Ah, grammar—every student’s absolute favorite topic. This content area represents a fascinating cornucopia of rules, exceptions to those rules, and then exceptions to those exceptions. Name a better way to spend an afternoon than learning the intricacies of comma usage in order to improve your SAT Writing & Language score; I’ll wait.
Oh, you… you came up with one that quickly? You actually came up with at least 12 off the top of your head? Huh. Must be just me, then. Oh well. Unfortunately for the vast majority of you who aren’t as nerdy as I am, the SAT Writing & Language section represents one quarter (400/1600) of your total composite score on the test. The good news, though, is that you can absolutely improve your score on this section by practicing and using the correct strategies—and WITHOUT relearning every single grammar rule that you slept through in English class. In this post, I’ll talk you through how to improve your SAT Writing & Language score with some of the tips and tricks that I use with my students. Let’s dive in.
(NOTE: This post is accurate for the paper-and-pencil SAT, which will continue to be administered for US-based students through the end of 2023. At that point, the test will be changing and the strategies will be changing accordingly; keep an eye out for an updated post at that time.)
Table of Contents / Quick Reference Guide
- An Overview of the SAT Writing & Language
- SAT Writing & Language Subsections
- Common Challenges of The SAT Writing & Language Section
- Strategies For Improving Your SAT Writing & Language Score
- Frequently Asked Questions About The SAT Writing & Language Section
Understanding The SAT Writing & Language Section
As with all areas of the test, the first step in how to improve your SAT Writing & Language score is to understand exactly what you’re up against, so we’ll start with a breakdown of what exactly you’ll encounter in this section.
SAT Writing & Language: Section Structure
Writing & Language is always the second section of the SAT, and it is composed of 44 multiple-choice questions; these are distributed among four passages, each with 11 questions. Students testing with standard time will have 35 minutes to complete the section.
The types of passages you’ll see on the SAT Writing & Language section range from first-person narratives to third-person reports, but they all have one thing in common: they’re badly written. It’s also worth noting that the genre variation among the passages is not as distinctive (or typically as impactful in terms of student performance) as it is on the Reading section. You will find, however, that like on the Reading section, two of the W&L passages will each contain one or more graphs, charts, or tables and ask you 1-2 questions about them.
Probably the single most important thing to note in any overview of what’s on the SAT Writing & Language section is the format in which the questions are presented to you. As you read each passage, you will notice underlined portions of text preceded by a number. Each of these numbers refers to a question, and your goal for the majority of the questions is to decide if you should replace the underlined text, and if so, which answer choice represents the best alternative. Here’s an example:
Though you will see some variation in the question format (some questions don’t contain an underlined portion of text, whereas others don’t have a “no change” option), the general approach still applies: read the passage, stopping to answer questions when prompted.
SAT Writing & Language: Section Composition
We sort the question types on the Writing & Language section into two main buckets, with the distinguishing factor being whether the question actually, you know, asks a question. In my example above, you’ll notice that no question was explicitly asked—you were simply presented with a set of answer choices that offered possible alternatives to the underlined portion of text. We like to call these answer-questions (AQs). On the other hand, if the problem contains some actual question text, we call it a question-question (QQ). Yes, these names are super creative; you’re welcome.
Below is an example of a QQ, to provide a contrast with the AQ depicted earlier.
Below is a quick summary of some additional details regarding the content of the SAT Writing & Language section.
- Answer-questions make up roughly 2/3 of the section (7-8 of the 11 questions per passage). These problems are primarily focused on testing the nuts and bolts of grammar mechanics, with a particular emphasis on:
- Subject-verb agreement
- Transition words
- Concision and style/tone
- Word choice
- Question-questions make up roughly 1/3 of the section (3-4 of the 11 questions per passage). These problems test rhetoric (effective writing), and focus primarily on:
- Combining sentences
- Moving a sentence within a paragraph or a paragraph within the passage
- Adding or deleting sentences
- Selecting the sentence that most effectively accomplishes a certain goal, e.g. ‘providing an additional example to support the idea introduced in the previous sentence’ or ‘introducing the main idea of the next paragraph’
When summarizing what’s on the SAT Writing & Language section, the College Board will tell you that the section tests things like ‘Expression of Ideas’, ‘Command of Evidence’, and ‘Standard English Conventions’. And while that’s true, those categories are… what’s the phrase I’m looking for… borderline useless. Focusing on the specifics of what’s being tested in each question while you’re practicing, as outlined above, will allow you to start spotting the commonalities between questions and the patterns that manifest over the course of the entire section; knowing the test’s tendencies—the “rules of the game”, so to speak—is a huge part of how to improve on SAT Writing & Language.
