The SAT writing section is pretty intensely focused on grammar nitty-gritty. If you want to ace it, or even score over 600, you’re going to need to know the rules. Most of the multiple choice questions hone in on how well you know things, like passive vs. active verbs or subject-verb agreement.
Take a look at this “identifying errors” question, for example:
After hours of futile debate, the committee has decided to postpone further discussion of the resolution until their next meeting. No error
Which of the underlined parts is wrong? I wouldn’t blame you if you had to look twice, since this would be a pretty normal sentence in most casual English. But the SAT doesn’t really care about what’s conversational or normal; it cares about what’s grammatically “correct.” And in the sentence above, we have a plural pronoun, “their,” referring back to a singular noun, “the committee.” That fact makes it wrong, even if it seems like a reasonable enough sentence.
But that’s all about the writing multiple choice. The SAT essay, by comparison, involves very little grammar knowledge. In fact, you could write a sentence similar to the one above — a sentence that the SAT makers consider absolutely wrong — and still get a perfect score.
Let’s take a closer look at why that is.
1) Graders Read Fast
It doesn’t matter how awesome your essay is or how much effort you put into it — the graders are barely going to look at it. What’s that? You wrote your essay in your own blood? The graders didn’t even notice, because they each spent just two or three minutes reading it.
We’ve all had the experience of reading right through an error or typo and not even noticing. That happens constantly among essay graders, because they have to go at such a fast clip that they are bound to just pass by some little problems. That’s part of why spelling isn’t particularly important. Its just too easy to pass by (like the missing apostrophe from “it’s” in this sentence).
2) Grammar Can Be Subtle
Even if your essay goes to a couple of eagle-eyed essay graders, the chances are that their grammar isn’t perfect. The college board doesn’t hire the same caliber of editors to grade essays as they do to write practice questions.
Let’s say you nail the writing multiple choice, getting almost every single question right. Even if that doesn’t really describe you, just roll with it. In that case, there’s a pretty good chance that the people reading your essay would have gotten lower scores than you did on the writing multiple choice.
3) Students Write Fast
When you’ve only got 25 minutes to plan and pump out two solid pages — writing by hand, nonetheless — you have to write extremely fast. The highest scoring essays tend to be pretty long, too; basically, the longer your essay is, the better.
That means that the highest scoring essays tend to also be ones that have a few errors. How else, after all, do you expect that student to fill both pages? They have to write so quickly that a few little problem spots come up.
Meanwhile, if you write slowly and carefully edit your sentences, you’re going to have a shorter essay and the reader might not even notice your grammatical precision.
All of the above refers to small grammatical errors that you can make when writing under pressure. It does not apply to constant, large errors. If English is not your first language, for example, your grammar is definitely important. It’s easy to make many noticeable mistakes when writing in a foreign language.
And even if English is your mother tongue, it’s still possible for bad grammar to hurt you. Write in a formal, academic style. Don’t use double negatives, for instance. You can’t forget about grammar completely — you just don’t have to live up to the multiple choice section’s perfectionist standards.