Update: This post has been updated for the redesigned New SAT, which premiered in March 2016 and has an entirely new (and entirely optional) essay, by David Recine. Here’s what you need to know!
Only want the facts? Here’s the short answer:
Your New SAT essay will be scored by two professional, human, essay readers. Both essay graders will score each of the three different New SAT essay skills (reading, analysis, and writing) in your essay on a scale of 1 to 4, with the combined score expressed as three digits with slashes between them, each digit representing the score you got on one of the New SAT Essay skills components. (A perfect SAT essay score would be 8/8/8.) If you leave your New SAT essay blank or don’t address the essay topic at all, you will receive a score of zero. Now for more detail…
It’s natural that the New SAT essay has its own grading system, independent of the rest of the test; this portion of the test is an optional add-on, and it’s not multiple-choice or fill-in-grid like the rest of the exam. But it’s not immediately obvious how SAT essay scores fit into the big-picture New SAT 1600 point scale or what it means for you.
How SAT essay scores are calculated
The way your writing is graded is, on the surface, about what you would expect it to be. A human reader (a real live person!) takes a few minutes to read over your essay, then gives it a mark from 0-6. The 0 is the bad one, in case you weren’t sure.
Of course, 0 isn’t a real grade—it’s just what you get if write nothing or an essay on a completely different topic. In other words, memorizing a spectacular essay and then copying it down word for word wouldn’t help you. If you don’t write on the SAT essay prompt you’re given, you get nothing even if the writing is on par with Hemingway.
So if you write a single relevant word, then, you’re in the 1-4 range for each of the three New SAT essay skills—but that’s per grader. You see, SAT essay scores come from two readers. It would be pretty absurd if, by a role of the essay-grader dice, you just got that one crotchety old misanthrope who gave everybody a 1 (not that the College Board really hires guys like that), so there’s a safeguard. Two readers have to give similar scores, and you then get a combined score ranging between 2/2/2 and 8/8/8. If their two scores are more than 1 point separate (e.g. a 2 and a 4), then a third grader comes in to settle the dispute. An essay grader, that is. Not an elementary school student. That third reader, we can imagine, is a seasoned veteran. The score they give you would then be factored in to get your new, final 3-digit score.
Those original 1-4 marks are taken from a holistic view of your essay (check out the College Board’s rubric), at least theoretically. That means that there’s no special way to get an 8 (nor a 2)—everything is taken into account. That being said, some factors are more immediately noticeable than others. So be sure to practice fundamental New Sat Writing techniques that demonstrate your command of reading comprehension, rhetorical analysis, and the conventions of academic writing.
How essay grades affect scaled scores
In the previous version of the SAT, essays were a mandatory part of the exam, and essay scores had a significant impact on the final scaled score. However, in the New SAT, the essay is optional and scored completely separately from the main 1600 point four-section exam. On a New SAT score report, your essay score will appear separately from your scaled composite Reading/Writing/Math score—if you choose to take the essay, that is.
Certainly, if you choose to take the New SAT essay and do poorly on it, it can cast an otherwise good SAT score in a different light. A good 1600-scale score can look less impressive next to an essay score of—say—2/2/2 on the optional essay. Still, an essay score of at least 6/6/6 can complement a composite score on the main test nicely. And an 8/8/8 on an SAT essay is likely to impress university admissions representatives, even at universities that don’t require an SAT essay score.
And essay writing is, in some ways, one of the easiest SAT skills to improve. There’s a process you can follow, a structure of analysis, that will ensure decent scores. It’s not actually all that simple to go from a score of 2 to a score of 8 in all three categories, but with practice it’s definitely possible for a student to reach a score of 6 or higher in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. If writing a weak spot of yours, studying for the New SAT essay is still a potentially great opportunity to boost the value of your score report. Taking this optional component of the test is always worth considering.
About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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You know the ancient saying–if you want to pass the test, you need to understand the grader.
What? You’ve never heard that? Well, it’s true. If you understand just how your SAT essay is graded, you’ll have a much better idea about how to write a killer one. For more fantastic tips…come on a journey with me.
So you’ve just finished your SAT essay. You’ve crossed all your Ts, dotted all your Is, and you’re about to turn it in to your proctor, after which your essay will end up in some dark, cold abyss somewhere, never to be seen again…
Stinks, doesn’t it? After all, you spent SO much time studying for the SAT, writing practice essays, and learning all the essay tricks and hints. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what happens to your essay after you’ve turned it in? Or better yet, wouldn’t it be nice to know how your essay will be scored?
Well, you’re in luck! Lookin’ for answers? We’ve got ’em.
After reading this blog post, you’ll have a better idea of how exactly the SAT essay is scored, and you’ll take comfort in knowing that your essay isn’t wasting away in some ditch somewhere.
How are SAT essays scored?
Before I talk about the specifics of the SAT essay grading scale, and the makings of a perfect essay, it’s important that you understand the SAT essay grading process.
