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SAT Essay Strategies from Real SAT Essay Graders


If you've spent any time doing SAT prep, you probably are familiar with what it’s like to write an SAT essay. But what’s it like to be an SAT essay grader? Find out what essay graders look for, what the essay grading job involves, and effective SAT essay tips you should use as a result of this information as I bring you...insights from real SAT essay graders.

Note: The information in this article is for the old (pre-March-2016) SAT essay, which was scored out of 12 and part of the Writing section. Because the new SAT essay has been administered (and graded) so few times, there's not much information out there yet about the grading process for the new essay. We'll update this article as soon as the information comes out.

feature image credit: The Lowdown by andy carter, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


UPDATE: SAT Essay No Longer Offered

In January 2021, the College Board announced that after June 2021, it would no longer offer the Essay portion of the SAT (except at schools who opt in during School Day Testing). It is now no longer possible to take the SAT Essay, unless your school is one of the small number who choose to offer it during SAT School Day Testing.

While most colleges had already made SAT Essay scores optional, this move by the College Board means no colleges now require the SAT Essay. It will also likely lead to additional college application changes such not looking at essay scores at all for the SAT or ACT, as well as potentially requiring additional writing samples for placement.

What does the end of the SAT Essay mean for your college applications? Check out our article on the College Board's SAT Essay decision for everything you need to know.


Why Should You Care?

Why does understanding the essay grading job help you on the SAT essay? Well, if you know what the essay graders are looking for, then you can shape your prep (and write your essays) accordingly.

An analogy for this situation: you are preparing for your road test (to get your driver's license), and want to make sure you will pass. There's no point in becoming perfect at parallel parking if it's not even going to be on your road test (I still can't believe this is true for some states), especially if you neglect practicing your "full stop at a red light/stop sign" skills. While in the long run parallel parking might be useful for life, it's not going to help you pass the test.

Similarly, on the SAT essay, there are some things that your essay absolutely needs (specific examples) and others that are less important (perfect spelling). And a great way to learn what a typical SAT essay scorer looks for in an essay is to go directly to the source.


How Do You Become an SAT Essay Grader?

The CollegeBoard requires potential SAT essay graders to meet all of the following criteria:

  • Have at least a bachelor's degree
  • Teach or have taught a high school or college-level course that requires writing
  • Have taught for at least a three-year period
  • Reside in the continental United States, Alaska, or Hawaii
  • Be a U.S. citizen, resident alien, or authorized to work in the U.S.
  • Have not worked for a test preparation company that offers SAT test preparation in the past 12 months. (This does not include working for Pearson Educational Measurement or The College Board)
  • Have not received pay from students or individuals to assist with SAT test preparation within the past 12 months. (This does not include receiving pay from your school as part of your job responsibilities)

source: CollegeBoard.


SAT Essay Graders: Facts, Myths, and Strategies

Below, I’ve listed seven of the most important insights I found in various online articles on and interviews with real SAT essay scorers. The three sources I drew from included a "I am a..., ask me anything" question and answer series, an article in the Washington Post titled "The SAT Grader Next Door," and an opinion piece in the LA Times titled "How I Gamed The SAT."


1. Fact: Essay scorers must grade 1 essay every 2-3 minutes

Once they've completed their training, official SAT essay graders have to grade 20-30 essays an hour (which ends up being one essay every 2-3 minutes). If a grader starts to lag behind and take longer, she must "retrain" until she is back to that pace. Keeping the graders grading at fast pace ensures that the graders are looking at the essays as a whole, rather than, for instance, getting stuck on logical issues in one paragraph.


Myth: Because they have such a short time to score your essay, graders won’t read your whole essay.

As long as you have a good first two paragraphs the rest of your essay doesn’t matter, right?

WRONG. Remember, in order to even qualify to do this job you must have taught a course that requires writing and have been teaching for at least three years. Ask any English teacher and she'll tell you that you've got to be able to read and grade essays fairly quickly in order to keep up with the job. On the SAT, the essay scorer's job is even simpler than that of an English teacher because no comments are given (something that is very time-consuming). All the essay scorer has to do is read the essay and give it a numerical score.


