, personally, only had one teacher in my public high school who ever focused on grammar at all, and she did so because of her own interest, a digression away from the normal curriculum. I was lucky in that I also went to extra classes at an afternoon magnet school for creative writing, so I was getting more exposure to written style and grammar than I would’ve otherwise.
But obviously, the average case is a bit different than that, and there’s a good chance that you haven’t analyzed sentence structure and written style very much. You get edits on your essays in English class, of course, but that’s not really the best way to prepare for the SAT writing section.
The SAT focuses heavily on some very specific aspects of English grammar. For example, you have to be acutely aware of subject/verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, parallelism, and comma-splices. If any one of those is a mystery to you, then you have a great opportunity to pull in a few points that you might not get otherwise; these rules are pretty quick to learn, and once you know them they’re easy enough to apply.
Learning the grammar rules you’ll see tested in the three types of multiple choice writing questions is hugely helpful for your essay, too. Although grammar isn’t necessarily the most important part of getting a great essay score, it definitely helps.
So first things first, study those grammar rules.
Let the SAT Teach You
While you learn, it’s a good idea to dive right in to practice questions, too. The SAT writing section is not just a quiz of the rules; it’s a very specific kind of test with a very particular format. It helps immensely to learn that format and the best ways to navigate within it—how to approach each question type and how to pace yourself well.
But practicing isn’t just the application of what you’ve studied, either. It’s also an opportunity to learn new things. By sitting down with full-length tests and shorter, more focused practice sessions, you’re bound to make some mistakes. And that means you’re finding the gaps in your knowledge and skills. If you pay careful attention to the mistakes you make, you will learn. And the more training you do, the more often you’ll see the same topics repeated, and the more memorable those lessons learned will become.
So don’t just sit down with a book of grammar rules. Yes, that’s a great thing to do, but you need more than that. You need to try it for yourself.
Prepare for the SAT Essay
As an SAT teacher, the essay is one of my favorite parts of the test, because it’s one of the best examples of how the SAT is flawed and can be beat. But, then again, as a writer, I can’t stand the it because the essay doesn’t really test how good of a writer you are. The College Board has admitted this themselves, and they’re planning on improving it in 2016, but if you’re taking the test this year or next, that doesn’t mean squat for you. Instead, you’re in the lucky position of being able to learn the best ways about the current SAT essay.
Okay, so you can’t outright game the essay. It takes work and practice. But there are definitely a few things you can focus on to bring up your score:
- Get to know the types of prompts the SAT gives.
- Build up a stock of sources for examples. Memorable life experiences, favorite movies, historical events—anything that you know well and fits well into the themes of those SAT essay prompts.
- Write practice essays. You’ll want to have done this several times before the day of your test.
- Make your essays are as long as possible while maintaining a clear structure.
- Build up your vocabulary! Fancy words used appropriately can give you a serious boost.
Improve your writing every day, if you can. Between learning those grammar structures and rules, studying vocabulary whenever you can, practicing writing with a timer, and doing a lot of reading, there’s plenty you can work on. And even when you’re actually working on something else—say, reading a history textbook—pay attention to the language around you. The more aware you are of sentence structures and written style, the faster you’ll learn!
And don’t forget to take a look at the other posts in this series:
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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