Full Score Sat Essay Scoring

We're about to dive deep into the details of that least beloved* of SAT sections, the SAT essay. Prepare for a discussion of the SAT essay rubric and how the SAT essay is graded based on that. I'll break down what each item on the rubric means and what you need to do to meet those requirements.

On the SAT, the last section you'll encounter is the (optional) essay. You have 50 minutes to read a passage, analyze the author's argument, and write an essay. If you don’t write on the assignment, plagiarize, or don't use your own original work, you'll get a 0 on your essay. Otherwise, your essay scoring is done by two graders - each one grades you on a scale of 1-4 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing, for a total essay score out of 8 in each of those three areas. But how do these graders assign your writing a numerical grade? By using an essay scoring guide, or rubric.

*may not actually be the least belovèd.

Feature image credit: Day 148: the end of time by Bruce Guenter, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original. 

 

The Complete SAT Essay Grading Rubric: Item-by-Item Breakdown

Based on the CollegeBoard’s stated Reading, Analysis, and Writing criteria, I've created the below charts (for easier comparison across score points). For the purpose of going deeper into just what the SAT is looking for in your essay, I've then broken down each category further (with examples).

The information in all three charts is taken from the College Board site.

 

Reading

The biggest change to the SAT essay (and the thing that really distinguishes it from the ACT essay) is that you are required to read and analyze a text, then write about your analysis of the author's argument in your essay. Your "Reading" grade on the SAT essay reflects how well you were able to demonstrate your understanding of the text and the author's argument in your essay.

Score

Reading

1

(Inadequate)

The response demonstrates little or no comprehension of the source text.

The response fails to show an understanding of the text’s central idea(s), and may include only details without reference to central idea(s).

The response may contain numerous errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text.

The response makes little or no use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating little or no understanding of the source text.

2

(Partial)

The response demonstrates some comprehension of the source text.

The response shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) but not of important details.

The response may contain errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text.  

The response makes limited and/or haphazard use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating some understanding of the source text.

3

(Proficient)

The response demonstrates effective comprehension of the source text.

The response shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details.

The response is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text.

The response makes appropriate use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating an understanding of the source text.

4

(Advanced)

The response demonstrates thorough comprehension of the source text.

The response shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and of most important details and how they interrelate, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the text.

The response is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text.

The response makes skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating a complete understanding of the source text.

 

You'll need to show your understanding of the text on two different levels: the surface level of getting your facts right and the deeper level of getting the relationship of the details and the central ideas right.

 

Surface Level: Factual Accuracy

One of the most important ways you can show you've actually read the passage is making sure you stick to what is said in the text. If you’re writing about things the author didn’t say, or things that contradict other things the author said, your argument will be fundamentally flawed.

For instance, take this quotation from a (made-up) passage about why a hot dog is not a sandwich:

“The fact that you can’t, or wouldn’t, cut a hot dog in half and eat it that way, proves that a hot dog is once and for all NOT a sandwich”

Here's an example of a factually inaccurate paraphrasing of this quotation:

The author builds his argument by discussing how, since hot-dogs are often served cut in half, this makes them different from sandwiches.

The paraphrase contradicts the passage, and so would negatively affect your reading score. Now let's look at an accurate paraphrasing of the quotation:

The author builds his argument by discussing how, since hot-dogs are never served cut in half, they are therefore different from sandwiches.

It's also important to be faithful to the text when you're using direct quotations from the passage. Misquoting or badly paraphrasing the author’s words weakens your essay, because the evidence you’re using to support your points is faulty.

 

Higher Level: Understanding of Central Ideas

The next step beyond being factually accurate about the passage is showing that you understand the central ideas of the text and how details of the passage relate back to this central idea.

Why does this matter? In order to be able to explain why the author is persuasive, you need to be able to explain the structure of the argument. And you can’t deconstruct the author's argument if you don’t understand the central idea of the passage and how the details relate to it.

Here's an example of a statement about our fictional "hot dogs are sandwiches" passage that shows understanding of the central idea of the passage:

Hodgman’s third primary defense of why hot dogs are not sandwiches is that a hot dog is not a subset of any other type of food. He uses the analogy of asking the question “is cereal milk a broth, sauce, or gravy?” to show that making such a comparison between hot dogs and sandwiches is patently illogical.