Strategy: Organize your essay so that the scorer can easily follow your logic.

Taking the time to plan out the organization as well as the content of your essay really does pay off. Don't bury the lead and make the essay grader hunt for your main point and line of reasoning: make your thesis statement easy to spot by putting it in your introduction (first or last line is best), and keep to a simple paragraph-per-example essay form. The five paragraph essay structure may be boring, but it will make it easier for a quick-reading grader to understand your argument.


five dollars by Scott, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.


2. Fact: Essay graders don't care about minor grammar and spelling errors

Because graders score the SAT essay holistically (based on overall impression) rather than point-by-point, they are instructed to ignore minor errors that they might otherwise correct. In the context of the SAT essay, minor errors are ones that don't affect the meaning of the essay or make it significantly more difficult to understand.

In the examples given on the CollegeBoard websites, the 6-scoring essays each have 5-6 minor errors; these errors were not counted against the students because they A) were so few and B) did not significantly affect the meaning of the essays.

What makes the errors minor? Consider the following two sentences. The first sentence has some minor errors (comma use and spelling issues).

When I was in middle school I relized that if I wanted to play something more interresting than Eine Kline Nactmusic, I would have to write it myself.

Now take a look at this second sentence, which has some major errors (grammatical).

When I was in middle school, I realize that more interesting than Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I have to write it to play it.

The second sentence may not have any spelling errors, but the way it is phrased makes it difficult to understand the meaning.


Myth: You don’t need to revise.

Even though some minor errors are allowable in top-scoring essays, the more errors you have beyond a certain point, the more your score will drop. And when you're trying to write an entire essay in 25 minutes, you're bound to make mistakes you don't even notice. The only way to catch them is to go back and reread what you've written.


Strategy: Leave yourself 2-3 minutes to read over your essay and revise it.

The time you’ll spend will be well worth it, allowing you to catch missing words that affect the meanings of sentences and grammar errors that could drag your essay score as well as giving you time to rewrite words or phrases that are otherwise illegible.


No Such Thing As Bad Handwriting by Post Memes, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

This image is full of lies. And a nice pen, I guess.


3. Fact: Variety in sentences and vocabulary and good transitions can be deciding factors in essay grade

All three of the essay graders I drew from agreed that if they were waffling between two different scores, variety in sentence structures and vocabulary and good transitions (or lack thereof) could push an essay into the next score level (or confirm that it merited the lower of the two possible scores).


Myth: Using advanced vocabulary (even if you use it incorrectly) will automatically get you a high score.

Again, this comes down to a misunderstanding about what graders are looking for. Showing that you know advanced vocabulary is fine, but if you don’t make a good argument, or don't support your argument with specific examples, you’re not going to do well on this particular essay. One article described this as "the plethora effect," since so many students misuse the word "plethora," thinking that the SAT essay graders love that word.

Here is a good summation of the situation, using quotes from a former SAT essay grader:

“Strong argument, at least three well-thought-out reasons supporting that argument, strong, relevant, specific examples for each reason, and a thorough analysis of the examples in relation to your reasons and core argument will get you to at least a 5…The 6th point comes through style--use of language, diction, syntax, vocabulary...As long as the words are use correctly and appropriately, though. Randomly throwing in ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM isn't going to win you any points.” (sources: e-to-the-x and e-to-the-x).


Strategy: If you’re consistently getting a 4/6 or lower on your essay, work on your arguments and support first, then grammar, THEN vocabulary.

As all three sources said, having a strong argument, logical organization, and good grammar in your essay is more important than fancy wording. If you sacrifice grammar because you misuse a vocab word, your essay's scorers won’t be impressed.

If you’re consistently getting stuck at a 5, THEN it might be time to work on sprucing up your vocabulary, varying your sentence structures, and improving your transitions.


Spruce owl thinks you should only work on "sprucing up" your vocabulary if you've mastered a strong argument and good grammar.


