How the Past Perfect is Tested on the SAT: The Definitive Guide

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One of the most confusing concepts that shows up on the writing section is the past perfect tense. Even those who know how to use it (me…) are easily tripped up by it. After all, there are many sentences in which the past perfect is used when the past simple tense would do just fine. So when is the past perfect required? And more importantly, how will the SAT test you on it?

The Past Perfect

The past perfect tense (had + –ed) is used to designate the order of two events that happened in the past. For example,

I had danced the night away by the time I fell asleep.

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The first event, dancing, completed before the second event, falling asleep. Note that for the past perfect to be used, the two events MUST be in the past. It doesn’t apply when we’re dealing with events in the present or future.

Where the Confusion Comes In

Take a look at this sentence:

A) I had looked up the word before I recited its definition.

Perfectly fine use of the past perfect. The “looking” occurred before you “recited” the definition. But you might wonder why we can’t just use the simple past:

B) I looked up the word before I recited its definition.

Here’s the thing: you can. This sentence is perfectly fine. You can use either the past perfect or the simple past, and if you saw either (A) or (B) on the SAT, you would choose No Error. Here’s another one:

C) We presented the results of the research we had done.
D) We presented the results of the research we did.

Both (C) and (D) are perfectly fine. Here’s the rule:

If the sequence is clear, chronological, or can be logically inferred, the past perfect is not needed.

Notice that (A) has the word “before”, clearly indicating the order and thus making the past perfect unnecessary. Similarly, the order of events is sentence (C) is obvious. You can only present the results after the research is done. Again, the past perfect is not needed.

Lastly, consider this sentence:

I played tennis, watched a movie, and then went home.

These are all sequential past events, so why isn’t the past perfect being used? Well, they occur in chronological order, so all you need is the simple past. In fact, you wouldn’t ever really say:

I had played tennis, watched a movie, and then went home.

What’s worth noting is that when you DO use the past perfect when it’s optional, it gives added emphasis to the order of events.

So when is the past perfect necessary?

The past perfect is necessary when the order is not obvious. For example,

When I first met her, I gave up on love.

Now this sentence is a little weird. It’s not clear what order things happen in. Did you meet her and then give up on love? More likely, you gave up on love before you met her (setting the scene for a nice romance novel…). So to properly convey that, you MUST use the past perfect:

When I first met her, I had given up on love.

How the Past Perfect is tested on the SAT

As I mentioned above, there are many situations where the past perfect can be replaced by the simple past. You do not need to worry about these situations. The SAT will never ask you to make the call between simple past and past perfect when it could go either way.

There will always be some other factor to consider. For example, in Blue Book Test #7 Section 4:

21) Because the flood has made the bridge inaccessible toA automobiles and pedestrians alikeB, we had rentedC a small boat to reachD the island. No errorE

In this question, the error is “we had rented” (past perfect). It should be replaced with “we rented” (simple past), not because of any sequence issues but because the main verb is “has made” (present perfect). It makes no sense to use the past perfect here because we’re not talking about two events that finished in the past. The main verb “has made” ensures that there is no ambiguity with the tenses. This is how the SAT will test you on the past perfect. It will not test you on sentences where it can go either way.

Here’s another example from Test #3 Section 6:

26) Traffic was heavy, so by the time Brianne finally arrived atA the theater, we waitedB for her for an hour, missingC the entireD first act of the play. No errorE

In this question, you might think that the SAT is asking you to make the call between simple past (“waited”) and past perfect (“had waited”), but again, there’s another factor at play. The past-tense verb “waited” does not appropriately indicate a continuous action, which is what we want here. And if we just used “had waited”, that would imply that we finished waiting before we got a seat, which is nonsensical. The correct replacement is “had been waiting”.

Here’s my analysis for one final question, Test #3 Section 6:

14) Mr. Johnson’s assumption that a teenager had robbed his house being unfoundedA, forB the witnesses described the person they had seenC fleeing as a womanD in her 40s. No errorE

The answer is obviously (A), but don’t think for a moment that “had seen” (past perfect) should be changed to “saw” (simple past). That would be an over-correction as “had seen” and “saw” would both be grammatically correct.


Hopefully by now, you have a better sense of the past perfect and how the SAT will test you on it. If you’re still a bit confused, just remember that the past perfect is not a concept that is tested very frequently and even when it is, you won’t ever have to make the call between simple past and past perfect when it could go either way.

8 thoughts on “How the Past Perfect is Tested on the SAT: The Definitive Guide

  1. still dont get number 26. What do you mean by “we finished waiting before we got a seat?” Isn’t it fine just to have had waited? eating is a continuous task (not instantaneous) and you would just say “by the time she came, I had eaten my lunch.” ? Thanks for the help

    • Yes, you can say:

      “By the time she came, I had eaten my lunch.”

      That would mean you first finished your lunch. Then she came.

      However, you can’t say:

      “By the she came, we had waited for her for over an hour.”

      That would mean you finished waiting. Then she came. But how can you finish waiting for her before she comes. You can’t stop waiting for her while you are waiting for her. It would contradict the definition of “waiting.”

      Hope that helps.

        • I’ve seen that tested only once in over 30 past exams. That tense is something that could show up in sentences but it’s not something they go out of their way to actually test. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  2. This is so useful. I’ve just started scouring your website as I try to cram as much writing information as I can before the test next week.
    It was my lowest section with a 620 and I’m hoping to get it up to an 800.

  3. I don’t really get why for 21 ,”we had rented a small boat” needs to be changed to “we rented a small boat.” Logically, how does it affect the context of the question???

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