Common Challenges On The SAT Writing & Language Section
SAT Writing & Language can be an intimidating section for many students, but its bark is often worse than its bite. With that being said, there are absolutely some challenging obstacles associated with this section.
The foremost hurdle for students in W&L is the grammar knowledge that is required. You don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every single piece of grammar minutiae to do well on this test; not even close, in fact. The section focuses primarily on a few key concepts, as we outlined earlier, and then hits you over the head with those concepts repeatedly. With that being said, it’s hard to score well on this section if you don’t have a relatively high comfort level with those key concepts, and that can be a pain point for students who are wondering how to improve their SAT Writing & Language score.
Timing can be an issue for some testers in this section as well. Though it’s not as tightly timed as its counterpart on the ACT, this section can still catch students off-guard with its speed when they first start working on it. This is most true during the point of the prep process when you’re focusing on relearning the grammar rules that are tested and the patterns inherent to the section. The less familiar you are with those rules and tendencies, the longer each question tends to take, which makes the time limit more of a factor.
Other common obstacles for students include challenging vocabulary words, an instinct to look for an answer that represents good writing rather than just the best of the answer choices that are provided, and a tendency to rely too much on their ear and not enough on knowledge of grammar rules.
This all might sound a bit intimidating, and that’s okay! One of the key elements in how to improve your SAT Writing & Language score is understanding the obstacles the test is going to place in front of you. Now that you have a sense of what you’re facing, let’s talk about how to deal with it.
Want To Improve Your SAT Writing & Language Score The Easy Way?
Strategies To Improve Your SAT Writing & Language Score
Strategy #1: Read the passage
The most prevalent, and easily avoidable, mistake we see students make on the SAT is not reading the passage completely and thoroughly. Many students instinctively skip over portions of the passage that aren’t underlined; after all, this isn’t the Reading section, amirite? Unfortunately, that’s a surefire way to set yourself up for failure. Remember:
- Read the title. This will give you a general sense of the main idea of the passage by telling you what the SAT thinks is its primary focus.
- Read sentences that have questions associated with them carefully from period to period. When it comes to AQs, this test LOVES to put things at the end of sentences that affect the beginning and vice versa.
- Skim the portions of the passage that don’t have questions associated with them. You will almost always have at least one question per passage that requires you to have a sense of what the passage has spent the most time talking about. Don’t skip ahead; the passages aren’t that long, so it shouldn’t take you too much time to read them.
Strategy #2: Read the questions
As mentioned in strategy #1, you need to read everything on the page. Though it might sound incredibly obvious, that includes the question part of question-questions. As hard as it may be to believe, forgetting to read the question is a very common mistake among students. Since so many of the problems in this section contain only answer choices, it’s easy to ignore the question itself, when it exists, and jump straight to the choices.
Reading the question is crucial, as it will tell you what the primary goal of the answer choices should be. For example, a particular question-question may ask you to conclude a sentence by giving a benefit to the approach mentioned in the first part of the sentence. Because QQs very rarely test grammar in addition to rhetoric, all of the answer choices will typically be grammatically correct, and most will therefore sound good to you; however, only one choice will actually accomplish the goal of providing a benefit to whatever approach was mentioned earlier in the sentence.
If you don’t read the question carefully and use the objective it gives you as your filter when evaluating the answer choices, you’ll get these questions wrong way more often than you should.
Strategy #3: Read (and compare) the answers
Always read every single answer choice. This actually applies to every section of the SAT; you can’t catch yourself in a mistake unless you give yourself the chance. Some questions will have multiple answers that may sound good to you or appear to be the correct option initially, so don’t stop right after you see the first one that you like. Read them all and then pick the best of the four.