The above statement takes one step beyond merely being factually accurate to explain the relation between different parts of the passage (in this case, the relation between the "what is cereal milk?" analogy and the hot dog/sandwich debate).

Of course, if you want to score well in all three essay areas, you’ll need to do more in your essay than merely summarizing the author’s argument. This leads directly into the next grading area of the SAT Essay.

 

Analysis

The items covered under this criterion are the most important when it comes to writing a strong essay. You can use well-spelled vocabulary in sentences with varied structure all you want, but if you don't analyze the author's argument, demonstrate critical thinking, and support your position, you will not get a high Analysis score.

Score

Analysis

1

(Inadequate)

The response offers little or no analysis or ineffective analysis of the source text and demonstrates little or no understanding of the analytic task.

The response identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s choosing,

Or numerous aspects of the response’s analysis are unwarranted based on the text.

The response contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant.

The response may not focus on features of the text that are relevant to addressing the task,

Or the response offers no discernible analysis (e.g., is largely or exclusively summary).

2

(Partial)

The response offers limited analysis of the source text and demonstrates only partial understanding of the analytical task.

The response identifies and attempts to describe the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing, but merely asserts rather than explains their importance, or one or more aspects of the response’s analysis are unwarranted based on the text.

The response contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made.

The response may lack a clear focus on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

3

(Proficient)

The response offers an effective analysis of the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task.

The response competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing.

The response contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made.

The response focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

4

(Advanced)

The response offers an insightful analysis of the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task.

The response offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing.

The response contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made.

The response focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

 

Because this category is so important, I've broken it down even further into its two different (but equally important) component parts to make sure everything is as clearly explained as possible.

 

Part I: Critical Thinking (Logic)

Critical thinking, also known as critical reasoning, also known as logic, is the skill that SAT essay graders are really looking to see displayed in the essay. You need to be able to evaluate and analyze the claim put forward in the prompt. This is where a lot of students may get tripped up, because they think “oh, well, if I can just write a lot, then I’ll do well.” While there is some truth to the assertion that longer essays tend to score higher, if you don’t display critical thinking you won’t be able to get a top score on your essay.

What do I mean by critical thinking? Let's take the previous prompt example:

Write an essay in which you explain how Hodgman builds an argument to persuade his audience that the hot dog cannot, and never should be, considered a sandwich.

An answer to this prompt that does not display critical thinking (and would fall into a 1 or 2 on the rubric) would be something like:

The author argues that hot dogs aren’t sandwiches, which is persuasive to the reader.

While this does evaluate the prompt (by providing a statement that the author's claim "is persuasive to the reader"), there is no corresponding analysis. An answer to this prompt that displays critical thinking (and would net a higher score on the rubric) could be something like this:

The author uses analogies to hammer home his point that hot dogs are not sandwiches. Because the readers will readily believe the first part of the analogy is true, they will be more likely to accept that the second part (that hot dogs aren't sandwiches) is true as well.

See the difference? Critical thinking involves reasoning your way through a situation (analysis) as well as making a judgement (evaluation). On the SAT essay, however, you can’t just stop at abstract critical reasoning - analysis involves one more crucial step...

 

Part II: Examples, Reasons, and Other Evidence (Support)

The other piece of the puzzle (apparently this is a tiny puzzle) is making sure you are able to back up your point of view and critical thinking with concrete evidence. The SAT essay rubric says that the best (that is, 4-scoring) essay uses “relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made.” This means you can’t just stick to abstract reasoning like this:

The author uses analogies to hammer home his point that hot dogs are not sandwiches. Because the readers will readily believe the first part of the analogy is true, they will be more likely to accept that the second part (that hot dogs aren't sandwiches) is true as well.

