SAT Essay Scoring: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know

Ever since College Board redesigned the SAT in 2016, the SAT Essay has become a strange section of the SAT test. It is optional, doesn’t belong to your total SAT score, and not scored like the rest of the test. It’s no wonder that many students are confused about the scoring and reporting of their SAT Essay.

Here is our handy guide, put together by our expert teachers at MEK Review, to help you understand. We will explain what your SAT Essay score will look like, how it will be reported to schools, how your essay is graded, and what contributes to a low, average, or high score.

1. SAT Essay Scores vs SAT Test Scores

The SAT Essay is scored unlike any other section of the SAT test.

For a quick review, here are how the other 4 sections are scored:

When your score is sent to a university, they are able to see three things: your combined Evidence Based Reading and Writing & Language (EBRW) score, your Math Score, and your total SAT score. For examples, if you scored a 300 in Reading, a 350 in Writing, and a 700 in Math, then colleges will see the following:

  • 650 in EBRW Section
  • 700 in Math Section
  • 1350 SAT score

However, the SAT Essay is scored very differently:

Many of the differences are obvious. For example, the essay is only one section but is given multiple scores, the range is not in the 400-1600 range, the score is not added to your composite SAT Score, and the essay is graded by two people.

However, the most importance difference you should notice is that there is no total essay score!

When you hear others, including MEK Review, talk about the SAT Essay, you will often hear scores added up to a total score out of 24. For instance, a student who earned a 6/5/6, may say they earned a 17/24 on the SAT Essay. While there is nothing wrong with speaking about your score in this way, it is important to realize that admissions officers will never see a score out of 24. They will only see the three separate categories.

For instance, in the above example, these scores would be reported to a prospective colleges as such:

  • Reading: 6
  • Analysis: 5
  • Writing: 6

Why is this important? If you scored really low in one area, but high in the other areas, an admissions officer will see this and take it into consideration. For instance, if your score was 7/2/7, an admissions officer won’t see a 16/24. They will only see that you are weak in Analysis.

The second most important difference to remember is that the SAT Essay is not added to your total SAT score; it is treated separately because it is an optional part of the test.

2. SAT Essay Scores & Reporting to Colleges

Because the SAT Essay has no total score and is not added to your SAT test score, many students are confused about their options for reporting their essay scores to colleges. This next section will review the different scenarios and options available for reporting your scores.

Can I opt out of sending my essay score?

The question we receive the most from students concerning their SAT Essay score:

“If I don’t like my essay score, can I choose not to send it to a college but still send my SAT test score?”

NO.

Although the SAT Essay is an optional part of the test, once you’ve decided to take it, it is part of your test scores. While some schools offer you a choice on which test scores to send, this choice only applies to which test dates you want to send, never which sections. In other words, you cannot cherry-pick which sections you want to send to a college. You either have to send the entire test scores for that test date or nothing at all and that includes your SAT Essay scores.

What if my school practices SuperScore? Then can I pick which sections? NO.

What if my school allows for Score Choice? Then can I pick which sections? NO.

How SuperScore Colleges Practice SAT Essay Scoring

Many colleges practice SuperScoring for the SAT. Superscoring is when a college looks only at your highest score in each section across multiple test dates. You still must send all test sections, and there is a chance an admissions officer might see any lower scores, but formally they only review the highest scores.

For instance:

In this example, your SuperScore is 1580 because you scored a 780 on the EBRW section in October and a 800 on the Math section in August.

How does this apply to the SAT Essay? It’s simple.

If a school SuperScores, they will look at your highest SAT Essay scores overall, but they will NOT SuperScore the individual categories! For instance, if you scored a 6/5/6 on the August SAT Essay and a 7/7/5 on the October SAT Essay, then the school will review the essay you performed better on overall. Therefore, they will review the October SAT Essay. They will NOT SuperScore your essay to be a 7/7/6.

SuperScore is also important for when you are deciding whether or not to retake the SAT Essay. Let’s say you were unhappy with your August SAT score of 1170 and decide to retake the SAT in October. However, you were happy with your SAT Essay score of 6/6/8. When you register for the October SAT, should you sign up for the SAT Essay again?