Sooo… Where exactly does my essay go?
Ah, great question.
After you turn your essay in, your essay gets scanned and sent off to two different essay readers via the interweb. (Note: “interweb” is a slang term, and you probably shouldn’t use it in your essay. Carry on.)
These readers read your essay thoroughly and, based on a number of criteria, assign your essay a score out of 6. The two readers scores are then combined, so your total score is out of twelve.
If the scores of the two readers differ by more than a point, a third grader is brought in (this rarely happens).
Readers are supervised by online scoring leaders, who, according to CollegeBoard, are “experienced essay readers with special training in online scoring” (whatever that means).
So you get the idea—your essay gets digitally sent off to a couple former teachers or grad students looking for some extra cash. But how do they actually score your essay? What criteria are you judged on?
What am I scored on?
Here’s a little snippet that should help, taken directly from the CollegeBoard website:
Pretty reasonable, right? After all, this is the SAT Reasoning Test (ba-dum-TSH).
Basically, they want to see that you can make logical connections to support some sort of argument or claim (your thesis) and that your paper is generally well-written (good vocabulary, organization, grammar, sentence structure, etc.).
If I had to pick one piece of criteria I think is most important, I’d say that you must draw from examples to support the claim of your essay, whether they be from history, literature, personal experience, or something you made up (you can make up examples in your essay, did I mention that?).
What am I NOT scored on?
Fortunately for those of you with bad penmanship, the quality of one’s handwriting is not taken into consideration when assigning their essay score. In fact, the SAT readers are actually trained to be able to decipher even the sloppiest handwriting!
Also, to those of you who are under the impression that a longer essay is a better essay, I’d hate to break it to you, but you are sadly mistaken. The SAT essay readers are instructed not to judge an essay on its length, but rather its quality.
BUT DON’T GO CRAZY. Just because the SAT readers aren’t supposed to judge you by your handwriting or the length of your essay, it does not mean that you should write a sloppy 2-sentence essay.
It is often very difficult to produce a quality essay in less than 3 paragraphs, and while the neatness of your handwriting cannot hurt you, it can only help!
What does my score mean?
As I mentioned earlier, your total SAT essay score is calculated by taking the sum of the scores assigned to you by two separate readers. Let’s say you receive a score of 10. That means that each essay grader gave you a score of 5 (scores cannot differ by more than one point).
Here’s a quick rundown of what each score means:
Score of 0—receiving a score of 0 means that you did not even attempt to write an essay on the given prompt. So if, for whatever reason, you decided to draw a pretty picture instead, that’s probably why you got a 0.
Score of 1—a score of 1 means that, while you did attempt the assignment and answered the question, you did so in a flawed manner. You probably did not include any relevant examples, and displayed consistent grammatical and spelling errors. If you simply write, “I agree” in the essay booklet, you will receive a score of 1.
Score of 2—a score of 2 basically means that, while you did make an effort to include examples to support your argument, the essay was not well organized and the examples given were not logically connected to the essay’s main argument. (So, if you say “I agree that cell phones should be allowed in classrooms…because I love Channing Tatum, and my friend and I went to lunch yesterday, and Sally Ride was the first American woman in space,” you’d get a 2.)
Score of 3—a score of 3 means that your essay was okay. You included relevant examples and wrote an essay that, for the most part, makes sense, but you may have strongly lacked in other areas (reasoning, sentence structure, grammar, etc.).
Score of 4—a score of 4 means that your essay is doing everything right, but could be doing a lot more. You probably showed okay reasoning skills, but maybe you could have broadened your vocabulary a bit, or varied up sentence structure a little more.
Score of 5—a score of 5 means your essay is really good, but that it’s missing…something. You may have made a good argument, and provided adequate examples to support your reasoning, but your essay is just missing that WOW factor.
Score of 6—a score of 6 means that your essay was perfect, save for a couple small errors. Essays with scores of 6 typically have some quality that makes them stand out, such as a strong voice.
So don’t worry! Your essay doesn’t just disappear when it leaves your hands.
Actually, the folks at CollegeBoard put a whole lot of effort into making sure that your essay is handled with care, and that you receive only the grade that you deserve.
And now you know:
- Two graders read your essay and give it a score of 0-6.
- SAT graders are trained to decipher even the sloppiest handwriting.
- If you try to answer the question, you’ll get at least a 1.
What are your experiences with essay-writing? Are you nervous about the essay portion? Did you write a killer essay and you’re just trying to re-live the moment? Let us know in the comments!
Dressler Parsons spent most of her childhood in an adobe house her father built in rural Arizona. Right now, she's taking so many business and art classes at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and plans to graduate in Fall 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Intermedia. And, handily enough, her SAT scores and grades qualified her for ASU's Presidential Scholarship (worth $24,000), as well as the AIMS tuition waiver. She is passionate about showing people their potential for a bright, beautiful future. In her free time, she cooks edible things and knits inedible ones.