Sat Essay Scoring 2-12

SAT Essay scoring can be tricky to figure out. Maybe you've already created target goals for your SAT score, following our guide, so you at least have that score goal set.

But where does your essay score fit into all this? What is a good SAT essay score? This article will answer those questions.

Note: The information in this article is for the old (pre-March-2016) SAT essay, which was scored out of 12 and part of the Writing section. Scores for the March 2016 SAT were only released May 10th, 2016, which means that data on percentiles and averages aren't going to be available for a while yet. We'll update this article as soon as the information comes out.

feature image credit: Doing Great by Eli Christman, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

What Is the SAT Essay Out Of?

Before you can know what a good SAT essay score is, you need to know how many points you can get total on the essay. So what's the SAT essay out of?

Currently, the SAT essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 6 by two graders, for a total essay score out of 12. Your essay is scored holistically, which means you don’t get bumped down to a certain essay grade if you make, for instance, a certain number of comma errors. Instead, SAT essay scorers use the SAT essay rubric to grade your essay as a whole.

Note: SAT essay scoring will change beginning with the March 2016 SAT. For more information on that change, read our other articles on the new SAT essay prompts and the new SAT essay.

 

What Is a Good SAT Essay Score?

As with most things on the SAT, a good essay score depends on what your goals are. These goals should be concrete and determined by the colleges you’re applying to - after all, if your reach schools have an average essay score of 9, then there's no need to burn yourself out trying to get that elusive 12.

To some extent, your essay score goal will also be influenced by your performance on the multiple choice section of SAT Writing. If you do better on multiple-choice questions, you may be able to cut yourself some slack in the essay department.

But how do figure out what your SAT Writing (and SAT essay) goals should be? Use our three-step process, explained below.

 

Step 1: Know Your Target SAT Writing Score

If you’ve read our free ebook on calculating your target SAT score, you may already have figured out your target SAT Writing score. If not, it's time to calculate it! I'll walk through the process using the example of Virginia Commonwealth Unversity.

First, download this worksheet. It's designed for calculating your target SAT score out of 2400, so you'll have to modify it a little bit. Fill in the schools you want to apply to in the leftmost column. Here's what the worksheet will look like for Virginia Commonwealth University:

 

 

Next, google "[name of school] average SAT writing" to get the middle 50% of all SAT Writing scores. For instance, if you're interested in Virginia Commonwealth University, you'd do the following search:

 

 

There'll usually be a collegeapps.about.com link that has this information. Sometimes (as you can see above) the college website will also pop up, so you can use that to double-check your numbers. You're looking for the 25th and 75th percentile scores on the SAT Writing section.

A quick refresher on what "percentile scores" mean: 25th percentile means that 25% of the students attending have a score at or below that number (below average). The 75th percentile means that 75% of students have a score at or below that number (above average). In essence, the 25th/75th percentile score range covers the middle 50% of all students admitted to Virginia Commonwealth University.

If the sites don’t list a specific SAT Writing score range, you can divide the top and bottom of the overall SAT score range by 3 to get a general idea of what your Writing score needs to be. In this case, there is information about the SAT Writing score range, so we can fill that in on the worksheet:

 

 

Do the same for all of the schools you want to apply to. Include dream or “reach” schools, but don’t include “safety schools” (schools you think you have at least a 90% chance of getting into).

Once you've filled in the information for all of the schools you want to apply to, average the 25th percentile and 75th percentile columns, then choose a target SAT Writing score with that information.

 

 

As it says on the worksheet, we recommend that you take the 75th percentile score as your target SAT Writing score. It'll give you a very strong chance of getting into the schools you’ve listed. If you’re applying to humanities programs, you may even want to consider a higher score target for SAT Writing.

 

Step 2: Find an Official SAT Writing Score Chart

The next step is to take a look at an SAT Writing score chart to find out the range of essay scores that will get you your target SAT Writing score. The chart will differ in precise score differences from test to test, but it can at least give you a broad idea of the range.

