Rumor has it, the longer your SAT essay, the higher your score. Could this be true? Does essay length affect your score?
Let's unpack this belief and talk about the best strategies for scoring high on the SAT essay.
Update: End of the SAT Essay
In January 2021, the College Board announced that after June 2021, it would no longer be offering the Essay portion of the SAT (except to schools who opt in during School Day Testing). While most colleges had already moved to making SAT Essay scores optional, this move by the College Board will likely lead to most schools making college application changes like not looking at essay scores at all for the SAT and ACT or potentially requiring additional writing samples for placement.
Rumor Has It...
When Milo Beckman was 14 and attending Stuyvesant High School in New York City, he started to suspect that the key to a high score on the SAT essay was simply filling up all the lines. He himself had already taken the SAT twice, and he found that his longer essay got a higher score, even though he thought it was inferior and contained lots of inaccuracies.
To investigate this, Milo asked students at his high school to report their scores and the number of lines they wrote on their essays. Out of 115 essays, he found that the longer ones almost always received higher scores. Milo concluded that the more you write, the better you score.
Milo Beckman hasn't been the only person to come to this conclusion. Lee Perelman, former director of writing across curriculum at MIT, holds to his position that the more words you put on the page, the higher your score will be. He also has some other tips for guaranteeing a high score that we'll take a look at below. To read more about Milo and Lee's studies, check out this intriguing article.
What does the College Board think?
So what does College Board have to say about these claims? Unsurprisingly, they're not having it. According to College Board, length often correlates with quality, but it does not in and of itself predict a good score. Instead, longer essays often have well developed arguments supported by nuanced examples.
Quality, not quantity, they insist, is what the SAT essay is all about.
So what does College Board think it takes to score a 12? And what are our suggestions for tackling the SAT essay?
Let's take a look at the best strategies, but first, a quick review of how the essay is scored.
How Is the Essay Scored?
The highest score you can achieve on the SAT essay is a 12. The lowest is 2 (or 0, I suppose, if you were to leave it completely blank!).
Two graders will read your essay and score it from 1 to 6. If they have very different opinions on your score, then a third reader will be brought in to give her input. Then these scores are added together.
College Board says that its graders base their scores on five main domains:
- The development of a point of view supported by appropriate examples and effective evidence.
- Organization, coherence, and logical progression of ideas.
- Skillful language with a varied vocabulary.
- Variety in sentence structure.
- Good grammar, syntax, and mechanics.
An essay that achieves a 6 is strong in all these areas and almost free of errors. Lower grades are progressively weaker in their points of view, supporting evidence, organization, vocabulary, sentence variety, and grammatical accuracy.
Do these criteria seem easier said than done? Here we detail 15 key tips you need to know to fulfill these expectations and score highly on the SAT essay.
You'll notice that none of these criteria mentions essay length. According to College Board, an essay does not necessarily need to fill all the pages or be five paragraphs to be insightful, use skillful language, or develop a point of view. The testmakers also stress that students should read the entire assignment given to them, including the extra reading material, which is usually a quote.
As you saw above, Milo Beckman and Lee Perelman think otherwise. So what do we think about all these tips and strategies—should your essay be as long as you can make it?
Or do they? With these strategies, the SAT essay might start to feel very simple indeed!
How to Score Highly On the Essay
Write a Lot
Milo and Lee have a point—generally speaking, longer essays do score better. However, length really doesn't guarantee a high score if you don't write skillfully, develop a point of view, and use 2 to 3 well thought-out, relevant, and persuasive examples.
You want to use all the strategies listed in this article to guarantee a high score. These approaches, in turn, will help facilitate your writing a long essay that merits a high score.
You may argue, "But what if I can achieve all those things in less sentences?" I would say, it's great that you can be so concise, but on the SAT, less is not more. More is more.
Check out our best tips on How to Score a 12 on the SAT Essay here. I'll go over a few of these strategies below, with some links throughout for you to read more in-depth advice.