That explanation is a good starting point, but if you don't back up your point of view with quoted or paraphrased information from the text to support your discussion of the way the author builds his/her argument, you will not be able to get above a 3 on the Analysis portion of the essay (and possibly the Reading portion as well, if you don't show you've read the passage). Let's take a look of an example of how you might support an interpretation of the author's effect on the reader using facts from the passage:

The author’s reference to the Biblical story about King Solomon elevates the debate about hot dogs from a petty squabble between friends to a life-or-death disagreement. The reader cannot help but see the parallels between the two situations and thus find themselves agreeing with the author on this point.

Does the author's reference to King Solomon actually "elevate the debate," causing the reader to agree with the author? From the sentences above, it certainly seems plausible that it might. While your facts do need to be correct,  you get a little more leeway with your interpretations of how the author’s persuasive techniques might affect the audience. As long as you can make a convincing argument for the effect a technique the author uses might have on the reader, you’ll be good.

 

Say whaaat?! #tbt by tradlands, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped and color-adjusted from original.

Did I just blow your mind? Read more about the secrets the SAT doesn’t want you to know in this article. 

 

Writing

Your Writing score on the SAT essay is not just a reflection of your grasp of the conventions of written English (although it is that as well). You'll also need to be focused, organized, and precise.

Score

Writing

1

(Inadequate)

The response demonstrates little or no cohesion and inadequate skill in the use and control of language.

The response may lack a clear central claim or controlling idea.

The response lacks a recognizable introduction and conclusion. The response does not have a discernible progression of ideas.

The response lacks variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive. The response demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be poor or inaccurate. The response may lack a formal style and objective tone.

The response shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing.

2

(Partial)

The response demonstrates little or no cohesion and limited skill in the use and control of language.

The response may lack a clear central claim or controlling idea or may deviate from the claim or idea over the course of the response.

The response may include an ineffective introduction and/or conclusion. The response may demonstrate some progression of ideas within paragraphs but not throughout the response.

The response has limited variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive.

The response demonstrates general or vague word choice; word choice may be repetitive. The response may deviate noticeably from a formal style and objective tone.

The response shows a limited control of the conventions of standard written English and contains errors that detract from the quality of writing and may impede understanding.

3

(Proficient)

The response is mostly cohesive and demonstrates effective use and control of language.

The response includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea.

The response includes an effective introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.

The response has variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates some precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.

The response shows a good control of the conventions of standard written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing.

4

(Advanced)

The response is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language.

The response includes a precise central claim.

The response includes a skillful introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.

The response has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.

The response shows a strong command of the conventions of standard written English and is free or virtually free of errors.

 

Because there's a lot of different factors that go into calculating your Writing score, I've divided the discussion of this rubric area into five separate items:

  1. Precise Central Claim
  2. Organization
  3. Vocab and Word Choice
  4. Sentence Structure
  5. Grammar, Etc.

 

Precise Central Claim

One of the most basic rules of the SAT essay is that you need to express a clear opinion on the "assignment" (the prompt). While in school (and everywhere else in life, pretty much) you’re encouraged to take into account all sides of a topic, it behooves you to NOT do this on the SAT essay. Why? Because you only have 50 minutes to read the passage, analyze the author's argument, and write the essay, there's no way you can discuss every single way in which the author builds his/her argument, every single detail of the passage, or a nuanced argument about what works and what doesn't work.

Instead, I recommend focusing your discussion on a few key ways the author is successful in persuading his/her audience of his/her claim.

Let’s go back to the assignment we've been using as an example throughout this article:

"Write an essay in which you explain how Hodgman builds an argument to persuade his audience that the hot dog cannot, and never should be, considered a sandwich."

Your instinct (trained from many years of schooling) might be to answer:

"There are a variety of ways in which the author builds his argument."

This is a nice, vague statement that leaves you a lot of wiggle room. If you disagree with the author, it's also a way of avoiding having to say that the author is persuasive. Don't fall into this trap! You do not necessarily have to agree with the author's claim in order to analyze how the author persuades his/her readers that the claim is true.

Here's an example of a precise central claim about the example assignment:

The author effectively builds his argument that hot dogs are not sandwiches by using logic, allusions to history and mythology, and factual evidence.

In contrast to the vague claim that "There are a variety of ways in which the author builds his argument," this thesis both specifies what the author's argument is and the ways in which he builds the argument (that you'll be discussing in the essay).

