Decoding the SAT: Part 3


In 2005, the SAT test makers added a writing section to an-already stressful test. It includes a written essay, as well as three additional portions containing the same type of grammar problems that were already on the PSAT INMSQT test. Although many schools do not consider this section for college admission and scholarships, this doesn’t mean that students should forget this section altogether. Often admissions counselors will use the writing portion as the determining factor if they are on the fence about a student’s application, and there is a good chance that many schools will start counting it in the future. Moreover, it should be the objective of every student to get the highest possible score in all three sections of the test.

Most students are not excited about the semi-new essay section found on the test. After all, they have twenty-five minutes to write an essay on an unknown topic that will count as 30 percent of their writing grade. This is a lot of pressure on students-but there are lots of students who have received perfect essay scores, and it is really a matter of knowing what the judges are looking for.

As a matter of fact, the essay judges are not looking for perfect papers. Rather, they are looking for just a few key points which they can pick out in the short amount of time they spend reading an essay. Ten days following the test, the essays are scanned into the computer and dispersed to the judges. Two judges will grade each paper on a scale of 1-6. A perfect score of 12 can be obtained when both scores are combined. If there is more than a one-point difference between the two scores, a third judge will read the paper, and this judge’s score will be doubled for the final score.

The essay needs to be insightful, persuasive, and make logical sense. It should express a wide range of knowledge and experience since the judges will be grading on their overall impression. They will grade the paper very holistically. After reading it quickly one time through, they will write down their first impressions. After that, each judge will go back through the paper and determine whether it has the key ingredients for a great essay. Each judge will spend around 30 seconds grading the paper.

There is no need to cram material for the essay because there are so many topics available that such study would be a fruitless effort. Take heart, however: the topics are usually very broad and general in nature, which gives the student an endless amount of information to write on. The question prompt will usually ask the student to choose one side or the other, so the key is just to pick one of the sides. It doesn’t matter which side is picked, and the student doesn’t even have to agree with it.

The test makers grade to a simple formula, and students who follow it consistently receive raves from the judges-and high essay scores. For example, five paragraphs is optimal for a high score. Students need not veer off this guideline and become creative: stick with what works. Two major keys to a good SAT essay are knowing how to write good sentences and following a proven blueprint.

The other three parts of the writing section are multiple-choice and require students to understand basic grammar. But even though the problems may be grammatical errors, this is still a logic test, and the questions are standardized with standardized answers. Again, students need to learn to find the recurring patterns on the test and identify the answer that corresponds with that pattern.

The first of these three parts is “Sentence Error.” This section contains sentences with four underlined parts labeled A through D. Students need to determine whether there is an error with one of the parts. If so, that is the correct answer. If not, the student would simply pick E, which is no error. In this section, the key to doing well is to know the limited concepts that the test makers duplicate over and over again. For example, subject and verb must agree for the sentence to be correct. Also, learning to find the awkward part can yield a quick answer.

The next part is “Improving Sentences.” This section contains sentences with all or part of each one underlined. The objective is to find the answer that is both grammatically correct and the best restatement of the underlined portion. Students should never read answer A, since it is the same sentence found in the prompt. This section uses recurring patterns in the beginning of each sentence that help students eliminate several wrong answers immediately. For example, look at the first words of each answer choice once you determine what the subject should be. This usually eliminates two or three possible answers.

The last section is “Improving Paragraphs.” This section contains a short passage with each sentence numbered. There will be four question types, and students will mainly need to revise certain sentences by combining the strategies from the critical reading section and the “Improving Sentences” part above. For example, students may be asked to insert a sentence into the correct place. Every answer is objective, and wrong answer tricks still apply in this section.

So don’t fear or forget about the writing section. It is a necessary evil that is now on the SAT and has always been on the PSAT /NMSQT. By learning how the test is set up and how answers are derived, students can stop wasting time and start easily identifying the patterns that point them to the correct answers.

Learning how the test makers write the questions and answers is pivotal for test success. All three sections-critical reading, math, and writing-are found on both the SAT and the PSATINMSQT. With knowledge and preparation, students can learn to understand the recurring hidden patterns and fast ways to answer each question type found in each section. This can ultimately give students confidence, lessen test anxiety, and allow students to ace these dreaded tests.

Jean Burk is a homeschooling mother and author of College Prep Genius: The No Brainer Way to SAT Success! She has been the featured SAT expert for FOX, CBS, NBC, and The Homeschool Channel. Both her children received full-ride scholarship offers because of their SAT and PSAT scores. Her revolutionary program is taught in schools and homeschool co-ops across the country and helps thousands of students raise their SAT scores as much as 600 points.

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