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Writing Skills on the PSAT

Sure, you can write. But can you figure out what’s wrong with another person’s writing? (That’s the hard part.)

Contrary to its title, the Writing Skills section (one of three on the PSAT) is not asking you to write anything, per se. It simply identifies whether or not you understand the basics of writing like grammar, usage, mechanics, word choice, coherence, organization, idiom, etc.

You know – all that junk you slept through during English last year.

If you did, that’s okay. Below is a review of the Writing Skills section, and you will (I repeat – you will) be tested on this material if you’re taking the PSAT. If you need help with Critical Reading or Math, I suggest you try to focus on one issue at a time! Sheez!

Writing Skills Basics

This section on the PSAT, will take you about 30 minutes to finish, and can earn you between 20 and 80 points, which accounts for one third of your PSAT score. I know, I know. That’s a lot of points to stake on grammar and word choice, but what can you do? I didn’t make the test.

Here’s the good news: the average Writing Skills score for 2008 was right around a 46 for juniors and a 41 for sophomores, so most of your fellow PSAT-takers are getting about half right, half wrong.

You’ll have one section with 39 questions on this baby, and three different types of questions to answer: identifying sentence errors, improving sentences, and improving paragraphs. So let’s see a breakdown of what those PSAT question types are.

Identifying Sentence Errors

  • Work on these first. Because they are shorter, these are the easiest questions on the Writing Skills section and require less time than the other two types.
  • They get harder. As you answer them in order, which you will if you’re test-savvy, they will become increasingly more difficult. So it’s good to get your feet wet on the first ones, because you’ll have an easier time getting them right. (Getting things right = a higher score.)
  • What they measure: These are designed to test your knowledge of grammar, usage, word choice, and idiom (talking up a storm, bull in a china shop, etc.). You won’t be asked to identify grammatical terms, nor will your capitalization or spelling be measured, although it wouldn’t hurt, right?
  • Question set-up: Each question is a sentence with five underlined words or phrases in it. Your job is to figure out which underlined section has the error. If there is no error, you’ll have a “no error” choice. Easy, huh?Identifying Sentence Errors Example:

    Ordinarily, you’d see parts of the sentence underlined with a letter placed beneath each choice, but since that’s impossible in this format, I will italicize the options for you and list them underneath. All you’ll have to do is bubble in the corresponding circle on the real PSAT.

    The fields have soil so rich that corn growing here commonly had stood more than six feet tallNo error
    A. so rich that
    B. growing here
    C. had stood
    D. tall
    E. No errorThe correct choice is C.

    Improving Sentences

  • Work on these second. Because these are shorter than the improving paragraphs questions, these should be the questions you work on second. Remember, you can’t get points for a question you don’t answer, so start easy and then move on.
  • They get harder. Again, the first sentence-improving questions you see will be easier than the last ones, so answer them in order so you get some practice.
  • What they measure: Here, you’ll be tested on understanding clarity, how words fit together, proper placement of parts of speech, and the like. These are not testing your creativity, so if the answer choice you’ve selected changes the meaning of the sentence, choose again! That’s the wrong answer.
  • Question set-up: Each question will be a sentence with one longer underlined portion. Your job is to decide if that underlined portion sounds great the way it is, or if you can improve it by choosing on of the five choices listed below.Improving Sentences Example:

    Here’s a hint for solving: if the underlined portion sounds great the way it is, choose answer “A”. “A” will always be an exact replica of the underlined part of the sentence. Again, since I can’t underline, I’ll italicize the portion in question for you.

    Certain shipwrecks have a particular fascination for those people which have a belief in finding the treasure in them.
    A. which have a belief in finding the treasure in them
    B. that belief there is treasure to be found in them
    C. who believe they hold treasure and that they can find it
    D. who believe that there is treasure to be found in them
    E. who believe about treasure to be found in themThe correct choice is D.

  • Improving Paragraphs
  • Work on these last. Because these are longest out of the three types of questions on the Writing Skills section of the PSAT, these should be last ones you answer.
  • They get harder. By now, this isn’t news anymore, so answer the questions in order.
  • What they measure: These questions will kind of look like the passage-based reading sections on the Critical Reading portion of the PSAT because they are long paragraphs, but instead of measuring your reading skills, they predominantly test your ability to find clarity, cohesiveness, proper grammar, and mechanics in a longer passage.
  • Question set-up: Each question will start with a paragraph you must read. For some of the questions, part of the paragraph (either a sentence or part of a sentence) will be underlined. You’ll have to decide if the underlined portion sounds fine the way it is, or if one of the answer choices below would make more sense. In other questions, you’ll be asked to strengthen the paragraph as a whole.Improving Paragraphs Example:

    In this part, you’ll get two types of paragraph-improving questions. Answer the questions that ask you to improve individual sentences first, then move on to the questions that ask you to strengthen the passage as a whole – these are much harder.


    (1) Until the discovery of the Rosetta stone, the hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Egyptians was indecipherable to scholars. (2) Egyptian hieroglyphic writing died out in the third century A.D. (3) The ancient Egyptian religion died out. (4) Priests were the ones who mostly used this type of writing. (5) For centuries afterward, no one knew how to read the many inscriptions on Egyptian temple walls. (6) Nevertheless, in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was found near the town of Rashid (called Rosetta by the English) in the Nile Delta in Egypt. (7) Here was the key to deciphering hieroglyphic writing.

    Question: Which of the following is the best way to combine sentences 2, 3, and 4 (reproduced below) in order to convey clearly the relationship of the ideas?

    Egyptian hieroglyphic writing died out in the third century A.D. The ancient Egyptian religion died out. Priests were the ones who mostly used this type of writing.
    A. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, used mainly by priests, died out in the third century A.D. along with the ancient Egyptian religion.
    B. The ancient Egyptian religion died out in the third century A.D., as did Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, and it had been used mainly by priests.
    C. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the ancient Egyptian religion died out in the third century A.D., being used primarily by the priests.
    D. In the third century A.D., Egyptian hieroglyphic writing died out, but the ancient religion’s priests were who used it most, and it ceased.
    E. Dying out in the third century A.D. was Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, the same time as the ancient Egyptian religion and its priests, the primary users.The correct choice is A.