8 Tips for Earning a High Score on the SAT Essay
You took the PSAT/NMSQT, sailed on through sections filled with multiple-choice questions, and now the SAT seems more tangible than ever before. It’s only now that you take the time to consider that there’s an essay portion. So now you’ll have to rinse, repeat, and throw some longform writing into the mix—what gives?
If you find yourself stressing at the prospect of taking on yet another section in addition to the rest of your test day efforts, take a deep breath and consider that the SAT Essay is completely optional. And while an SAT Essay score may not be required by your colleges of interest, at the very least, it’ll be worth understanding and reading through SAT Essay prompts should you decide to add the SAT Essay as part of your test.
Should I Take the SAT with Essay?
The choice is ultimately yours to make, but there are pros to taking the SAT with Essay—even if a college you’re interested in doesn’t require it. An obvious pro would be that it opens up your potential college choices, regardless of what you’ve decided on currently. Simply having the option to apply somewhere can open the door to more possibility should your list of schools change for any reason come application submission time.
In addition, keep in mind that while some schools may not require the SAT Essay score, they still may recommend it as part of the admission process. In these cases, having a SAT Essay score over not having a SAT Essay score ultimately works in your favor by helping you stand out among thousands of other interested applicants.
If you’re on the fence about whether you want to take SAT Essay, you should know that if you registered originally for the SAT with no Essay, you may be able to add the SAT Essay on test day. However, the ability to add the Essay at the test center is not guaranteed.
SAT Essay: A recommendation or requirement? Use the College Board’s SAT Essay policy look-up tool to find out what schools’ require.
SAT Essay: Timing and Structure
The SAT is composed of the three components Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. Students have 3 hours to complete these basic sections (not including breaks). The optional SAT Essay adds another 50 minutes to that mix.
During the SAT Essay section, you’ll be presented with a passage between 650 and 750 words. In the 50 minutes allotted to you, it’ll be your job to both read the passage and respond to the corresponding SAT Essay prompts. This tests your ability to analyze the author’s argument in terms of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other rhetorical techniques.
Sharing your opinions on the passage itself or simply summarizing it will not successfully earn you a high overall score on this part of the SAT. Drawing from the passage itself, you’ll need to break down the points being made in conjunction with how and why they’re being made. Preparing ahead of time and walking into the test with a game plan will help you in doing just that. This video provides an overview of the SAT Essay.
8 Tips for Conquering SAT Essay Prompts
Success on the SAT Essay depends on preparation as well as execution. Consider the following when mapping out your test-taking strategies and game plan:
1. Understand the SAT Essay Scoring System
Unlike your multiple-choice answers, which are scored as either correct or incorrect, the SAT Essay is assigned three scores.
Two readers will score your Essay separately and assign a score of 1 to 4 for each of three sections that include Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The two reader’s scores are then added together. SAT Essay score reports provide these three separate scores, each on a 2 to 8 scale. For example, a possible score combination would be 6 Reading / 7 Analysis / 6 Writing.
Your Reading score will reflect how well your essay shows that you understood the passage. Your Analysis score will reflect how well your essay analyzes how the author went about persuading the audience. Finally, your Writing score will reflect the cohesiveness of your essay as well as how well it demonstrates a command of language and the conventions of standard written English.
2. Study Sample Passages and SAT Essay Prompts
To help you understand what will be expected of you in order to achieve high scores in each of the scoring areas, take time to review example SAT Essay prompts. As you read through each of the example passages and corresponding responses, consider how and why the author used evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements.
3. Turn to Professional Writing and Editorial Outlets
Another way to build on your analytical reading skills would be to devote time to reading op-ed pieces from reputable media outlets. As an example, peruse The New York Times once or twice a week and analyze the editorials and op-ed pieces to further hone your skills. The more often you apply the skills required of you for the SAT Essay in your everyday life, the more prepared you’ll be to apply them in a test setting.
4. Prep with Practice Essays
As is the case with multiple-choice sections of the SAT, practice makes closer to perfect when it comes to SAT Essay responses.
Using sample SAT Essay prompts, set aside 50 minutes to work through them as you would with the test day prompt. Compare your response to that of the student examples provided at different score points to discover possible weaknesses in your reading, analytics, and writing skills that you’ll need to focus on in your preparations. For more objective feedback, consider working with a friend, your parents, or a teacher. Our partner Khan Academy has an SAT Essay practice tool where you can submit essay drafts against practice prompts and get real-time feedback.
5. Read Your Test Day SAT Essay Passage Thoroughly
Come test day, nerves and anxiety seem to be at all-time highs. This can leave students feeling as though they need to rush or second-guess their responses or both. The same goes for writing during the SAT Essay portion of the test. You may feel like you need to start writing as quickly as possible, but make sure you understand the author’s argument thoroughly before beginning. One of the worst mistakes you could make, after all, would be to finish writing your SAT Essay response only to go back, reread the passage, and realize you’d misunderstood what the author was saying. Give yourself enough time to write, but don’t underestimate the importance of reading carefully as well.
6. Start with an Outline
Once you’ve carefully read through the provided passage and corresponding prompt, take a minute to compose your thoughts in a rough outline.
Mapping out your approach for an introduction, body, and conclusion when the content is fresh in your mind will ensure that you don’t arrive at the end of your response with holes in your argument. An outline also helps you plan your writing by giving you a clear sense of direction when transitioning from one point to the next.
7. Start Strong, Build Strong, End Strong
As you would for any essay written for a class in school, make sure you develop your SAT essay in a structured, connected way. In your introduction, offer a strong thesis statement that relates back to the SAT Essay prompt and make sure each element in the body of your response ties back to support it. Conclude with more than just a summary of what you’ve written. Consider, for example, ways you might put what you’ve written into a broader context or offer a memorable insight based on the analysis you’ve provided.
8. Make Time for Edits
While not always possible, aim to leave some time at the end for review. In doing so, you may catch misinterpreted information or find other ways to further build on the points you made in your response. Try to be as critical of your own work as possible, and consider every minute of time available as an opportunity to provide the best possible representation of your writing and thinking.
8 Tips for Earning High Scores on SAT Essay Prompts
The SAT Essay provides an opportunity to showcase analytical skills and writing ability. As with the rest of the test, preparation is the key to performing well. Fifty minutes may not seem like a long time to develop a well-written response, but with a calm and practiced approach you’ll have the opportunity to show your best work.
Source: The College Board, Apr 30, 2018.