If your prospective college participates in SuperScore, then the answer is NO.

You can retake the SAT without the optional essay and save money, time, and energy while focusing on improving your EBRW and Math score. The college will see your essay score from your first August test.

SAT Essay Scores & Score Choice Colleges

Some colleges participate in SAT Score Choice. Score Choice is a program that allows you to choose which SAT test scores you want to send. For instance:

In the above table, if a university participates in Score Choice you can choose which of these test scores you want to send. (Again, you can NEVER pick which sections you want to send.) So you may decide to send only the November SAT test scores, since on this test you earned your highest SAT composite score and SAT Essay score. On the other hand, you may choose to send both the October and the November SAT test scores because the October SAT test will show your highest Math section score. It is your choice. Either way, you probably won’t send your August SAT Scores.

How does this apply to the SAT Essay? Almost the exact same way, except that the SAT Essay is optional. So if you are happy with your essay score on one test, you don’t have to sign up for the essay again, even if you retake the SAT to improve your test score. For instance:

In this example, this student was happy with her October SAT Essay score of 7/6/7. So while she retook the SAT to improve her EBRW score, she did not retake the SAT Essay. Instead, she will report both her October and November test scores to the Score Choice college.

Of course, if your test scores are really low on one test, then you may choose to register for the SAT Essay again, so you don’t have to send the low test scores to your prospective college. For instance:

In this example, this student was happy with his SAT Essay score on the October SAT, but was not happy with his EBRW score. He decided to retake the SAT. The college he is applying to allows for Score Choice. However, he decided to retake the SAT Essay because he didn’t want to send his October SAT scores to his prospective school. He felt his EBRW score was too low, and didn’t want a college admissions officer to see it. He understood, as we hope you now understand, that sending only his October SAT Essay scores was NOT an option. He could only choose which test dates he wanted to send with all of his scores, not pick which sections.

Differences Between Score Choice and SuperScore

Some students get confused about the difference between Score Choice and SuperScore.

Here’s a quick way to remember: Score Choice is all about your choice. SuperScore is out of your hands. With Score Choice you decide which test scores you report to a college. Some colleges that SuperScore may or may not allow Score Choice, but the SuperScoring is done through them. You have no control or choice in the matter. You don’t control whether the SuperScore is prepared before a college admissions officer ever looks at your file, or if the admissions officers sees your lower scores, but is “supposed” to ignore it. With Score Choice you have much more control over what your admissions officer sees or doesn’t see.

SAT Essay Scores & All Scores Colleges

Many colleges require you to send all of your test scores for review. They want to review your lowest and highest scores. This is important to know about your prospective university because if you decide to take the SAT Essay once without any preparation and receive a very low score, the admissions officer will see this score.

Furthermore, it also affects whether you retake the SAT Essay. For instance, if you take the August SAT and are happy with your SAT Essay score but unhappy with your SAT test score, then there is no reason to spend the money and time on the SAT Essay for the October test. The school can simply review you SAT Essay from the August test, and you can focus on studying the other sections.

Canceling Your SAT Essay Scores

If you take the SAT Essay and you know right away that you didn’t do well, the only way to cancel your scores is to cancel your entire SAT scores. Remember, even though the SAT Essay is optional before the test, once the test is taken, it is a permanent part of your test scores. Click here to visit College Board’s scores cancellation policy and instructions.

If you register and pay for the SAT Essay, but decide before the actual test day that you no longer wish to take the SAT Essay, College Board list on their official website the following option:

SAT without Essay test-takers and SAT with Essay test-takers are in separate rooms. So, whether they let you switch is completely up to the staff that day. In other words, it’s a huge risk. It’s much better to know for certain before you register whether or not you want to take the SAT Essay. Not sure? Read our blog on “SAT Essay: Should I take it?” to help you decide.

3. SAT Essay Scores: Rubric Breakdown

You remember this table from earlier:

It shows how your SAT Essay is graded, but let’s break this down a little bit more. Two SAT graders read your essay and assign it a 1-4 score in each of the 3 categories. Their two scores in each category is combine to give you a total score out of 8. So if one grader gave your a 2 for Reading and the other grader gave you a 3, your Reading score would be 5.

