Writing and Language Study Guide for the SAT Exam

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General Information

The SAT exam’s Writing and Language section evaluates all aspects of your ability to use language for clear communication. You will read passages that have been especially written for this test and contain common errors that writers make. It will be your job to tell the best solution for the writing problem or, sometimes, to decide that there is no error, at all. Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for this section of the test.

On test day, you will have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions, as well as read the four passages involved. Passages will range from 400 to 450 words.

Structure of the Test

Each passage on the SAT is structured the same way. Knowing what to expect on test day will allow you to focus all of your time on reading and answering questions, rather than trying to decipher the structure of the passages and questions. Keep reading for descriptions of what to expect from the Writing and Language portion of the SAT.

Passage Placement on Actual Test

Each of the four passages will begin with a boldface title and will be displayed in the left-hand column of the page, while the corresponding questions will be in the right-hand column. Passages contain multiple paragraphs and will span multiple pages. Do not assume you have reached the end of a passage at the end of a page because it may continue onto the next one. You can be sure a passage has ended when you reach the boldface title of the next passage.

Use of Numbers in the Passages

Numbers that correspond to the questions will be displayed in small boxes and dispersed throughout the passages. The boxed numbers will always be placed in the sentence related to the question. The corresponding question will appear on the same page in the right-hand column.

The numbers will appear in one of two ways. First, the boxed number may stand alone. In this case, the corresponding question will give instructions on how to answer (adding or deleting a sentence, changing a sentence location, etc.). Otherwise, the boxed number will be followed by an underlined portion of the passage. If so, the corresponding question will not give instructions, but will supply several options that may be a better replacement for the underlined portion. Choose the best option.

You may encounter whole paragraphs that are annotated with numbers (different than boxed question numbers). One or more questions will refer to these numbers, possibly by asking you to reorder them (“Which sentence should appear after sentence 2?”).

The “No Change” Option

Some questions (usually the ones that include an underlined sentence after the boxed number) include a “No change” option. In this case, you must decide if the original writing is the best choice compared with the possible replacements.

Passage Types

The passages used in this test section vary in subject, purpose, and complexity. You will need to use varying skills to correctly answer the questions about them.

Purpose of Passage

You will encounter three different types of passages on the test, each with its own purpose and method. A narrative passage, although non-fiction, will retell, recount, or narrate a true event, such as something from history or a scientific method. An argumentative passage will present a claim (or two opposing sides of an argument) and argue a certain opinion. The purpose of argumentative passages is to persuade the reader to take a certain stance. Finally, you will also encounter informative passages. These passages may also present an argument or a claim, but unlike the argumentative passages, they simple state all the facts and inform the reader of the opinions without arguing for one side or another.

Subject of Passage

The passages on the test will cover any of these four main topics: careers, humanities, science, history/social studies.

Passages about careers are usually informative pieces about popular career fields, such as web development or nursing, or career trends, such as a widespread interest in a new job field. Career pieces will not be workplace memos or other documents specific to only one job. Humanities passages can relate to music, art, literature, etc. Anything to do with fine art and the letters will fall under this category. Scientific passages will cover scientific discoveries or the foundations of sciences (biology, physics, etc.), but can be presented in a number of ways. For example, they can recount a scientific event in history (narrative), can support a certain scientific claim (argumentative), or can simply explain a scientific method (informative). Passages about history or the social studies, just like scientific passages, can be presented in different ways but will discuss things like psychology, anthropology, and archeology, to name a few.

Passage Difficulty and Complexity

To test your abilities, the passage difficulty will vary from passage to passage. Some may be straightforward with simple language, while another may be complex and require you to follow a complicated path. There will always be a variety in passage difficulty, so don’t worry that you will be presented with four difficult passages on one test. Remember that no prior knowledge is required to effectively answer the questions, only the ability to comprehensively read and analyze.

Use of Graphics

Some passages or questions may include a graph or a table. In these cases, you are required to study the graphic to interpret the information given. The graph will relate to and support the passage, and you will often be asked to change a sentence to reflect the information given on the graph.

Order of Questions

Questions will appear in chronological order in terms of the passage order, meaning that questions addressing the first paragraph in a passage will appear first. Questions that test your knowledge of the passage as a whole will always come at the end of the sequence of questions. Graphic-related questions may appear in any order, but rest assured they will always appear in the most logical placement within the passage.


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