In the W&L section specifically, this point is most relevant when you’re dealing with answer-questions. AQs rarely test more than 1-2 grammar concepts, so you’ll almost never need to approach a question through the lens of word choice, comma usage, AND verb tense, for example. The way to determine which concepts a given question is assessing is by comparing the answer choices to see what’s changing between them—that’s what’s being tested. Is it comma usage? Subject-verb agreement? Verb tense? Redundancy? Tone? Once you’ve identified what’s going on, you’ll know what to focus on and which rules to bring to bear in order to pick up the point.
Strategy #4: For answer-questions, trust your ear…
As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s very hard to succeed on this section past a certain point without learning or relearning some core grammar rules. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should totally ignore what your ear tells you. If you’re a US-based student, chances are that you’ve been speaking English for a lot of your life; even if you’re an international student, you’ve probably taken English classes. That means that you’ve encountered all of the concepts being tested on the SAT W&L section in writing or conversation before, likely a bunch of times.
Because of that, letting your instincts guide you can be a viable strategy for some of the AQs. If you read a sentence “out loud” in your head a couple of times, do you instinctively pause at the same point every time? There’s probably a comma there. Do you have a gut feeling that a particular preposition should be attached to a specific verb? That might be because you’ve heard or read the expression used before and didn’t consciously process it. This trick won’t work every time, because the SAT is good at writing questions where the incorrect answer “sounds right”, but it’s a solid starting point—especially for students with limited time to prepare for the test.
Strategy #5: …but review as many major concepts as you have time for.
Though your ear can be a useful tool, it’s important not to fall into the habit of picking answer choices that “sound right” without stopping to think about why you’re choosing them. Make sure that you’re supplementing your instincts with grammar knowledge and an understanding of how the SAT sets up its questions in this section.
As in Math, there’s a very firm limit to how much you can improve your SAT Writing & Language score without reviewing the actual material that’s being tested. Every time you complete a practice W&L passage or section, review the questions that you missed and look for patterns. Are you struggling with transition words? Subject-verb agreement? Comma placement? Focus on reviewing as many of those items as you can, starting with those that show up the most. Your ear can be a helpful foundation in this section, but past a certain point, you’ll need knowledge of some grammar minutiae to continue to raise your score.
Strategy #6: Play the answer choices against each other
One of the most potent weapons in your arsenal on the W&L section is one that many students don’t think of: looking for overlap between answer choices. This comes up most often on transition questions and punctuation questions. For example, knowing that semicolons and commas are mutually exclusive can help you narrow down your choices. If you have two identically worded answer choices with a semicolon in one and a comma in the other, the answer will often be one or the other.
An even more concrete instance of this is when you have two choices that are identical save for the fact that one uses a period and the other a semicolon. Because those two pieces of punctuation serve the same purpose in this section 99.9% of the time, the two answer choices I mentioned are functionally interchangeable—this means that neither of them can be correct.
Finally, let’s take a look at #43 below for an example of this strategy in action on a transition question:
Many students haven’t seen ‘then’ used as a transition word in quite this way before, which makes them reluctant to select it. If you look at the other three choices, however, you may notice something interesting: they all mean almost exactly the same thing. Though there is some nuance in usage, ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, and ‘yet’ are all used to convey some sort of tension or opposition between ideas, and they can be used interchangeably in many situations. With that in mind, what do you think is more likely—that the SAT would ask you to tease apart the subtle differences between three similar transition words under time pressure or that the answer is the fourth choice? I know which one I’m putting my money on nine times out of ten.
Strategy #7: Focus on mastering the question-questions
Because AQs test grammar mechanics or standard English conventions, they typically require some piece of outside knowledge, like comma rules or guidelines for subject-verb agreement. QQs, on the other hand, give you all the information you need to get the question right: the decision you have to make (e.g. to insert or not insert a particular sentence) and the context of the passage. These questions are much more about pattern recognition than content knowledge; the more you practice them, the more you’ll understand what the test is looking for on each type and the more your accuracy level will rise.