 

Organization

While it's extremely important to make sure your essay has a clear point of view, strong critical reasoning, and support for your position, that's not enough to get you a top score. You need to make sure that your essay  "demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay."

What does this mean? Part of the way you can make sure your essay is "well organized" has to do with following standard essay construction points. Don't write your essay in one huge paragraph; instead, include an introduction (with your thesis stating your point of view), body paragraphs (one for each example, usually), and a conclusion. This structure might seem boring, but it really works to keep your essay organized, and the more clearly organized your essay is, the easier it will be for the essay grader to understand your critical reasoning.

The second part of this criteria has to do with keeping your essay focused, making sure it contains "a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas." You can't just say "well, I have an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion, so I guess my essay is organized" and expect to get a 4/4 on your essay. You need to make sure that each paragraph is also organized. Recall the sample prompt:

“Write an essay in which you explain how Hodgman builds an argument to persuade his audience that the hot dog cannot, and never should be, considered a sandwich.”

And our hypothetical thesis:

The author effectively builds his argument that hot dogs are not sandwiches by using logic, allusions to history and mythology, and factual evidence.

Let's say that you're writing the paragraph about the author's use of logic to persuade his reader that hot dogs aren't sandwiches. You should NOT just list ways that the author is logical in support of his claim, then explain why logic in general is an effective persuasive device. While your points might all be valid, your essay would be better served by connecting each instance of logic in the passage with an explanation of how that example of logic persuades the reader to agree with the author.

Above all, it is imperative that you make your thesis (your central claim) clear in the opening paragraph of your essay - this helps the grader keep track of your argument. There's no reason you’d want to make following your reasoning more difficult for the person grading your essay (unless you’re cranky and don’t want to do well on the essay. Listen, I don’t want to tell you how to live your life).

 

Vocab and Word Choice

In your essay, you should use a wide array of vocabulary (and use it correctly). An essay that scores a 4 in Writing on the grading rubric “demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice.”

You’re allowed a few errors, even on a 4-scoring essay, so you can sometimes get away with misusing a word or two. In general, though, it’s best to stick to using words you are certain you not only know the meaning of, but also know how to use. If you’ve been studying up on vocab, make sure you practice using the words you’ve learned in sentences, and have those sentences checked by someone who is good at writing (in English), before you use those words in an SAT essay.

 

Sentence Structure

Creating elegant, non-awkward sentences is the thing I struggle most with under time pressure. For instance, here’s my first try at the previous sentence: “Making sure a sentence structure makes sense is the thing that I have the most problems with when I’m writing in a short amount of time” (hahaha NOPE - way too convoluted and wordy, self). As another example, take a look at these two excerpts from the hypothetical essay discussing how the author persuaded his readers that a hot dog is not a sandwich:

Score of 2: "The author makes his point by critiquing the argument against him. The author pointed out the logical fallacy of saying a hot dog was a sandwich because it was meat "sandwiched" between two breads. The author thus persuades the reader his point makes sense to be agreed with and convinces them."

The above sentences lack variety in structure (they all begin with the words "the author"), and the last sentence has serious flaws in its structure (it makes no sense).

Score of 4: "The author's rigorous examination of his opponent's position invites the reader, too, to consider this issue seriously. By laying out his reasoning, step by step, Hodgman makes it easy for the reader to follow along with his train of thought and arrive at the same destination that he has. This destination is Hodgman's claim that a hot dog is not a sandwich."

The above sentences demonstrate variety in sentence structure (they don't all begin with the same word and don't have the same underlying structure) that presumably forward the point of the essay.

In general, if you're doing well in all the other Writing areas, your sentence structures will also naturally vary. If you're really worried that your sentences are not varied enough, however, my advice for working on "demonstrating meaningful variety in sentence structure" (without ending up with terribly worded sentences) is twofold:

  1. Read over what you’ve written before you hand it in and change any wordings that seem awkward, clunky, or just plain incorrect.
  2. As you’re doing practice essays, have a friend, family member, or teacher who is good at (English) writing look over your essays and point out any issues that arise. 

 

Grammar, Etc.

