SAT Essay: Should I take it?

If you are debating whether to take the optional SAT Essay, here is a quick list of the pros and cons of each decision. While the essay is optional, you must register, pay, and prepare for this section of the SAT in advance. So it is important to give this decision some thought:

Still not sure? Below we have listed several scenarios to help you decide. Remember, this graph should be used as a general guideline. You will have to consider your specific circumstances.

Let’s break each of these scenarios down a little bit more:

Taking the SAT Essay: Scenario 1 & 3

Scenario 1 is the simplest choice. If any of the schools you are planning on applying to require the SAT Essay, then your choice is made: you must take the SAT Essay. You can find out in three ways if your prospective college requires the essay. One, you can click here to go to the College Board website, type in the name of a college, and College Board will show you if this school requires, recommends, or does not require the essay. For example, here’s what happened when we typed in Rutgers University:

So Rutgers University recommends but does not require the SAT Essay. You can also go to a college’s admission page, and under its test score requirements, the college will tell you if it requires the SAT Essay. Or you can review the below list we’ve created of all the schools that require the essay for 2018-2019:

SAT Essay – Required:

The colleges highlighted in dark blue are colleges that are ranked in the top 10 of Best Colleges for National Universities according to the 2019 edition of U.S. News. The colleges highlighted in orange are ranked in the top 20, and the colleges in red are ranked in the top 30. As you can see, many highly competitive schools require the essay. If you haven’t decided where you will apply (scenario 3), you should take the SAT Essay to be on the safe side. After all, if you don’t take it and end up applying to one of the schools on the above list, you will have to retake the entire SAT!

**Important Update: All of the Ivy League Schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.) recently announced (Fall 2018) that they are dropping their requirement for the SAT Essay. Visit their website to find their new application requirements.**

Taking the SAT Essay: Scenario 2 & 4

What if the college you are applying to only recommends the SAT Essay? For the most part, if the college recommends you take the essay, you should take it, especially if you are applying to a competitive school. When you apply to competitive schools, you have to remember your competition. Thousands of other students are going to have strong GPAs, high SAT scores, and a great application essay. If you take the SAT Essay, you have another opportunity to showcase your strengths and talents; if you don’t take the SAT Essay, you are leaving room for your competition to complete the essay and outshine your application. Furthermore, other than the ACT essay, it is the only part of your application that shows your ability to write in a timed environment, a skill you will need for college exams. Even if you’re not applying to a top tier university, you might consider taking the SAT Essay if other parts of your application (i.e. GPA, activities, leadership) are not as strong. Here is a list of schools that recommend the SAT for 2018-2019.

SAT Essay – Recommended

As you can see, many more schools recommend rather than require the SAT. We’ve highlighted in green those schools that recommend the essay here in New Jersey. None of the above schools fall in the top 30 of universities, so they are not highlighted in blue, orange, or red, but some colleges listed above such as Rutgers University (ranked 56) or George Washington University (ranked 63) are still very competitive schools, so you should take the SAT Essay. Even if you are applying to a school that is less competitive (e.g. Oregon State University, ranked 140, acceptance rate of 78%), you still should take the SAT Essay if you have a lower GPA because the SAT Essay gives you the opportunity to bolster your application in only 50 minutes.

Not Taking the SAT Essay: Scenario 5 & 6

If your school does not recommend or require the SAT Essay (scenario 5), you shouldn’t waste your time. Most of these universities have purposefully chosen to not include the SAT Essay for one or several reasons, so they will not factor it into their admission decision. Therefore, you are better off spending the time you would have used preparing and practicing for the SAT Essay on strengthening the rest of your college application: the other sections of the SAT, your GPA, and your application essay. Even if a school does recommend the SAT, but is not a particularly competitive school (think Oregon State University again) and you have straight As and a high SAT score, you should consider skipping the SAT essay.

Retaking the SAT Essay: Scenario 7, 8, 9, 10, & 11

So, you’ve done your research and one or more colleges you are applying to require the SAT Essay. You take the SAT Essay; you receive your scores. Now what? Are you done? Should you retake it?

There are only two reasons why you should retake the SAT Essay (remember you have a lot to do to prepare your college application, so conserve energy and time whenever you can):

  • You are unhappy with your essay score (scenario 7)
  • You are unhappy with your score on the other sections of the SAT, and the college your applying to doesn’t Superscore (scenario 8)


If you score high on the SAT Essay but not perfect (scenario 9), you probably don’t need to retake the SAT Essay even for top ranked universities. The SAT Essay is only one small part of your application and is not heavily weighted. However, if you tank it, you definitely need to retake the essay as it might be a huge red flag to an admission officer that you are not college ready. Even if you receive an average score (Scenario 7), you should retake it if applying to a highly competitive school. However, if you earn an average score (scenario 10) and are applying to a school that is not as competitive, you don’t need to retake it.

For most of you, your decision on whether you are “happy” with your score will depend upon whether you consider your score high, average, or low. For more information on how to understand SAT Essay scoring read our article on SAT Essay Scores: Everything you ever wanted to know.

The other reason you would need to retake the SAT Essay involves the way your score is looked at by colleges (scenario 8 & 11). Some schools use Superscoring in which they consider your highest score in each of the two sections (Math and Evidence Based Reading & Writing) across multiple test dates. For example, if on the August SAT test you score a 650 on EBRW and an 800 on the Math, but on the October SAT test you score a 750 on EBRW and a 750 on the Math, you would have a Superscore of 1550.

Other schools do not Superscore, but still have what is called Score Choice which means you can choose which test scores you want to send to them. For instance, in the previous example, you can either choose to send only your October SAT scores, since on this test you had a higher composite score of 1500, or you can choose to send both scores in order to show that you received a perfect 800 on the Math section and a 750 on the EBRW section. It is your choice.

Some schools require you to send all of your SAT scores. So they will see and review your lowest and highest scores.

But what does this mean for the SAT Essay, especially since it is separate from your composite SAT score? Again, to answer this question and others, you should read SAT Essay Scoring: Everything you ever wanted to know.

However, in general, if a school Superscores or requires you to send all of your SAT test results and you are happy with your initial SAT Essay score, you don’t need to retake the essay. Even if you retake the SAT to improve your composite score (scenario 11), there is no point in retaking the SAT Essay, since the school will see your high essay score from the first test. If a school doesn’t Superscore and allows Score Choice (scenario 8), then you should retake the SAT Essay even if you were happy with your score because you may choose to not send your test scores from the first test.

Visit a college’s admission page to find out whether they Superscore, allow Score Choice, or require you to send all of your SAT scores.

What’s Next?

After you’ve decided whether you will register for the optional SAT Essay section, it’s time to prepare. If you have decided to complete the SAT Essay section, you can register for our SAT Essay writing class or individual tutoring where we will teach you how to earn a perfect score! If you have decided not to take the SAT Essay section, you can focus on SAT Prep for the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.

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Katie Weisman

Katie Weisman is the Marketing Manager of MEK Review. She graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a Bachelor's in English. She is well-versed in test prep and academic enrichment education, and passionate about sharing resources and information that guides students toward their academic dreams. She even teaches a few of our courses!


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