Writing questions make up part of the new SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, one of the exam’s two main sections. Similar to reading questions, which are based on a passage, writing questions also refer to a passage you’ll need to read before answering the questions. However, in writing passages, some words, phrases, and sentences will be underlined and some other sections of the passage will be marked. Questions will appear beside the passage near the underline or marker the question refers to.
Start by understanding the question types
Like any question type on the new SAT (or any standardized test), the key to doing well begins by understanding what the question is trying to assess.
What do we mean by this? Let’s use an example.
Imagine your friend asks you to guess what their favorite food is. Depending on how well you know your friend, you may have some idea of what it is, but there are still many possibilities. Now imagine they give you a hint: They say it’s Italian and it has noodles in it. Your chance of identifying their favorite food has just increased significantly.
Of course, the SAT isn’t a guessing game, but understanding the category of questions in each section and the concepts associated with each category will amplify your ability to select the correct answer. For example, if you recognize a writing question as a Standard English Conventions question (don’t worry, we’ll explain what this is) and see that the underlined text includes a semicolon, you’ll know that the question is likely testing punctuation, so you’ll be sure to check that the semicolon is correctly used in the passage. Your ability to recognize the question category will help guide you to the correct answer or make it easier to take an educated guess.
So what are the kinds of SAT writing questions? Let’s break them down.
Expression of Ideas questions
Writing questions fall into two categories that the SAT calls Expression of Ideas (EOI) and Standard English Conventions (SEC). These two question categories are recognizable both by their content (what they ask you to do) and their format (what they look like).
Expression of Idea questions focus on the purpose and goals of the passage. These questions could ask you about the topic sentence, the logic or flow of a paragraph, or the style and tone of a piece. Common question prompts include “To make this paragraph most logical…,” “Which choice most effectively establishes the main topic…,” and “The author wants to complete the sentence with a second example… which choice best accomplishes this goal.”
To answer these questions, you’ll need an understanding of the passage as a whole and how the underlined or marked segment fits into the whole. Context is key.
Standard English Convention questions
Standard English Convention questions are closer to what you’d think of as grammar questions. Instead of higher-level concerns like organization or style, these questions focus on the accepted rules of English writing. For example, questions will test your understanding of correct punctuation, pronoun use, modifiers, word choice, and subject-verb agreement to name a few concepts.
Unlike EOI questions, SEC questions usually lack a question prompt. Instead of a question followed by four answer choices, you often just see the four answer choices, the first of which will be “NO CHANGE, ” which you’ll choose if the underlined text the question refers to is correctly written. If it’s not, you’ll have to find the needed change among the other answer choices. Since SEC questions focus more on grammar, context is less important in correctly answering these questions. However, when SEC questions ask you about appropriate word choice, you’ll need to read the paragraph in which the underlined word appears in order to select the best choice.
As shown in the image, EOI and SEC questions can be broken down into sub-question types, each of which focus on a few specific topics as modifiers or concision. We’ll leave these subtypes for another blog post, but hopefully this short introduction has helped demystify this new test section for you so that you can start tackling this questions with confidence.