When the new SAT was released a few years ago, the essay became an optional element of the test. Many colleges don’t require it for admissions, as it’s unclear if the essay measures something meaningful to a student’s application.
Nevertheless, if a school requires the SAT essay, you need to know how it’s scored and what the scorers are looking for.
The SAT essay has departed from asking students to take a stance on a topic or weigh in on a perspective. In other words, the SAT essay is not at all about what you, the student, think: the purpose of the essay is to see if you can write without inserting personal opinion.
Now, the essay is a formal analysis of someone else’s argument. This is brilliant, if you ask me, because the College Board has finally created an assessment that more closely mimics the kind of writing students actually need to do in college. Notably, the new essay style is also a lot more like one of the writing tasks on the GRE; in other words, this is real academic writing.
The SAT essay had to become more objective as students’ writing became more fanciful and, due to cultural trends, more opinion-based.
The A-number-one most important thing you can do to earn a good SAT essay score is to leave your opinions out of the essay.
The SAT Essay is scored on a scale just like the SAT multiple choice tests are. Rather than scoring from 200 to 800, though, the three SAT essay subscores are rated on a scale of 2 to 8. They mimic the 200 to 800 scale in that an 8 is a top score and a 2 is a low score.
Because the SAT essay score is guided by a rubric used by two people, your score is the sum of the scores given to you by those two graders. Your graders individually give you a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on each of the three scoring dimensions identified by the College Board.
That means that a good SAT essay score is a 6, 7, or 8 on each of the scoring dimensions if we use the logic that a 6 is the sum of two scores of 3 from your graders, and those 3s reflect that both graders thought you adequately accomplished that objectives of that dimension.
Because your SAT essay score is a list of three numbers, (like a possible SAT essay score might be 7, 5, 7), a good SAT essay score is a little less definitive.
One way to consider whether your SAT essay score is good is to take the average of your subscores and then translate them to the 200 to 800 scale. For example, if your SAT essay score were 7, 5, 7, you could average them (add and divide by 3) to find 6.3, which loosely translates to a 630. It’s easier to sense then, then, that 7, 5, 7 is a pretty good SAT essay score, but probably not as high as you would need for an extremely competitive college that requires the SAT essay section to begin with.
In order to help you maximize your SAT essay score, let’s look at the SAT essay scoring dimensions one by one.
The College Board offers a detailed rubric so that you can dive deeply into SAT Essay scoring. I expand on some of those ideas in my post, How to Write the SAT Essay. Let’s look at some of the highlights here.
It might seem odd to see “Reading” as the first dimension on a writing test, but it makes sense: you show how well you read by accurately identifying and articulating precisely what the author of the passage is saying.
Can you identify the author’s argument? Can you cite specific supporting details that she/he uses to make that case?
A good SAT Essay score in the Analysis department shows off that you’re able to trace how an author builds an argument. You’re probably familiar with building an argument, even if you don’t realize it yet:
Imagine you want to convince one of your parents to let you stay out three hours after curfew because you’re going to a concert two hours away. You wouldn’t just ask if you could stay out late; obviously, the answer would be an outright “No.”
Instead, you’d formulate a plan: you’d think of all the logical reasons it’s safe to stay out late, you’d appeal to your parent’s sense of adventure, or maybe his/her sense of pity. Maybe you’d bargain.
Every author on the SAT sample passage that you’ll analyze is creating an argument in similar ways, albeit more formal ones. The Analysis subscore shows that you see how the author is being convincing, not just what the author wants.
Of course, the whole essay element is a “writing” test, but you’ll earn a good SAT essay score on the writing segment when you show off your structural and syntactic prowess.
This is the score that reflects the strength of your writing sample itself, even if you totally misunderstood the author’s argument. Incidentally, preparing for the Writing and Grammar multiple choice section and learning the rules it tests can be a great exercise for the essay section. Use the rules you know for that section to edit your own essay after the fact.
Do not take the SAT Essay section without writing several sample essays ahead of time. A time crunch puts pressure on even the best writers; practicing by hand and getting feedback from a trusted teacher or tutor is your best bet. Investing in some SAT prep books wouldn’t be a bad idea either.