I'm compelled, as I was when I wrote a similar post about the math section, to begin by saying this: If you're striving for an 800 as a means to an end (admission to the school of your choice, etc.) you should know that close is probably good enough. An 800 is unlikely to open any doors that a score in the high 700s would not. I can relate to anyone who wants to hit 800 just to say she did it—I was that kind of student in high school, too—but it would be irresponsible of me to begin this post with anything other than a disclaimer that if you're doing this for anything other than the thrill of the chase, you might look back at this time and think that you could have been spending this time doing something that might have brought you more personal satisfaction.
Phew! Now that we've got that over with, are you ready for a list of bullet points?!
- You need to know all the common rules like the back of your hand. This should go without saying, but you absolutely must be able to spot a dangling modifier, a run-on, or a comparison error in your sleep. In fact, you should know everything on this page, and all the pages it links to. Want it all broken down even finer? Get Erica's book.
- Learn from every mistake. Some questions are trickier than others, but if you're shooting for perfection then there's no such thing as a bogus question. Every mistake is an opportunity not to make a similar mistake. Don't get mad, get even.
- Remember that the SAT loves to introduce new problems in the answer choices. In the Sentence Improvement section, one of the easiest ways to miss a question is to pick a choice that fixes the original problem, but introduces a new one (often a run-on). Make sure you read the sentence again with your choice inserted before moving on.
- Leave no blanks. I advocate guessing in most cases, but especially in this one. If you're even thinking about 800, then you should be able to correctly eliminate AT LEAST one incorrect choice on even the hardest problems. What's more, if you've got a realistic shot at 800, then you won't be missing enough to cost yourself points. A blank, in that case, is just as bad as an incorrect guess—so at least give yourself the chance at getting the question right.
- The essay is important. Look, I know as well as anyone that it's no fun to write a practice essay. And I've worked with enough students to know that no matter how many times I tell them to do a WHOLE test before I see them again, I've got maybe a 50/50 chance of them writing an essay. Practicing the essay is no fun. But if you don't do it, then you're putting yourself in the unfortunate position of sitting in your exam room at 8 AM with sweaty palms and no idea what to write. Or hand cramps and not enough time/space to fit in everything you want to say. You need to practice writing concise, convincing arguments in 25 minutes. If you don't, you won't.
- The essay is not that important. You can get a 9 on your essay and still hit 800 with a perfect performance on the multiple choice section. So don't obsess over scoring a 12. I've read essays I thought were awful that got 12s, and I've read essays I thought were great that didn't get 12s. You're at the mercy of nameless, faceless, overworked graders. If you can consistently write essays that score 10 or better, focus your energies on grammar rules and try to ace the multiple choice.
- Don't neglect the paragraph improvement section. It's only 6 questions per test, so it's easy to brush off preparing for this section. If you're shooting for 800, though, then you can't afford to be caught flat-footed. Remember that "in context" means you're looking for sentences that make sense in the paragraph, and that transition nicely from the sentence before them, and into the sentence after them.
- Don't sweat idioms. Seriously, there are an incredible number of idioms that the SAT could test, but unlike vocabulary words which appear over and over again, there's not much of a pattern to the idioms that are tested. That's the bad news. The good news is that idiom questions are rare (usually 1 to 3 per test) and that you'll often be able to get them by ear. Don't become obsessed with idioms, because you'll drive yourself crazy and start thinking all kinds of perfectly constructed phrases "sound funny." Even if you miss an idiom question or two, you can still get an 800; the writing section is forgiving like that. So try to relax about idioms. If you want to do something productive that might have the happy side effect of making you better at spotting idiom errors, read lots of sophisticated writing; you might be exposed to a few idioms you haven't seen before. And hey, you might also pick up some good vocabulary along the way. Reading is a good thing.
...Am I missing anything?