Want to get into a highly competitive university? Then you need to consider taking the SAT essay.
Some schools even require you to submit it. It’s time to start your prep. Read on to find out what’s a good SAT essay score and how to get admitted to your dream college.
Is the SAT Essay Necessary?
The SAT has an optional essay section. Though the College Board doesn’t require you to write it in order to pass the SAT, it might be a part of the requirements of your university or college.
If it’s not, it could still help you stand out from the rest of the high school students that apply to your university or college, but whether you’ll submit it is entirely your choice.
The essay will examine your reading and writing skills. It consists of:
- a written passage
- instructions on what to consider while reading
- instructions on what to cover in your analysis
In a way, it isn’t a lot different from the evidence-based reading and writing sections of the SAT. It contains only one question that helps the College Board and a university evaluate your reading, analysis, and writing skills.
The question gives guidelines on how to answer it successfully. Here’s an example of how it’s usually structured:
Explain how [X] argues that [Y] is better than [Z]...
Find more sample SAT essay questions on the College Board’s website. In total, you’ll have 50 minutes to read the passage and finish your paper.
Should You Take It?
It depends. Some colleges require the SAT essay, and some don’t. Go through the schools' testing policies on your list before you start your test prep so that you know if you need to prepare for the essay in advance. Additionally, consider if it would increase your chances of getting into your dream college.
If you’re skilled at reading, analysis, and writing, it might. Even if a university doesn’t require the SAT essay, they might still use it to compare you to other test takers.
The bottom line is this: your paper may be the only reason why a university ends up choosing you over another student.
That’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss, especially if you’re applying to a highly competitive college—or if you think other students performed better on the test.
How Is the SAT Essay Scored?
The essay section has three separate scores. Your university and college will be able to see all of them separately:
- Reading score
- Writing score
- Analysis score
The essay scores range from 2 to 8 points, and there are no percentile scores.
Scoring essays in an objective way is tricky, which is why they’re rated two times on the SAT. They’re either scored by two human raters or by one human rater and a computerized program e-rater. The final score is the sum of the scores given to you by the raters.
Each rater can give you 1—4 points per dimension. Here’s an example of what the scoring could look like:
(number of points)
(number of points)
A university will receive a score report that shows how much you scored on each dimension.
3 Dimensions Rated on the Essay
1. Reading dimension
The reading dimension helps a university evaluate how well you’ve comprehended and interpreted the written source and its central ideas.
In your essay, demonstrate this by using quotes and other evidence from the text in proper places.
2. Writing dimension
The writing dimension tells your university how well you present your argument and organize them into a cohesive structure. Using appropriate quotes for essay writing is highly recommended.
Needless to say—but we’ll say it anyway—a university will also be able to tell how proficient you are in grammar, spelling, and punctuation from this dimension.
3. Analysis dimension
The analysis dimension shows a university how well you can evaluate arguments, evidence, and opinions from a written passage.
Your essay should demonstrate an insightful analysis of the text supported by relevant evidence.
Is the Essay Still a Part of Your Total Score?
No. Many schools criticized the SAT essay section for its inaccurate scoring system, and, in 2016, the long-awaited changes finally took place .
The new SAT no longer includes your essay score in your composite 400-1600 SAT score.
Colleges will receive a report with the two scores separated. This might mean that your dream school won’t even glance over your SAT essay score if it’s not a part of their requirements.
However, if a school does put emphasis on reading and writing skills, you can expect them to check your essay scores separately.
The College Board doesn’t give schools any summary statistics or score distribution reports. This means a university can’t tell how you compare to the other students right off the bat.
Note that the colleges may draw up their own statistics based on thousands of applications they receive every year and use that to determine an optimal score.
What’s a Good Essay Score?
Colleges may infer their own statistics to determine an optimal essay score and conclude how well you did on your SAT essay. On the other hand, you and other students will have a more difficult time evaluating if your SAT scores are high enough to secure your place at your dream college.
Unlike a university, you don’t know how you compare to other students, nor do you have any insight into other people’s SAT scores. Instead, consider the average SAT scores. In general, a university will consider anything above average a good SAT score.
We did the math for you.
In 2020, the average SAT essay scores for students graduating high school were:
- Reading - 5/8
- Writing - 5/8
- Analysis - 3/8
Besides that, your university could also consider scores above 4 points—which is 50% of the maximum number of points—good.
Does Your Score Matter?
Generally, a university will view your SAT essay score as less important than your composite SAT score because of two things:
- the essay scoring is tricky and unreliable
- the essay no longer affects the writing section of the SAT
Only about 10% of all schools still require students to submit their essay scores.
If a university does require an essay, it usually has a highly competitive program and will use the scores to assign you to appropriate level classes.
A university may also use your score to corroborate your skills if there’s any reason to doubt them.
“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself”
- Chinese Proverb
What If You Get a Below Average SAT Essay Score?
If you scored below average on your essay, you can retake the entire SAT or apply to colleges with lower scores than you would like.
You can’t retake just the essay section of the SAT—you’ll have to retake the entire test, including:
- Evidence-based reading and writing section
- Math (Calc) section
- Math (No Calc) section
Before you reach a final decision, ask yourself: is it worth it?
Do you really want to go through the extensive test prep and stressful test-taking one more time? Given how little emphasis the College Board and colleges put on the essay section, we’d say you have no reason to worry, especially if you nailed the test. However, if your college is particularly competitive, then retaking the SAT might be the smartest way to secure your future there. After all, there is no limit on how many times you can take the SAT.
Should You Opt for the ACT to Avoid the Essay?
No. If a university requires taking the essay section on the SAT, it will also require taking the writing test on the ACT. The criteria for these essays differ, but students generally say the SAT and ACT are identical in terms of difficulty.
The ACT test is shorter and lasts for 40 minutes. You get one prompt that presents three different perspectives on a complex issue. Like in the case of the SAT, the ACT allows you to choose whether you’ll take the writing test or not.
Tips for Crafting the Perfect Essay
Many students say the essay is the most stressful part of the SAT. It’s a mix of evidence-based reading and writing sections, plus it requires advanced critical thinking skills.
To help you prep before the test day, we’ve compiled our best tips for nailing your paper—and getting into your dream college.
- Go through your university’s testing policy. First, find out if your university requires you to submit your essay scores or only your composite SAT score.
- Set up your target SAT scores. Consider your university’s requirements. Do you know exactly what SAT scores you need to get in? Then those should be your target SAT scores. If you don’t have the exact SAT scores that your university requires, you can set up the average SAT score as your target.
- Mind the College Board’s criteria. The College Board has a scoring guide for test-takers. It should help you understand how your scores are calculated for each dimension of the SAT paper.
- Practice formulating an argument. State it clearly and support it with some type of evidence, like statistics, quotes, etc.
- Read your task several times. To ensure you solved the task in its entirety, read it several times and go through your paper once you’re done.
- Come prepared. Only amateurs start their SAT essay from scratch:
Unless a college requires you to submit the SAT essay, taking it is up to you.
Consider how competitive your university is and how much emphasis it puts on evidence-based reading and writing skills. If the answer is not a lot, maybe you don’t need to bother.
A stellar essay can help you compensate for low SAT scores, but only up to a point. In the end, your university will have to pick the student with higher composite SAT scores, not higher essay scores.
Read through the College Board’s scoring guide for test-takers to learn what you’ll be expected to do and see if it’s for you.