Deep Dive Into the Redesigned SAT: Writing Section

Dr. Ashleigh D. Barnes, University Select LLC

The new SAT 1600 has not only students, but also parents and educators anxious. Prepping for standardized testing is grounded in degrees of predictability. In other words, test prep is all about knowing what to expect on test day. A new test means a lesser degree of predictability, and therefore greater difficulty in preparation. How do students prep for and educators best teach to a test that will debut in March 2016?

The short answer is that there is more predictability than the label “new” would suggest. As Dr. Callie Batts-Maddox noted, the SAT has seen numerous revisions, and both students and educators were able to adapt. This article compares the old SAT 2400 Writing section and the current ACT English Section to the new SAT 1600 Writing section, outlined in four sample tests recently released by the College Board.

Within the test prep industry, the received wisdom is that the SAT 1600 has moved—in form and content—closer to the ACT. However, current analyses have tended to be superficial. To dig deeper, this article draws on University Select’s categorization and statistical analysis of the question types in publicly available SAT 2400 Writing, ACT English, and SAT 1600 Writing tests. The article draws 2 main conclusions:

·      The new SAT 1600 Writing Section is very different, in structure and emphasis, as compared to the old SAT 2400 Writing Section.

·      An analysis of question categories and their distribution shows that the SAT 1600 Writing Section is structurally and substantively similar to the ACT English Test (with just 4 noticeable points of difference, outlined below).

Notably, the statistical similarity between the SAT 1600 Writing Section and the ACT English Test does not hold true for corresponding Critical Reading or Math sections. Follow our blog series to understand how other SAT 1600 sections are both new—and very different—from the ACT.



The structural changes to the SAT 1600 Writing Section are best explained in table form:

As shown in the table, the SAT 1600 and the ACT separate and make optional the essay, whereas the essay is required, and a component of the Writing score, on the SAT 2400. The SAT 1600 does, however, combine the writing and reading scores, a departure in form relative to the SAT 2400 and the ACT. The SAT 1600 has five fewer writing questions overall, allowing students a slightly longer period of time per question. The SAT 1600 allows significantly more time per question as compared to the ACT.

What Structural Changes Will Mean for Test Takers

There are two major structural differences between the SAT 2400 and SAT 1600. First, while less than 20% of the SAT 2400 asked paragraph based questions, the SAT 1600 is entirely passage based. In this, the SAT 1600’s format all but copies that of the ACT English Test. Second, the SAT 1600 no longer clearly separates the improving sentences (editing) questions from the grammar questions.

There is good news and bad news for students adapting to these changes: the good news is that students will no longer asked to wade through those long, horribly complex sentences in identifying sentences errors. The bad news is that students will not be given any clear direction on whether a question requires them to edit for style or correct for grammar. Luckily, the ACT also mixes editing and grammar questions together. In theory, approaches to the ACT can be utilized for handling this mix of grammar and editing questions, as well as responding to a passage based question format.



While the substance of what is tested on the SAT 1600 as compared to the SAT 2400 remains predominantly unchanged, the extent to which each element is tested has been altered completely. In other words, what is important on the SAT 2400 is different from what is important on the SAT 1600. Most notably for test prep purposes, the SAT 1600 closely mirrors the substance of the ACT English Test, with four minor differences. Our statistical analysis of the types of questions that populate the SAT 1600 Writing Test lends credence to the claim the SAT 1600 Writing Section not only reflects the structure, but also the emphasis of the ACT English Test.[1]

Logical Flow Questions

The SAT 2400 includes a mere 3 questions per test (approximately 6%) on the relationship between sentences in a paragraph, or logical flow. The SAT 1600, by contrast, places significantly greater emphasis on logical flow, or improving “the development, organization, and use of language in the passages”.[2] Indeed, logical flow questions account for the largest question category, or 34%, according to the sample tests released by the College Board. Interestingly, the ACT includes—on average—a statistically identical 34% logical flow questions in its English Test.

Editing Questions

The SAT 1600 continues to require students to edit sentences using many of the same principles from the SAT 2400. However, the SAT 1600 contains 60% fewer editing sentence questions than the SAT 2400, much closer to the level required by the ACT English Test. The emphasis for both the SAT 1600 and ACT is on editing passages and the logical flow within those passages.

In a point of difference, the SAT 1600 appears to place unique emphasis on Word Choice Questions (the new incarnation of what was once vocab-based Sentence Completion Questions, approximately 11%). The ACT English Test contains only 3% word choice questions, and the SAT 2400--in the Writing section, none.

Grammar Questions

A substantive change for the Standard English Convention or “grammar, usage, and punctuation”,[3] is that technical punctuation usage, not meaningfully tested on the SAT 2400,[4] now comprises approximately 13% of the questions on the SAT 1600, mirroring the ACT’s 14%. While there are slight differences in the distribution of punctuation questions, both tests primarily focus on the use of the comma.

Interestingly, the SAT 1600 tests significantly less grammar beyond punctuation, and tends to focus on a smaller set of grammar rules as compared to both the SAT 2400 and the ACT.


Finally, unlike the SAT 2400 and the ACT, the SAT 1600 writing section includes charts and graphs. For those who feel uncomfortable handling questions that require you to either match the language in the chart to a possible answer or identifying a plausible interpretation of the graph or chart – be comforted to know that of the four sample tests provided by the College Board, only 3% of the questions (or 1.5 questions per test) relate to charts and graphs.



While it is evident that the SAT is changing, it is not evident that those changes will make preparation for the new SAT as arduous as it seems. The content of the new SAT can be deduced from the Sample Tests provided by the College Board, available on Khan Academy (and on our website!). Based on our evaluation of these tests, the new SAT 1600 Writing Section calls for strategies that have already been developed, whether for the old SAT 2400 Writing Section or the current ACT English Test. Students will continue to improve paragraphs – calling upon techniques developed for the old SAT as well as the current ACT. Students will continue to focus on grammar, but now with greater emphasis on techniques for punctuation developed for the current ACT. And best of all – techniques developed for the ACT English to distinguish between grammar and editing questions can be reliably employed for the SAT 1600 Writing section. Possibly the only brand new component, which is neither on the SAT 2400 nor the ACT, is the SAT 1600’s inclusion of graphs and charts in the writing section! Again – this is but a miniscule fraction of the writing section. All in all students and educators should feel pretty confident not only in what to expect in the SAT 1600 Writing Section—they should feel increasingly confident in how to best prepare for this section!


[1] Notably, however, our analysis is limited to the similarity of question types, and the frequency of their occurrence. This does not necessarily equate to a claim that the SAT 1600 Writing Section is harder, easier, or on par with the ACT English Test in terms of the average level of difficulty for each question. 

[2], p.58.

[3], p.58.

[4] On the SAT 2400, questions relating to the use of the punctuation mostly emphasized editing techniques, not technical grammatical correctness.