Thinking Like a Test-Maker: SAT Writing and ACT English Tests

When you’re studying for a standardized test, you may find it hard to imagine the process by which the test came together.

Official-looking documents like exams, textbooks, and guidebooks sometimes feel like they materialized out of thin air, but are really the product of the work of human beings, with their own habits, assumptions, and priorities.

If you can get into the mindset of a test-maker as you prepare for the ACT or SAT, you’ll be better prepared for the test on the day that you write it. Today we’ll be applying that principle to some of the questions you’ll find on the SAT Writing and ACT English tests.

First, let’s discuss how Writing and English passages are made.

Unlike Reading passages, which are sourced from newspapers, magazines, novels, and scientific journals, Writing and English passages are written by the test-makers themselves. Once a passage is finished, the test-makers will introduce errors. In other words, the errors aren’t “built in” to the passage.

This information can be especially helpful to keep in mind when you’re solving questions involving the adding, revising, or removing of sentences or phrases. The four incorrect options are all written after the passage as a whole, meaning that they can sometimes stick out stylistically like daubs of touch-up paint that haven’t dried yet; you can just tell that they were added later.

Consider this example, Question 14 on the Writing section of the College Board’s 8th free test:

Some evidence suggests that the earliest version of the dance was an attempt to ward off an evil spirit; lions are obviously very fierce.

Even without reading the rest of the passage, you might be able to tell that something’s not right—that this daub of paint, so to speak, was added later. The first clause is long, but the following clause is much shorter, giving the sentence an unbalanced, clunky rhythm. The author could have easily written “…spirit, as lions are obviously very fierce” instead of using a disruptive, heavy-duty piece of punctuation like a semicolon. You get the same unbalanced effect if you try the (B) choice, “the evil spirit was called Nian.”

The takeaway from this example is that you can tentatively rule out answers on the basis of a gut feeling that they don’t make for a good sentence. Of course this strategy won’t always apply—don’t judge so quickly that you miss an important detail—but with enough practice, thinking like a test-maker can help you recognize the underlying patterns of English and Writing tests.

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