This part of the Writing grade is all about the nitty gritty details of writing: grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It's rare that an essay with serious flaws in this area can score a 4/4 in Reading, Analysis, or Writing, because such persistent errors often "interfere with meaning" (that is, persistent errors make it difficult for the grader to understand what you're trying to get across).

On the other hand, if they occur in small quantities, grammar/punctuation/spelling errors are also the things that are most likely to be overlooked. If two essays are otherwise of equal quality, but one writer misspells "definitely" as "definately" and the other writer fails to explain how one of her examples supports her thesis, the first writer will receive a higher essay score. It's only when poor grammar, use of punctuation, and spelling start to make it difficult to understand your essay that the graders start penalizing you.

My advice for working on this rubric area is the same advice as for sentence structure: look over what you’ve written to double check for mistakes, and ask someone who’s good at writing to look over your practice essays and point out your errors. If you're really struggling with spelling, simply typing up your (handwritten) essay into a program like Microsoft Word and running spellcheck can alert you to problems. We've also got a great set of articles up on our blog about SAT Writing questions that may help you better understand any grammatical errors you are making.

 

How Do I Use The SAT Essay Grading Rubric?

Now that you understand the SAT essay rubric, how can you use it in your SAT prep? There are a couple of different ways.

 

Use The SAT Essay Rubric To...Shape Your Essays

Since you know what the SAT is looking for in an essay, you can now use that knowledge to guide what you write about in your essays!

A tale from my youth: when I was preparing to take the SAT for the first time, I did not really know what the essay was looking for, and assumed that since I was a good writer, I’d be fine.

Not true! The most important part of the SAT essay is using specific examples from the passage and explaining how they convince the reader of the author's point. By reading this article and realizing there's more to the essay than "being a strong writer," you’re already doing better than high school me.

 

girl sleeping on a couch holding a mirror by Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.

Change the object in that girl’s left hand from a mirror to a textbook and you have a pretty good sketch of what my junior year of high school looked like.

 

Use The SAT Essay Rubric To...Grade Your Practice Essays

The SAT can’t exactly give you an answer key to the essay. Even when an example of an essay that scored a particular score is provided, that essay will probably use different examples than you did, make different arguments, maybe even argue different interpretations of the text...making it difficult to compare the two. The SAT essay rubric is the next best thing to an answer key for the essay - use it as a lens through which to view and assess your essay.

Of course, you don’t have the time to become an expert SAT essay grader - that’s not your job. You just have to apply the rubric as best as you can to your essays and work on fixing your weak areas. For the sentence structure, grammar, usage, and mechanics stuff I highly recommend asking a friend, teacher, or family member who is really good at (English) writing to take a look over your practice essays and point out the mistakes.

If you really want custom feedback on your practice essays from experienced essay graders, may I also suggest the PrepScholar test prep platform? I manage the essay grading and so happen to know quite a bit about the essay part of this platform, which gives you both an essay grade and custom feedback for each essay you complete. Learn more about how it all works here.

 

What’s Next?

Are you so excited by this article that you want to read even more articles on the SAT essay? Of course you are. Don't worry, I’ve got you covered. Learn how to write an SAT essay step-by-step and read about the 6 types of SAT essay prompts.

Want to go even more in depth with the SAT essay? We have a complete list of past SAT essay prompts as well as tips and strategies for how to get a 12 on the SAT essay.

Still not satisfied? Maybe a five-day free trial of our very own PrepScholar test prep platform (which includes essay practice and feedback) is just what you need.

Trying to figure out whether the old or new SAT essay is better for you? Take a look at our article on the new SAT essay assignment to find out!

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online SAT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your SAT score by 160 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Essay lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. 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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SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.

Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?

No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.

How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?

On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.

With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.


Readers avoid extremes

What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.

What is a good SAT Essay score?

By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.


We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.

College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.

The role of luck

What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?

Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.

What do colleges expect?

It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].

Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.

How will colleges use the domain scores?

Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.

How low is too low?

Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.

Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?

For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.

The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.

Should I skip the essay entirely?

A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.

Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?

Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.

Will I be able to see my essay?

Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.

Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?

Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.

Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?

Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.

Key links in this post:

ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests

 

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