Let's say that your target SAT Writing score is 576 (rounded up to 580). I've highlighted this in green in the following SAT Writing score chart (from an official SAT practice test):

 

Writing MC

Raw Score

Essay Raw Score

12

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

0

49

800

800

800

800

790

760

750

730

720

710

690

680

48

800

800

780

770

750

720

710

690

680

670

650

640

47

790

770

760

740

720

700

680

660

650

640

630

620

46

770

750

740

720

700

680

660

650

630

620

610

600

45

750

740

720

710

690

660

650

630

620

610

590

580

44

740

730

710

690

670

650

630

620

600

590

580

570

43

730

710

700

680

660

640

620

600

590

580

560

550

42

720

700

680

670

650

630

610

590

580

570

550

540

41

700

690

670

660

640

610

600

580

570

560

540

530

40

690

680

660

650

630

600

590

570

560

550

530

520

39

690

670

650

640

620

590

580

560

550

540

520

510

38

680

660

640

630

610

590

570

550

540

530

510

500

37

670

650

640

620

600

580

560

540

530

520

500

490

36

660

640

630

610

590

570

550

530

520

510

490

490

35

650

640

620

600

580

560

540

530

510

500

490

480

34

640

630

610

590

570

550

530

520

510

490

480

470

33

630

620

600

590

570

540

530

510

500

490

470

460

32

630

610

600

580

560

540

520

500

490

480

460

450

31

620

600

590

570

550

530

510

500

480

470

460

450

30

610

600

580

560

540

520

500

490

480

460

450

440

29

610

590

570

560

540

520

500

480

470

460

440

430

28

600

580

570

550

530

510

490

470

460

450

430

420

27

590

580

560

540

520

500

480

470

450

440

430

420

26

580

570

550

540

510

490

480

460

450

440

420

410

25

580

560

550

530

510

490

470

450

440

430

410

400

24

570

550

540

520

500

480

460

450

430

420

410

400

23

560

550

530

510

490

470

450

440

430

410

400

390

22

560

540

520

510

490

470

450

430

420

410

390

380

21

550

530

520

500

480

460

440

420

410

400

380

380

20

540

530

510

490

470

450

430

420

400

390

380

370

19

530

520

500

490

470

440

430

410

400

390

370

360

18

530

510

500

480

460

440

420

400

390

380

360

350

17

520

500

490

470

450

430

410

400

380

370

360

350

16

510

500

480

470

440

420

400

390

380

360

350

340

15

510

490

470

460

440

420

400

380

370

360

340

330

14

500

480

470

450

430

410

390

370

360

350

330

330

13

490

480

460

440

420

400

380

370

350

340

330

320

12

480

470

450

440

410

390

380

360

350

340

320

310

11

480

460

440

430

410

390

370

350

340

330

310

300

10

470

450

440

420

400

380

360

340

330

320

300

300

9

460

450

430

410

390

370

350

340

320

310

300

290

8

450

440

420

400

380

360

340

330

320

300

290

280

7

440

430

410

400

380

350

340

320

310

300

280

270

6

440

420

400

390

370

350

330

310

300

290

270

260

5

430

410

390

380

360

340

320

300

290

280

260

250

4

420

400

380

370

350

330

310

290

280

270

250

240

3

410

390

370

360

340

320

300

280

270

260

240

230

2

390

380

360

350

320

300

290

270

260

250

230

220

1

380

370

350

330

310

290

270

260

240

230

220

210

0

370

350

340

320

300

280

260

240

230

220

200

200

-1

350

340

320

300

280

260

240

230

210

200

200

200

-2

340

320

300

290

270

250

230

210

200

200

200

200

-3

320

300

290

270

250

230

210

200

200

200

200

200

-4 and below

310

300

280

260

240

220

200

200

200

200

200

200

 

As you can see in the chart above, there are theoretically over ten ways to get a 580 on SAT Writing, with anywhere from a 25-46 multiple-choice raw score and a 0-12 essay score.

But is it really realistic to expect to score a 12 on the SAT essay if your multiple-choice raw score is only a 25? Probably not. In 2015, the average SAT Writing score was a 484, and the average SAT essay score was a 7 (data from the CollegeBoard; for more on this, read our upcoming article on average SAT Writing scores).