The 3 categories are always placed in the same order: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. So, if someone says they received a 4/3/5 on his essay, it means he received the following:

  • Reading: 4
  • Analysis: 3
  • Writing: 5

The lowest score your could receive is a 2/2/2 and the highest is an 8/8/8.

But how are they grading you? What do they mean by reading, analysis, and writing?

Reading:

The SAT Essay will give you 50 minutes to read a non-fiction argumentative passage and craft a response based on the provided prompt. Your score will be based on the strength of your essay response.

For the Reading category, College Board states that an essay will receive a perfect 4, if the student’s essay:

In other words, you must show the 2 graders that your fully understand the text and its implications. How do you this? By writing about the main ideas and using quotes or examples to support your argument.

Analysis:

Here is what College Board requires for a perfect Analysis score:

What does this mean? It means that the SAT hates summarizing! They don’t want you to summarize or restate the main ideas. They want you to analyze those ideas. How do you do this? By writing about what rhetorical devices the author uses and what effect it is has on her audience.

Writing:

Here is what College Board Requires for a perfect Writing score:

What does this mean? A good Writing score means your essay was easy to read and understand and had few grammar or spelling mistakes. A great Writing score means your essay had those qualities and also used a mature voice, engaging style, and elevated vocabulary.

Remember, each of these categories is trying to tell an admissions officer something different about you. The Reading category tells a college if you are capable of reading a passage and understanding its argument. The Analysis category is testing if you are then able to recognize the rhetorical devices used in the argument. Are you able to tell the grader what those devices are, why the author used them, and what effect they create? The Writing category shows an admissions officer that you can write college-level essays – essays that are nearly devoid of mechanical mistakes and written in an academic tone.

4. SAT Essay Scores: What’s A Good Score?

Okay, you know what the SAT Essay score will look like, you know how colleges will see it, you know how it is graded, and you know the lowest score is a 2/2/2 and the highest is an 8/8/8. Still, you may be wondering: How do I know if I have a good SAT Essay score?

Here’s the short answer: 6 is a good score; 7 and 8 are great scores.

Here’s the long answer: It depends on where you are applying to school.  The more competitive the school, the stronger your SAT Essay score will need to be. Here are some numbers to get you started.

The national average for all SAT Essay test-takers in 2017:

  • Reading: 5
  • Analysis: 4
  • Writing: 5

As you can see, students struggle the most with analysis.

Here’s a further breakdown of the national average for last year:

So, students who scored a 7 were in the top 10% of test-takers across the board, and students who scored an 8 were in the top 1%. However, while scoring a 6 in Reading and Writing categories only puts a student slightly above the national average, a 6 in Analysis is still in the 85th percentile of test-takers.

What does this mean for you? If you are planning to attend a top university that requires the SAT Essay, you should aim for a minimum of a 7/6/7. If you are attending a less competitive school, you should aim for a 6/5/6.

5. How Much Does My SAT Essay Score Matter?

Another question to keep in mind when considering your score: How much does my score matter?

For those colleges who recommend or require the SAT Essay, your essay score is considered along with your other writing submissions such as your common essay application. Overall, the SAT Essay is not heavily weighted. It is only one small part of the application that the admissions officer considers. Every year, colleges drop the SAT Essay requirement altogether. Just this year, for example, Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth announced that they will no longer be requiring the SAT Essay. So, don’t drive yourself crazy over the difference between a 7 and an 8.

However, if you score below average on the essay, that will definitely be a red flag to admissions officer. For highly competitive schools, with acceptance rates of less than 10%, your SAT Essay score becomes even more important because every little distinction counts.

So make sure if you decide to take the SAT Essay, make sure to spend time preparing for it!

Next Steps to Acing Your SAT Essay

Not sure whether you should take the SAT Essay? Click here to read how to decide!

If you do decide to take the SAT essay, it will be important to master the art and craft of writing essays that stand out. Learn how we can help you to ace the SAT Essay or other key sections of the SAT.

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