What’s On the SAT Writing and Language Test?

Testers, take your marks—get set—go!

And you’re off, pencil flying down the page! It’s a beautiful Saturday morning here at the SAT racetrack, and your endurance has already been put to the test in the 65-minute marathon that is SAT Reading. After a short break, you’ve got your second wind, and it’s time to hit the ground running—this time for a sprint. Adrenaline pumping, you’ve just opened your test booklet to Section 2, the SAT Writing and Language Test.

Wait, what? A writing test? But… but… I didn’t sign up for the essay!

Don’t panic! Although it’s a “writing” test, there is no writing involved (at least on your part). Rather, you will be reading passages and answering a variety of multiple-choice questions that will test your knowledge of English grammar as well as your ability to provide editorial advice to improve the overall quality of a passage.

Join me, racer, as we dig deeper into what exactly you can expect to find on the SAT Writing and Language Test.

The Basics

The Writing and Language Test is the fastest-paced section of the SAT, consisting of 44 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. Like the SAT Reading Test, the Writing and Language Test is passage-based—there are a total of four passages, each with 11 corresponding questions. The score from the Writing and Language Test (out of 40) is combined with that of the Reading Test (also out of 40) to create the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score (out of 800).

The Passages: The passages you’ll find on the Writing and Language Test differ significantly from those on the Reading Test. The four topics seen in every Writing and Language Test include careers, humanities, science, and history/social studies. Each passage ranges from 400-450 words in length, and the level of complexity is generally lower than that of Reading Test passages (so take a deep breath—you won’t run into any scary excerpts from 19th century novels here). All Writing and Language passages are nonfiction and can be classified as either narrative, argumentative, or explanatory.

The Questions: All questions in the Writing and Language Test appear in chronological order. As you read through the passage, you will come to a marker in the text that corresponds to a specific question. Towards the margin you will see a question (or sometimes not—more on that later) and four answer choices. Often, the marker within the passage will refer to an underlined word, phrase, or sentence, but it can also denote an entire paragraph or location within a paragraph.

The Subscores: The SAT Writing and Language Test contains questions that count toward six separate subscores: Standard English Conventions (20 total questions), Expression of Ideas (24 total questions), Command of Evidence (eight total questions), Words in Context (eight total questions), Analysis in History/Social Studies (six total questions), and Analysis in Science (six total questions). Every question on the test falls into the former two subscores, which are unique to the Writing and Language Test. The latter four subscores are based on a set of questions from Evidence-Based Reading and Writing as a whole.

As a test prep coach, the Writing and Language Test is my personal favorite because it’s just so doable. This is the section where you’re most likely to see the first fruits of your test-prepping labor (i.e. those sweet, sweet gainz). You may not be a math person, and you never know exactly which passage you’ll run into on the Reading Test. But for SAT Writing and Language, understanding the question types and some basic rules of the English language can really take you far!

Enjoy the fruits of your test-prepping labor!

Let’s take a closer look at the two primary types of questions you’ll encounter on the SAT Writing and Language Test: Standard English Conventions and Expression of Ideas.

Standard English Conventions

SEC questions are concerned with the rules of written English, including punctuation, usage, and syntax. Grammar Nazis, rejoice! This is where you’ll flex those killer who/whom skills. For the rest of you, don’t worry (too much)—the list of topics is relatively short and can be grouped into just three categories.

Usage: Usage questions are all about words, mainly consisting of agreement, word choice, and conjugation. Topics include agreement between subjects and verbs as well as between pronouns and their antecedents (the nouns to which they refer). Your ability to choose the correct word, phrase, or idiom within a sentence can also be tested, contributing to your Words in Context subscore. Finally, you may see questions asking you to choose the correct form of a verb, which you must determine using contextual clues from the passage.
Punctuation: These questions test your knowledge of various punctuation marks, including commas, periods, semicolons, colons, dashes, and apostrophes. These questions can be tricky for students who choose answers that “sound right” rather than referencing grammatical rules.

Sentence Structure: These questions ask you to create a well-formed sentence, identifying and eliminating both fragments and run-ons. To successfully navigate sentence structure questions, you should be able to identify independent and dependent clauses (i.e. complete and incomplete ideas) and correctly use transitions and conjunctions to create logical relationships between clauses and phrases.
Standard English Conventions questions make up almost half of the Writing and Language Test. In many cases, they will not even have a “question” associated with them and may look something like this:

B) its purpose
C) their purpose
D) they’re purpose

So how can you answer a question that’s not even a question? The absence of a specific question forces us to look to the answers themselves for guidance. By comparing all four answer choices and noticing what’s changing, you will be able to identify the topic(s) being tested. Note that by choosing “NO CHANGE”, you are indicating that the underlined portion of the passage is correct as written. The question above is clearly testing your knowledge of usage—possessive pronouns, to be precise. (For this sample question, the correct answer is B, since “its” refers back to “group of words”, which is grammatically singular).

Ultimately, Standard English Conventions questions are the easiest to prep for—you learn the rules and then apply those rules in the context of a passage. Let’s now examine the less formulaic question types.

Expression of Ideas

The second subscore of the test—Expression of Ideas—focuses more on the “big picture” issues of writing. These questions are concerned with the task of planning and editing an effective text. You’ll be considering issues such as organization, development, and effective language use. Let’s break those down:

Organization: These questions revolve around placing a part of the passage in the most logical location. Often, these questions ask you to place a sentence within a paragraph, but you may also be asked to place a word or phrase within a sentence or a paragraph within the passage as a whole. To answer organization questions successfully, you’ll need to pick up on clues from the context of the passage and ensure that your answer choice is consistent with both the preceding and the following information.

Search for clues from the context of the passage…

Development: These questions all center around strengthening the passage through the addition (or sometimes elimination) of information. Development questions may ask you to select the best introduction, conclusion, or supporting example. They may also ask you to choose information that is consistent with a graph or figure in the passage. To answer these questions, you must pay careful attention to the phrasing—although multiple answer choices may fit into the passage, only one will satisfy the criteria specified in the question itself.

Effective Language Use: These questions test your ability to create the most clear, consistent, and concise text possible. The factors you will need to consider include style, tone, phrasing, and focus. You must eliminate any choices that do not match the context of the passage, disrupt the flow, are wordy or redundant, or change the intended meaning.

Although Expression of Ideas questions can be slightly more open-ended than their Standard English Conventions counterparts, you’ll start to notice the patterns that emerge when answering these questions. Ultimately, you just need to remember that a good answer will always fit into the context of the passage in a clear and logical way.

The Bottom Line

You did it! Congrats!!

Phew! Congratulations, racer—you’ve made it to the finish line of the mad dash that is the SAT Writing and Language Test. Your ability to keep a quick pace will be crucial, as will be your knowledge of English grammar rules and components of effective writing. Your score on the Writing and Language Test (and, more broadly, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing) will show college admissions committees that you have the English language skills necessary to succeed at a post-secondary level.

Now grab a Powerade and brace yourselves—math is coming.

Contact a Student Success Advisor for more information on how to prepare for the SAT Writing and Language Test.

By |2020-04-07T15:45:40+00:00April 7th, 2020|SAT, Uncategorized|

About the Author:

Audrey is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, who earned her BA at Baylor University and MA in linguistics at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul, Turkey). She is passionate about traveling the world and being immersed in new languages and cultures. Audrey has been teaching SAT prep since 2015 and has accumulated over 2500 hours of experience instructing top-scoring students internationally, in such locations as South Korea, Turkey, and India.