Written By: Rodrigo Pacheco-McEvoy
If you’re thinking about starting your test prep journey—or even if your journey is well underway—I’ve got a few tried and tested tips for the standardized writing tests (known as the Writing and Language Test on the SAT and as the English Test on the ACT). Although these sections form part of two different exams, they essentially test the same types of skills and therefore require the same type of preparation. The following isn’t an exhaustive list of tips, but it should give you a sense of what to expect and how to prepare for these standardized writing tests.
- Familiarize yourself with the different question types. Most of the questions on the writing tests lack actual questions. Instead, you’re simply given a number of answer choices and are expected to know how to respond. Sometimes, the answer choices are all grammatically correct, so identifying the right answers isn’t always as clear-cut as one might think. That’s why the first step is figuring out what each question wants you to do.
There are two general types of questions: those that ask about standard English conventions (SEC) and those that ask about the expression of ideas (EOI). SEC questions tend to be more straightforward (not to say that they can’t be tricky) because they rely on the rules and conventions of writing. EOI questions require you to think rhetorically, that is, to think about context, purpose, and meaning.
- Become a punctuation and grammar wizard. About half of the questions on the writing tests are SEC questions, which means that you’ll need to have a really good grasp of punctuation and grammatical rules. It certainly helps to have a good understanding of the building blocks of sentences—phrases and clauses—because different punctuation rules apply to each. SEC questions also include verbs, modifiers, pronouns, and prepositions, and all of these elements also involve very specific grammatical rules.
- Learn to put yourself in the author’s shoes. In order to do well on EOI questions, you’ll need to think critically about the function of sentences, paragraphs, and passages. You might ask yourself, for instance, what is the author’s goal in this paragraph? Or what does the author hope to achieve in this passage? Thinking about rhetoric will specifically help you with questions that ask about topic sentences, transitions, word choice, and the logical progression of ideas.
- Practice and review. Punctuation and grammatical rules are far from intuitive, and so are the rhetorical principles of academic writing, which is why it’s important to practice as much as possible. When students look over their practice tests and passages, I always encourage them to review any questions that they might’ve found tricky—even if they got those questions correct—because ultimately you should be able to make sense of all of the correct answers.
It’s not always easy to prepare for these tests without guidance. At Hamilton, we’re always happy to help, so let us know if we can assist you on your test prep journey!