Based on this information (and on an official practice SAT Writing score chart), we've created a table of realistic essay scores you can expect to achieve if you're scoring in a certain range:

 

SAT Writing Score Range

Realistic Essay Score

200-340

4 or below

340-440

5

440-540

6

540-640

7

640-740

8

740-800

9 or above

 

So while you can get a 580 on SAT Writing with an essay score from 0-12, you're more likely to do so if you can score a 7 or above on the essay.

 

Step Three: Take a Timed SAT Writing Section and Score It

The final step is to see what your multiple choice score is now so that you know how much prep time you'll have to put in. To do this, you'll need to take a timed SAT Writing section and calculate your multiple-choice raw score. The best way to get a realistic idea of what your raw multiple-choice Writing score is would be to take a full-length practice test (because it’ll give you an idea of how tired you get from the other sections and how you deal with switching back and forth). If you don't have the time to do this, just take the Writing sections from an official SAT practice test, adhering to the time limits.

How do you calculate your multiple-choice raw Writing score? Use the following equation:

Your raw score = (# of questions you got right - # of questions you got wrong x 0.25)

For example, if you answered 34 (out of49) questions right, skipped 7, and got 8 questions wrong, your raw score would be:

34 – (8 x .25) = 34 – 2 = 32

With a raw score of 32, you can get anything from a 450 to a 630 on SAT Writing, depending on your essay score. If you stay at the same multiple-choice raw score, you'll need an essay score of 9 or above to make your target Writing score of 580. This is a tough essay score to get for anyone, especially considering the average essay score for 2015 was a 7.

As you increase your multiple-choice raw score, the essay score needed to get your target score will drop. To use the example from before, if you're aiming for an SAT Writing score of 580, a realistic essay score would be a 7; according to the SAT Writing score chart above, this means you'll need to increase your raw multiple-choice score to a 37 (a far more manageable goal for most students than raising their essay scores to a 9).

 

Actions To Take

Figure out your target SAT Writing score, using the worksheet above.

Use an SAT Writing scoring scale to figure out the essay grade you’ll need to shoot for to make your target SAT Writing score.

Figure out how you’re doing on the Writing multiple choice questions and how much you need to improve (both on the multiple-choice questions and on the essay) to meet your SAT Writing score goal.

 

What’s Next?

Get the inside scoop on what really goes on behind the scenes with our strategies based on interviews with real essay graders.

Can you write a high-scoring SAT essay in less than a page? Discover how essay length affects your score in this article.

Still confused about how the SAT essay is scored? Try our article that explains the official SAT essay scoring policy and what strategies you should use to take advantage of it.

Curious about how well everyone does on the SAT essay? Read our article to find out what’s an average SAT essay score.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? 

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Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this SAT Essay lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get your SAT essays hand-graded by a master instructor who will give you customized feedback on how you can improve. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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In days of yore, the SAT Essay was very different. For starters, it was a required portion of the exam, scored as part of the writing section. You had a measly 25 minutes to give and support your opinion on such deep philosophical issues as the importance of privacy or whether people perform better when they can use their own methods to complete tasks.

Things are very different now. Along with the SAT itself, the SAT Essay has been completely revamped and revised. Among other things, it is now an optional portion of the exam. In light of this SAT Essay renovation, many schools will no longer require that students take the SAT Essay when they take the exam.

But what do all these changes mean for you? Is the SAT Essay important? Read on for a breakdown of the new SAT changes, information on which schools continue to require the SAT Essay, why schools do and don’t require this portion of the exam, and how to figure out if the SAT Essay is necessary or important for you.

 

The New SAT Essay

The SAT was revised in March 2016. The aspect of the exam that is most changed is the essay. Instead of writing a 25-minute opinion piece, you will have 50 minutes to analyze how the author of a given passage constructs his or her argument.

Additionally, instead of having the exam integrated into your composite score, you will receive a separate score for your exam that does not affect your 1600-point score. The new exam is graded out of 24 points - 8 points each in “Reading” (essentially reading comprehension), “Analysis,” and “Writing” (writing style). See our breakdown of the new rubric here.

Finally, the new essay is a completely optional portion of the exam. You don’t have to take it, and you’ll still get your 1600-point score. In this way it’s a lot like the ACT, which also has an optional essay. If you wish to register for the SAT Essay, you’ll pay an extra $11.50.

