In days of yore, the SAT Essay was very different. For starters, it was a required portion of the exam, scored as part of the writing section. You had a measly 25 minutes to give and support your opinion on such deep philosophical issues as the importance of privacy or whether people perform better when they can use their own methods to complete tasks.
Things are very different now. Along with the SAT itself, the SAT Essay has been completely revamped and revised. Among other things, it is now an optional portion of the exam. In light of this SAT Essay renovation, many schools will no longer require that students take the SAT Essay when they take the exam.
But what do all these changes mean for you? Is the SAT Essay important? Read on for a breakdown of the new SAT changes, information on which schools continue to require the SAT Essay, why schools do and don’t require this portion of the exam, and how to figure out if the SAT Essay is necessary or important for you.
The New SAT Essay
The SAT was revised in March 2016. The aspect of the exam that is most changed is the essay. Instead of writing a 25-minute opinion piece, you will have 50 minutes to analyze how the author of a given passage constructs his or her argument.
Additionally, instead of having the exam integrated into your composite score, you will receive a separate score for your exam that does not affect your 1600-point score. The new exam is graded out of 24 points - 8 points each in “Reading” (essentially reading comprehension), “Analysis,” and “Writing” (writing style). See our breakdown of the new rubric here.
Finally, the new essay is a completely optional portion of the exam. You don’t have to take it, and you’ll still get your 1600-point score. In this way it’s a lot like the ACT, which also has an optional essay. If you wish to register for the SAT Essay, you’ll pay an extra $11.50.
Because the essay is now optional, colleges have the option of not requiring students to send SAT Essay scores. Thus, many colleges have dropped this requirement. So who still requires the SAT Essay?
Let this creepy happy pencil guide you through the SAT Essay!
Who Requires the New SAT Essay?
According to a Kaplan poll in which 300 schools were surveyed, most schools will not require the optional SAT Essay. However, some still do recommend or require it, particularly in the most selective tier of institutions.
Notably, elite schools like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago are divided on the issue, with some requiring the essay and some neither requiring or recommending it. In the Ivy League, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale will continue to require the SAT Essay, and Columbia, Cornell, UPenn, and Brown will not.
Big state schools are similarly divided: for example, the University of California system and the University of Michigan both require the essay, University of Illinois and Purdue University recommend it; and Penn State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Indiana University neither require nor recommend the essay.
For the most up-to-date information on a school’s position on the SAT Essay, check the College Board. If the school isn’t on the list, check their admissions website. Those schools that do require the essay have gone on the record with specific reasons for doing so; I’ll break those down in the next section.
Schools are divided, like this egg.
Why Do Schools Require the SAT Essay?
Given that so many schools won’t require the essay going forward, you may be curious about those that do still require it. What’s their reasoning? Based on public statements from school officials, it seems to boil down to three main reasons:
#1: More Information Is Better
Some colleges seem to feel that all of the information they can get from applicants is helpful in painting a complete picture of the applicant. Certainly the SAT Essay presents a somewhat unique data point in that there are no other standardized elements of a college application that would include specific information on an applicant’s timed writing skills. It makes sense that schools that value having all the information that it is conceivably possible to obtain about a student would require the SAT Essay.
#2: The Revised Test Is Similar to College Work
The old SAT Essay involved a fairly arbitrary task and bore no resemblance to any work students do in college. However, the revised essay engages a student’s rhetorical analysis skills and requires the kind of analytical thinking students will perform in college. Thus, some colleges require the new SAT Essay because they feel it gives valuable insight into how a student might perform with college-level work.
#3: Sending a Message on the Importance of Writing
Institutions may also require the SAT Essay simply because they wish to telegraph to the world that they believe writing is important. This was part of the rationale given by Yale as to why they would continue to require the essay.
That’s why schools require it—but what about schools that don’t require the essay? What’s their reasoning?
Cats or dogs: another hot-button issue at elite institutions
Why Don't Schools Require the SAT Essay?
There are four main reasons that schools have given for not requiring the SAT essay going forward:
Many schools already do not require the optional writing portion of the ACT. So now that the SAT Essay is also optional, it makes sense to not require it, either. This simply makes testing guidelines consistent for those schools.
#2: The Essay Is Redundant
Some schools feel that they already have sufficient evidence of an applicant’s writing capability through application essays. This is particularly true at institutions where multiple essays are required as part of the application.
#3: The SAT Essay Does Not Predict College Success
In the past, the old SAT essay has been shown to be the least predictive element of college success on the SAT. While there is not yet data on the new SAT essay’s predictive capabilities, schools have taken this opportunity to shed what they feel is basically dead weight in an application.
#4: Requiring the SAT Essay Presents a Burden to Underprivileged Students
Columbia’s primary concern is that the extra cost of the essay may be a deterrent to underprivileged students. University of Pennsylvania has made similar statements—minority and underprivileged students are least likely to have a “complete testing profile.” So, they’ve eliminated the SAT Essay requirement in the hopes of attracting a more diverse applicant pool.
A diverse tomato pool.
So Does the SAT Essay Matter to Your College Chances?