Don’t get me wrong, QQs can still be difficult, and they still require practice to improve. There are also fewer of them on the average W&L section than there are answer-questions, which means that there’s a hard ceiling on how much you can boost your score by focusing on them. But with fewer sub-types than the AQs and no complex grammar rules that must be mastered, most students find that getting better at QQs takes less time and work than it does for AQs. That makes them a great place to focus for an efficient solution to the question of how to improve your SAT Writing & Language score.
Strategy #8: Don’t sweat the word choice questions
Full disclosure: I hate the vocabulary-in-context questions on this section. Sometimes they’re well-written and actually provide a meaningful assessment of students’ ability to use context clues to determine the definition of a vocabulary word; other times, they do nothing other than test whether you’ve heard a particular idiom or turn of phrase before.
You should go into this section expecting to see some questions that include unfamiliar words or phrases, and that’s totally fine—it’s very possible to get a strong score on W&L without answering every word choice question correctly. What you can’t afford to do is beat your head against a wall trying to decide if the correct phrase is ‘undertaken in the public interest’ or ‘taking on the public interest’; very likely, all you’re doing is burning valuable time and demoralizing yourself. Take your best shot, move on, and live to fight another day.
Strategy #9: Practice, practice, practice
Once you’ve begun to implement the strategies and review the content that I’ve mentioned above, it’s imperative that you get as many reps with them as you can. Nothing refines your approach to punctuating sentences like doing a bunch of practice problems, and there’s no better way to learn how to match a subject to a verb than to do it as many times as possible.
To that end, the College Board’s website contains 8 official practice tests, and Khan Academy has a number of drills available for free. There are also a number of third-party content providers whose practice tests, while not as good as the real thing, are high enough quality to provide useful reps.
Remember that practice by itself isn’t enough, though—it’s crucial that you try to learn from each section you complete. Build time into your practice for you to review both your mistakes and your timing. For every question you missed, ask yourself why your answer was wrong and why the correct answer was better. If you were unable to finish the section within the time limit, determine where you lost time. Was it a particular passage that slowed you down or a particular question you got stuck on? Did you get fatigued towards the end of the section and slow down because of that? Take this information with you into your next practice section and use it to inform your approach.
Final Thoughts On Improving Your SAT Writing & Language Score
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when working on SAT Writing & Language, especially when you’re confronted with the prospect of relearning a bunch of grammar rules that you thought you wouldn’t ever need. Don’t get discouraged, though; this section is one of the areas where I see the most consistent improvement among my students. If you practice, you’ll usually see results.
Remember, though, that practice doesn’t just mean repetition: make sure that you’re practicing with the strategies I outlined above, and that you’re building time into your study process to review your completed sections. And if you’re looking for a little support as you work on mastering SAT Reading, we know some people who can help.
Frequently Asked Questions About The SAT Writing & Language Section
What is a perfect SAT score in Writing?
The maximum score that you can achieve on the SAT Writing & Language section is a 400. This is pretty difficult to do, however: earning a perfect 400 in this section typically requires getting no more than one question wrong.
What skills are tested most on the Writing & Language section of the SAT?
On the answer-questions, the grammar skills that come up the most often are punctuation, transition words/phrases, verb agreement/tense, and concision. For the question-questions, which test rhetorical skills, you can expect to see concepts like moving sentences or paragraphs around, combining sentences effectively, and creating sentences that fulfill a certain rhetorical objective.
What’s considered a good score on the SAT Writing & Language section?
A good score on the SAT overall is one that makes you a competitive applicant to the schools in which you’re interested. Something similar is true for Writing & Language as an individual section, but with more flexibility. For instance, if you need a 1350 composite score to hit the median score range for your target schools, earning a 400 would get you almost a third of the way there; however, you could still earn that 1350 if you scored as low as a 150 on W&L. That would require getting literally a perfect score on the other portions of the test, so I wouldn’t recommend planning on that score distribution as your strategy, but it should give you a sense of the wiggle room you have in a given section if you’re strong in the others.