4. Fact: You can prepare for the SAT essay

Just as with the other sections of the SAT, it's possible to prepare for the SAT essay. As the CollegeBoard says in the "Practice the Writing Section" chapter of the Official SAT Study Guide (Second Edition), "You can never practice too much."


Myth: You can write and memorize a few essays on a couple of different topics ahead of time, then just “steer” the actual SAT prompt towards those essays.

WRONG. Working on set topic essays can be helpful because it gets you used to arguing in the way you need to on the SAT, but replicating it when the topic is different will lose you points and, in the worst cases, cause you to get a 0 for writing off-topic. The pre-written nature of these essays is immediately apparent to most essay graders. In fact, when asked about the mistake that most affected the overall grade she gave SAT essays, an actual SAT grader responded:

“Artificiality. Trying to shoehorn in a canned essay they've written and essentially memorized before, or canned, pre-prepared ideas, or throw in bit words without regard to appropriateness. It needs to sound natural, not contrived.”


Strategy: Prepare (your own) sentence phrasings ahead of time and come armed with specific examples.

If you tend to freeze up under pressure, then it's a good idea to write out and memorize well-constructed sentences that can be used for a variety of prompts. Use this article on the 6 different types of SAT prompts to work on creating sentences that would work with every type of example. For instance, for prompts in the form of "Which is better," you could prepare a transition sentence like this:

"Another instance that demonstrates how [one thing] is more effective than [the other thing] can be found in [some historical or literary example]."

Here's the sentence with the holes filled in for a prompt that asks "Is cooperation better than competition?"

"Another instance that demonstrates how cooperation is more effective than competition can be found in the dividing up of the "magnificent African cake" by European colonial powers in the late 19th century."

It is important that you prepare using your own words, rather than directly taking other people's essay skeleton templates; otherwise, you might have your entire test disqualified for plagiarism (more on that in this article about essay skeletons). Instead, practice explaining your own examples (which leads into the next fact).


Skeleton by Sue Clark, used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.
You wouldn't want to use someone else's skeleton as your own, right? Just look at that hopeful skull face skull!


5. Fact: You need to support your point with specific examples

The single most important piece of advice I have for students preparing for the SAT essay is to use specific examples. Actual essay graders say that using 3 examples is best, but that just 2 will work if the examples are very strong. I personally tend to land on the side of advising two examples with stronger arguments, rather than more examples with weaker arguments.


Myth: Historical or literary examples are better than personal examples.

While Klein notes in her article that "higher scores seemed to go to writers who made sure at least one or two of their anecdotes were not personal,” this is not a cause-and-effect thing. Instead, the issue seems to be that students who use personal examples tend to go off-topic and use a more informal tone, which means that the students who use personal anecdotes aren't receiving lower grades on their essays because of the kind of example per se; it’s the way these personal examples are presented that causes a drop in essay score.

Take the prompt I used before, "Is cooperation better than competition?" Let's say that I want to use a personal example about working with classmates on a project to support my thesis that cooperation is more effective than competition. Here's an example of an example that goes off-topic:

I have experienced how cooperation is more effective than competition in my own life. In AP Macro, we split up into teams to do final projects on the stuff we'd learned. We got to choose our teams, but of course could only choose from other kids in the class. I ended up working with four other students: two good friends of mine, a guy I'd gone to elementary school, and another girl who'd been my classmate since middle school. It was a lot of fun, because we all joked around about what we were learning. A lot of times our work sessions ended up involving YouTube videos about Ben Bernanke singing or other things like that, which made us all want to hang out more. We ended up all doing well on the project.

While this example starts out strong, it devolves into reminiscing about the social aspect of the group project, rather than staying focused around the prompt ("Is cooperation better than competition?").


Strategy: Prepare your examples ahead of time.

Pick out a couple each of historical, literary, pop culture/current event, and personal examples that can be used as examples of many different things. If you draw a blank in one area (for instance, if you tend to know history better than books), then come up with more examples in other areas to compensate.