I’ve gone over how and why schools use or don’t use the SAT Essay. But what does all of this mean for you?
There are two main questions you need to answer to determine how important the essay is for you: first, should you take the SAT Essay section, and second, how important is your score?
Should I Take the SAT Essay?
This comes down mostly to whether or not you are applying to schools that require or recommend the SAT Essay. (In college applications, I would generally err on the side of treating recommendations as nicely-worded requirements.)
If you are truly not interested in a single school that requires/recommends the essay, and you don’t see yourself changing your mind, go ahead and skip it. However, if there’s even a chance you might be interested in a school that does require/recommend the essay, you should take it.
And if you’re applying to highly selective schools, definitely take the essay portion, because around half of them require the essay. So if you change your mind at the last minute and decide you’re applying to CalTech as well as MIT, you’ll need that essay.
I advise this because if you don’t take the essay portion and then end up needing it for even one school, you’ll have to take the entire test over again. If you’re happy with your score already, this will be a big four-hour drag for you.
You might also want to take the essay portion if you are particularly good at rhetorical analysis and timed writing. Even for colleges that don’t require the essay, a stellar score will look good.
How Important Is Your SAT Essay Score?
This is a little more complicated, as it does depend to a certain extent on the schools you are applying to. I spoke to admissions officers from several schools, and some themes emerged as to how important they consider your essay score to be, and how they use it in evaluating your application:
- The general consensus was that the essay was the least important part of the SAT overall. Admissions offices will look much more closely at your composite score.
- The SAT Essay is primarily looked at in combination with your other writing-based application materials: your admissions essay and your high school English transcripts are also used to determine your writing and language skills. Essentially, it’s a part of a facet of your application.
- That said, bombing the essay would be a red flag to admissions officers that you might not be fully prepared for college-level work.
Overall, I would advise you not to sweat your essay score too much. The most important thing is that your essay score is more or less consistent with your other test scores. It certainly doesn’t have to be perfect—if you get a 1600 and an 18 out of 24, I wouldn’t stress too much. But if you, say, have a 1500 and get a 9/24 on the essay, that’s a little more concerning, as it may cause concern among admissions officers that you aren’t prepared for college-level work.
In general, then, schools really look at the score, but it’s not one of the most important parts of your application or even your SAT score. Your best bet if you are interested in a given school that requires the essay and you want more specific guidance how they use the essay is to call the admissions office and ask. To learn more about what a good SAT Essay score is, check out our guide to the average SAT Essay score.
Not this kind of score!
How Can I Succeed on the SAT Essay?
Luckily, it’s very possible to learn the skills to hit the SAT Essay out of the park every time. Here are some general tips:
- Learn specific persuasive and argumentative techniques that you can reference in your essay. If you can’t identify what devices authors can use to make arguments, how will you write an essay about it?
- Make sure you have a clear thesis that can be defended with evidence from the passage.
- Include an introduction and a conclusion. This will help “bracket” your great points and show that you know how to structure a solid piece of writing.
- Rely on evidence from the passage to build your argument.
- Don’t give your opinion on the issue! The new SAT essay is not opinion-based.
- Make sure you use correct grammar and academic language. (No “This passage, like my brows, is on fleek.”)
Also see this guide to getting a perfect SAT Essay score and this one on improving your score.
Tips to success: don't fold up the Essay section into origami boats.
Final Summary and Actionables
With the new SAT making the essay section optional, many schools have chosen to neither require nor recommend that students take it. Most schools will no longer require the essay, but highly selective schools are divided on the issue.
Among those schools that do require the SAT Essay, many have gone on the record to say that they feel the essay provides a valuable additional piece of information on an applicant’s potential for college-level work. They plan on using the essay as a way to further evaluate an applicant’s writing skills, although for most of these schools it is considered the least important part of the SAT score.
At schools where the SAT Essay is not required, the essay has been eliminated for a variety of reasons: for more consistency with ACT requirements, because the Essay seems redundant or poorly predictive of college success, or to attract a more diverse applicant pool.
What does all this mean for you? If there’s even a chance you’ll apply to a school that requires or recommends the essay, take the SAT with Essay. If you don’t and end up needing it later, you’ll have to re-take the entire exam.
If you do take the SAT Essay, don’t stress too much about getting a perfect score, but do prepare enough that you are confident you won’t get a very low score compared to your composite.
If you're thinking about test scores and college, check out my article on the minimum SAT score for college.
Ready to get started with practice essays? Check out our thorough analysis of the SAT essay prompt and our complete list of prompts to practice with.
Aiming for a perfect SAT essay score? Read our guides to get strategies on how to get an 8/8/8 on your SAT essay.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.
Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?
No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.
How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?
On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.
With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.
Readers avoid extremes
What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.
What is a good SAT Essay score?
By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.
We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.
College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.
The role of luck
What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?
Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.
What do colleges expect?
It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].
Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.
How will colleges use the domain scores?
Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.
How low is too low?
Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.
Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?
For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.
Should I skip the essay entirely?
A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.
Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?
Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.
Will I be able to see my essay?
Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.
Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?
Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.
Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?
Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.
Key links in this post:
ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests