SAT Crash Course

Page 4: SAT Writing+Language

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New SAT Notice: The content on this page has been updated to reflect the March 2016 changes to the SAT (otherwise known as the New SAT).

If you want a better SAT writing+language score, you need excellent grammar.  Fortunately, the grammatical concepts tested by the SAT are incredibly limited – you can learn most of them within a few hours. If you take the time to work through plenty of practice problems, check the answer explanations, and then document all the grammar rules you don’t know, you’ll be well on your way toward learning every grammatical concept you need to master.

However, before I go on, I want to make something very clear:

No matter how good your writing+language strategy is, you’ll never get a great score if you’re not willing to “put in the work” and memorize all the necessary grammar facts.

My online systems use a pretty “blunt force” approach to grammar rules: learn the facts, study them, and permanently memorize them.  This isn’t glamorous or fun, but it’s necessary.  If you’re not willing to put in the work, then no amount of strategy or positive thinking can help you.

Just like every other aspect of the SAT, however, it’s one thing to know the material, and quite another thing to use it.  The SAT makes using the material difficult.  Once you’ve decided to learn the proper grammar, there are two major strategies that you can always use to your advantage.  Keep these in mind and put them into practice and you’ll improve your score almost immediately.

1. NEVER try to solve a problem without getting the FULL context of the PASSAGE and the SENTENCE ITSELF.

English grammar is all about context. Without it, you’ll never have the slightest idea of whether something is completely right or utterly wrong.

Case in point: is the following sentence segment grammatically correct?

“…,so we found him.”

The answer, I hope, is obvious: it MIGHT be, but you have no idea unless you see the entire sentence that it’s contained within!

This is totally correct:

My brother was lost, so we found him.

This is totally wrong:

My brother is lost, so we found him.

If this seems like an obvious point, that’s because it is an obvious point – but most students don’t ACT like it’s obvious when they take this test!

If I had a dollar for every time one of my students just looked at the answer choices without plugging them back into the full sentence at hand, or trying to answer “which of these is the best option for the paragraph?” questions without reading the full paragraph, I’d be a billionaire.

Sometimes, the simplest advice is the best advice. And all you need to do to put this into action are two quick “must follow” steps:

A) ALWAYS read the ENTIRE PASSAGE leading up to any particular question. If the first question in a writing+language section starts on line 8, that does not mean that you can just skip to line 8. Read everything leading up to the question. That way, you’ll know what the passage is about, what tense it’s in, who the main characters are, etc. – all essential ingredients in getting the proper context. Do not ever skip a single line or word of text on this section. Whether you’re dealing with a “pure grammar” question or a “context within the passage” question, it doesn’t matter – read everything.

B) Whenever you’re dealing with a grammar-based problem, PLUG THE ANSWER BACK INTO THE ENTIRE SENTENCE before you pick an answer. As we already discussed, you’ll never know whether the words “went” or “is” or “are” or “have” are right or wrong until you know the subjects, tenses, etc. of the sentences that they’re in. Make sure that you read the full sentence before, during, and after you choose your answer, plug it into the sentence as a whole, and read the whole thing through. This might seem like a bit of extra work, but it will keep you from making countless mistakes on this section, and it’ll enhance your focus and clarity for every problem you work with.

Now that we have the most fundamental strategy out of the way, let’s move on to something a bit more tactical:

2. Compare answer choices and kill the wrong ones rather than selecting the “right” ones.

Most students go into this section trying to “pick the right answer.”  This is an absolutely terrible strategy.  It’s very difficult to “prove that a sentence is grammatically correct,” but it’s insanely easy to prove that it’s wrong – just find an error, no matter how tiny, and you’re able to move on. As you might remember from my guide to SAT critical reading, it’s practically impossible to prove stuff right – but insanely easy to prove it wrong!

When you solve these problems, try this method:

A) Go through and cross out all the answer choices that are blatantly wrong.  If one of the potential answer choices is “man for go to store he like coffee so buy he do much like fine!” then you don’t need to dwell on it.  Just cross it out so you have less junk to deal with.

B) For all answers that survive the “total junk test” performed in step A, compare them, find differences, and kill the wrong difference.  For instance, if two answer choices are:

The team loves to go to the store, so when…

And

The team love to go to the store, so when…

The only difference between these sentences is “loves” vs. “love.”  Since “team” is singular, you need a singular verb here, so “loves” is right, and “love” is wrong.  Cross out the second choice and move on.

C) Continue this process until there’s only one man standing.  Whatever answer you haven’t proven wrong is the right answer.  After all, if you’ve killed your other choices because they contain errors, then how could the last choice possibly be wrong?  The SAT doesn’t have any typos – one of the beautiful parts of being a multi-million-dollar testing institution….

Does this seem deceptively easy?  It is.  Stop trying to find right answers and start killing wrong ones.  Of course, to know what’s wrong and right, you need to learn your grammar rules, but we’ve already discussed that….

These two strategies, combined with rigorous grammar study, will improve your writing score by at least 40-60 points almost instantly.  

Grab a practice book (NOT an official College Board exam, which you want to save for your timed, graded diagnostic tests), work through a full writing+language section, and see how these strategies work for you. And from now on, be sure to keep them in mind whenever you’re working on SAT writing+language.  The more you put these strategies into practice, the less likely it is that you’ll rely on old strategies and bad habits when you take your test.

This is the tip of the iceberg.

The sets of strategy systems you just learned for math, critical Reading, and writing+language are just a few of the “big picture” systems that’ll help you to explode your score. Of course, they’re much easier said than done, and there’s a lot more to them. But these strategies alone will instantly make you a better tester than you were before, and a much better tester than anyone you’re competing against who isn’t aware of them.

A quick, shameless reminder: if you want a complete, step-by-step system on how to use these strategies on every problem and every section, plus countless other tips on all three sections (and the essay), I recommend that you take a look at my online prep systems. They deliver an average student score improvement of over 115 points per section, they’ll give you a step-by-step process that you can use to learn every strategy, tactic, and material element necessary to conquer this test,and you can use them in your home on your schedule. That means no Saturday morning prep classes, no inconvenient meetings with tutors, and no disruption of your already-busy high school schedule. Best yet, you can get started now!

With reading, math, and writing+language out of the way, it’s time to put it all together into a more cohesive program. With that in mind, let’s move to the final stage of this guide:
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