Pick a Side
Lee Perelman stresses that students should always pick a side when answering the prompt, and I tend to agree. This doesn't mean that nuanced, middle ground essays can't score well. However, it is much more challenging to argue well for both sides in such a short, pressure-packed time frame.
Even if you don't have a strong, passionate feeling on the prompt you're given, make it slightly easier on yourself and choose one side. No one is going to hold you to this opinion in the future. It's more about showing you can develop and support a strong point of view through writing, rather than revealing how you personally feel about this topic or that topic.
Use Tried and True Structure
Again, you only have 25 minutes! Don't try to awe the graders with postmodern literary experimentation or a rap song. Stick to the 5 paragraph structure—introduction, three paragraphs with supporting examples, and conclusion.
Your introduction should close with your thesis statement, and your conclusion should have a strong last line that sums everything up with a punch.
You can see how using this structure relates to writing a long essay—a true five paragraph essay, with 5 to 7 sentences per paragraph, should just about fill up all the available pages you're allotted in your test booklet.
Use Smooth Transitions and Varied Sentence Structure
Both your individual sentences and general ideas should flow smoothly and logically. Transitions words like "furthermore, additionally, alternatively, similarly, therefore, because of this, for example," and many others, can help connect sentences, paragraphs, and concepts.
On a similar note, you don't want every sentence to start with a simple 'subject-verb' construction: "I think, I said, I had," over and over again, for instance. Mixing up your sentence structure will help your essay read smoothly.
This will probably happen naturally as you write, and you can improve by practicing and paying attention to sentence structure as you read books, news articles, and magazines in your day to day.
These complex and varied sentence structures will also contribute to your writing a long SAT essay.
Have Go-To Examples
Your SAT essay will achieve the expected length if you are able to provide specific, thoughtful examples to support your point of view. But what if your mind goes blank during the actual test?
To help avoid this worst-case scenario, you should show up with some go-to examples on hand. This article has some great examples of literary, historical, and current events examples that can be used to support a wide range of different arguments.
Again, complex examples that you understand well will help you develop a full, long, five paragraph essay. As Milo Beckman and Lee Perelman suggested, you don't have to worry too much about accuracy, either!
You may be worrying that you can't fill up the essay pages in such a short amount of time. This is where practice and training is key.
Your hand might ache and feel ready to fall off by the end of the 25 minute essay section, but you'll be able to finish the essay in time if you hit the ground running.
How to structure your essay time:
- 3-4 minutes planning and structuring your essay
- 15-18 minutes drafting
- 2-3 minutes at the end to read over your essay and revise.
As long as you do some serious prep, you can spend the majority of your time drafting, not staring at a blank page. This should be more than enough to achieve to create a nuanced, well developed, and long SAT essay.
But seriously, are longer essays better?
So Is a Longer Essay Better?
For the most part, I would agree with Milo and Lee that longer essays do tend to garner higher scores on the SAT. However, they need to incorporate all those other elements, too—a well developed argument, detailed examples, skillful language, and logical organization.
All of these elements help facilitate writing a longer essay, so they really go hand in hand. While you don't have a lot of time to produce this work, you can prep for it by using these tips and strategies and practicing leading up to the SAT.
Writing is a skill like any other. It's not a fixed thing, like you're good at writing or you're not—instead, you can grow your skills and get better with practice. As you're prepping, maybe you can even ask a friend, family member, or teacher to "grade" your essay and give you feedback for improvement.
After all your preparation and these strategies, you should be able to craft a clear, lengthy essay that scores highly on the SAT.
Are you deciding between the new SAT and the old SAT? Read about all the differences between the two tests here so you know what to expect.
Is the essay on the new SAT any different from previous essays? We break down the new SAT essay here.
Are you aiming for a perfect score? This perfect scorer explains how you can achieve the highest score, too.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.