Because the essay is now optional, colleges have the option of not requiring students to send SAT Essay scores. Thus, many colleges have dropped this requirement. So who still requires the SAT Essay?

Let this creepy happy pencil guide you through the SAT Essay!

 

Who Requires the New SAT Essay?

According to a Kaplan poll in which 300 schools were surveyed, most schools will not require the optional SAT Essay. However, some still do recommend or require it, particularly in the most selective tier of institutions.

Notably, elite schools like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago are divided on the issue, with some requiring the essay and some neither requiring or recommending it. In the Ivy League, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale will continue to require the SAT Essay, and Columbia, Cornell, UPenn, and Brown will not.

Big state schools are similarly divided: for example, the University of California system and the University of Michigan both require the essay, University of Illinois and Purdue University recommend it; and Penn State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Indiana University neither require nor recommend the essay.

For the most up-to-date information on a school’s position on the SAT Essay, check the College Board. If the school isn’t on the list, check their admissions website. Those schools that do require the essay have gone on the record with specific reasons for doing so; I’ll break those down in the next section.

 

Schools are divided, like this egg.

 

Why Do Schools Require the SAT Essay?

Given that so many schools won’t require the essay going forward, you may be curious about those that do still require it. What’s their reasoning? Based on public statements from school officials, it seems to boil down to three main reasons:

 

#1: More Information Is Better

Some colleges seem to feel that all of the information they can get from applicants is helpful in painting a complete picture of the applicant. Certainly the SAT Essay presents a somewhat unique data point in that there are no other standardized elements of a college application that would include specific information on an applicant’s timed writing skills. It makes sense that schools that value having all the information that it is conceivably possible to obtain about a student would require the SAT Essay.

 

#2: The Revised Test Is Similar to College Work

The old SAT Essay involved a fairly arbitrary task and bore no resemblance to any work students do in college. However, the revised essay engages a student’s rhetorical analysis skills and requires the kind of analytical thinking students will perform in college. Thus, some colleges require the new SAT Essay because they feel it gives valuable insight into how a student might perform with college-level work.

 

#3: Sending a Message on the Importance of Writing

Institutions may also require the SAT Essay simply because they wish to telegraph to the world that they believe writing is important. This was part of the rationale given by Yale as to why they would continue to require the essay.

 

That’s why schools require it—but what about schools that don’t require the essay? What’s their reasoning?

 

Cats or dogs: another hot-button issue at elite institutions

 

Why Don't Schools Require the SAT Essay?

There are four main reasons that schools have given for not requiring the SAT essay going forward:

 

#1: Consistency

Many schools already do not require the optional writing portion of the ACT. So now that the SAT Essay is also optional, it makes sense to not require it, either. This simply makes testing guidelines consistent for those schools.

 

#2: The Essay Is Redundant

Some schools feel that they already have sufficient evidence of an applicant’s writing capability through application essays. This is particularly true at institutions where multiple essays are required as part of the application.

 

#3: The SAT Essay Does Not Predict College Success

In the past, the old SAT essay has been shown to be the least predictive element of college success on the SAT. While there is not yet data on the new SAT essay’s predictive capabilities, schools have taken this opportunity to shed what they feel is basically dead weight in an application.

 

#4: Requiring the SAT Essay Presents a Burden to Underprivileged Students

Columbia’s primary concern is that the extra cost of the essay may be a deterrent to underprivileged students.  University of Pennsylvania has made similar statements—minority and underprivileged students are least likely to have a “complete testing profile.” So, they’ve eliminated the SAT Essay requirement in the hopes of attracting a more diverse applicant pool.

 

A diverse tomato pool.

 

So Does the SAT Essay Matter to Your College Chances?

I’ve gone over how and why schools use or don’t use the SAT Essay. But what does all of this mean for you?

There are two main questions you need to answer to determine how important the essay is for you: first, should you take the SAT Essay section, and second, how important is your score?

 

Should I Take the SAT Essay?

This comes down mostly to whether or not you are applying to schools that require or recommend the SAT Essay. (In college applications, I would generally err on the side of treating recommendations as nicely-worded requirements.)

If you are truly not interested in a single school that requires/recommends the essay, and you don’t see yourself changing your mind, go ahead and skip it. However, if there’s even a chance you might be interested in a school that does require/recommend the essay, you should take it.

