The Writing Skills section of the PSAT/NMSQT can present the largest challenge for students who have trouble with identifying grammatical errors or figuring out the best way to phrase a sentence. Whereas there are two Critical Reading and Math sections on every PSAT/NMSQT, there is only one Writing Skills section, but at half an hour long, it is five minutes longer than the other sections of the test. The section contains thirty-nine questions in a standard ratio: fourteen of these questions ask students to identify sentence errors, twenty ask students to improve sentences, and five ask them to improve paragraphs. Altogether, students are given about forty-five seconds per question, meaning that there is not much extra time provided during which one can deliberate about which answer choice sounds better or is more efficient. Perhaps surprising given the name of the section, nowhere on the Writing Skills section are you asked to compose an essay or provide an extended response. Nowhere on any of its sections does the PSAT/NMSQT ask students to compose a written response; it is entirely multiple-choice, which helps allow for the speedy processing of answer sheets.
Let’s take a look at each of the question types featured on the PSAT/NMSQT’s Writing Skills test to give you a better idea of what you will be up against on test day and which you may want to focus on based on your specific strengths and weaknesses. The first question type, Identifying Sentence Errors, provides you with a sentence, four parts of which are underlined and represented as answer choices. There is also a fifth answer choice, “No error.” For these questions, you need to pick out the part of the sentence that contains a grammatical error. If the sentence is correctly written, you choose “No error” to get the question correct. These questions may initially seem imposing, but remember: if an error is there, it is in one of the underlined portions, and you do not have to be able to name or describe the error whatsoever—you just have to be able to recognize it!
The second question type, Improving Sentences, shifts slightly from this model. Like the Identifying Sentence Error questions, an Improving Sentences question provides students a sentence; however, only one part of this sentence is underlined, and the answer choices provide four different ways to rephrase or change the underlined portion of the sentence. One of the answer choices makes no change whatsoever to the underlined portion. If you think there is an error in the underlined part of the sentence, choose the answer that corrects it. If the sentence is correct, pick the answer that makes no changes. While this may seem much more difficult a task than recognizing sentence errors, realize that if the sentence contains an error, it has to be underlined. If you are convinced the sentence is incorrectly written, make sure to take the time to read all of the answer choices and try them out in context. Rushing can make these questions especially difficult, as the answer choices will likely look very similar to one another. It’s best to slow down and consider each question carefully so as not to make avoidable mistakes.
The final question type, Improving Paragraphs, may be the most challenging because it has a focus quite different from the section’s two other question types. These questions may direct your attention to a specific part of a paragraph and ask about the best way to phrase it, or they may ask you to pick out the best transition between paragraphs, the best place to insert a sentence, or the best way to divide one sentence into two. The broader focus of these questions often asks students to make larger-scale editorial decisions that require them to have a good grasp of how a piece of writing is functioning at the level of sentences, at the level of paragraphs, and as a whole, as well as how a change made at one of these scales affects the others.
If you are worried that you are less prepared to face one of these question types than the others, or want some guidance on how to approach questions of a given type, Varsity Tutors can help. On our Learning Tools website, we offer PSAT Writing Skills help in the form of model questions complete with revealed answers and full explanations. You can choose to review PSAT Writing Skills content at the level of specificity that works best for you. Want to work on Improving Paragraphs questions? You can do that. Want to focus on Improving Sentence questions about fixing comma splices? You can do that as well. Sometimes all you need to make a breakthrough in your understanding of a grammatical concept is a good number of well-explained examples, and Varsity Tutors’ free PSAT Writing Skills help provides just that for each topic covered on the exam.