And if you’re applying to highly selective schools, definitely take the essay portion, because around half of them require the essay. So if you change your mind at the last minute and decide you’re applying to CalTech as well as MIT, you’ll need that essay.

I advise this because if you don’t take the essay portion and then end up needing it for even one school, you’ll have to take the entire test over again. If you’re happy with your score already, this will be a big four-hour drag for you.

You might also want to take the essay portion if you are particularly good at rhetorical analysis and timed writing. Even for colleges that don’t require the essay, a stellar score will look good.

 

How Important Is Your SAT Essay Score?

This is a little more complicated, as it does depend to a certain extent on the schools you are applying to. I spoke to admissions officers from several schools, and some themes emerged as to how important they consider your essay score to be, and how they use it in evaluating your application:

  • The general consensus was that the essay was the least important part of the SAT overall. Admissions offices will look much more closely at your composite score.
  • The SAT Essay is primarily looked at in combination with your other writing-based application materials: your admissions essay and your high school English transcripts are also used to determine your writing and language skills. Essentially, it’s a part of a facet of your application.
  • That said, bombing the essay would be a red flag to admissions officers that you might not be fully prepared for college-level work.

Overall, I would advise you not to sweat your essay score too much. The most important thing is that your essay score is more or less consistent with your other test scores. It certainly doesn’t have to be perfect—if you get a 1600 and an 18 out of 24, I wouldn’t stress too much. But if you, say, have a 1500 and get a 9/24 on the essay, that’s a little more concerning, as it may cause concern among admissions officers that you aren’t prepared for college-level work.

In general, then, schools really look at the score, but it’s not one of the most important parts of your application or even your SAT score. Your best bet if you are interested in a given school that requires the essay and you want more specific guidance how they use the essay is to call the admissions office and ask. To learn more about what a good SAT Essay score is, check out our guide to the average SAT Essay score.

 

Not this kind of score!

 

How Can I Succeed on the SAT Essay?

Luckily, it’s very possible to learn the skills to hit the SAT Essay out of the park every time. Here are some general tips:

  • Learn specific persuasive and argumentative techniques that you can reference in your essay. If you can’t identify what devices authors can use to make arguments, how will you write an essay about it?
  • Make sure you have a clear thesis that can be defended with evidence from the passage.
  • Include an introduction and a conclusion. This will help “bracket” your great points and show that you know how to structure a solid piece of writing.
  • Rely on evidence from the passage to build your argument.
  • Don’t give your opinion on the issue! The new SAT essay is not opinion-based.
  • Make sure you use correct grammar and academic language. (No “This passage, like my brows, is on fleek.”)

Also see this guide to getting a perfect SAT Essay score and this one on improving your score.

 

Tips to success: don't fold up the Essay section into origami boats.

 

Final Summary and Actionables

With the new SAT making the essay section optional, many schools have chosen to neither require nor recommend that students take it. Most schools will no longer require the essay, but highly selective schools are divided on the issue.

Among those schools that do require the SAT Essay, many have gone on the record to say that they feel the essay provides a valuable additional piece of information on an applicant’s potential for college-level work. They plan on using the essay as a way to further evaluate an applicant’s writing skills, although for most of these schools it is considered the least important part of the SAT score.

At schools where the SAT Essay is not required, the essay has been eliminated for a variety of reasons: for more consistency with ACT requirements, because the Essay seems redundant or poorly predictive of college success, or to attract a more diverse applicant pool.

What does all this mean for you? If there’s even a chance you’ll apply to a school that requires or recommends the essay, take the SAT with Essay. If you don’t and end up needing it later, you’ll have to re-take the entire exam.

If you do take the SAT Essay, don’t stress too much about getting a perfect score, but do prepare enough that you are confident you won’t get a very low score compared to your composite.

 

What's Next?

If you're thinking about test scores and college, check out my article on the minimum SAT score for college. 

Ready to get started with practice essays? Check out our thorough analysis of the SAT essay prompt and our complete list of prompts to practice with.

Aiming for a perfect SAT essay score? Read our guides to get strategies on how to get an 8/8/8 on your SAT essay.

  

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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