Next, practice writing about these examples and explaining them in a formal way (particularly when it comes to the stories and examples from your own life). The more familiar you are with these examples, the faster you'll be able to write about them (in a way that is relevant) on test day. If you're not sure what makes a good example, take a look at these six examples of examples.


Bernanke presents state of the economy by Medill DC, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
A good example of the inspiration for my AP Macro group project...but not, perhaps, of why cooperation is better than competition.


6. Fact: Your essay does not have to be factually correct.

This is a little known fact about the SAT essay that I really wish I'd known when I was taking the SAT way back when. Because SAT essay scorers do not have time to fact check, they are not allowed to deduct points if you make a mistake about a date on an essay; in fact, part of the training that SAT essay scorers go through involves teaching them to ignore factual inaccuracies (no small roadbloack for experienced teachers to have to get past!).

A corollary of this lack of fact-checking is that you can make stuff up on the essay. You can do things like write that the black plague was caused by penicillin, and the graders have to take your word for it.


Myth: Filling up the page is more important that content.

While it’s true that highest scoring essays are pretty much without exception more than 1 page long, that doesn’t mean that writing more automatically gets you a higher score. Correlation does not imply causation; the reason longer essays score better is because the students who write longer essays are usually the ones who have more to say. You can't just write a short story instead of the prompt, or fill up the last 2/3 of your second page with “I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony.”

Even less extreme tactics aimed at filling up the page (repeating yourself, drawing out your words and phrases, making your handwriting bigger) won’t affect your score positively and may actually end up costing you points (for lack of clarity or organization).


Strategy: Make up examples and information that supports your point.

Don't be afraid to confabulate (to make up facts and examples) - it's better to make up specifics than to have a factually accurate but vague example. Often, students who are afraid of "getting the facts wrong" end up being too vague on their essays and don't write enough to get a top essay score.

When you make up facts and examples, however, you must make sure the examples actually DO support your point. And just as with the previous strategy, be clear and use a formal tone in your explanation – graders might be less convinced by your personal example if you say it happened to a friend of yours named “Iha Teessays” or “Colonel Patchypants,” rather than to a more realistically-named “Sam Vimes” or “Juanita Callahan.”


body_patchypantsClown shoes by Melissa Wiese, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Colonel Patchypants, I presume?


7. Fact: 4-, 5-, and 6- scoring essays are the most difficult to tell apart

All of the sources I consulted confirmed that actual SAT essay graders can have a hard time telling the top-scoring essays apart (although sometimes 6 essays are really easy to pick out, just because they are so outstanding). Is the essay "generally organized and focused," or "well organized and focused?" Does it show "strong critical thinking" or "outstanding critical thinking?" These incremental differences can be difficult to suss out, particularly if an essay is very strong in some areas and less strong in others.

Because SAT essay graders get penalized for scoring essays >1 point apart from each other (especially if it happens multiple times), they prefer hedging bets and scoring the middle of the range they think the essay is in. As one grader pointed out, if an essay is at least at 4, a 5 would be the safest grade for an essay scorer to give because that score is within one point of a 4 OR a 6, whereas giving the essay a "4" could result in penalties if the other grader gives it a "6."


Strategy: Work on getting your essay up to a consistent 4

If you can consistently write a 4-scoring essay, then there is a chance that an essay grader might look at it and think "Better give this a 5 to be on the safe side."

To consistently write at least a 4-scoring essay, you must use specific examples to support your thesis and have an organized essay as well as write in standard written English grammar (no "4" instead of "four" or "b/c" instead of "because"). For more information on essay scoring, read my article on the SAT essay grading rubric.




Essay Strategies Summary

  1. Make sure your essay has a solid thesis statement at the beginning and clear organization overall
  2. Leave yourself time to revise so that minor grammar errors don't add up.
  3. Vocabulary is not as important as strong arguments and clear explanations of examples
  4. Prepare some sentence phrasings/transitional phrases ahead of time (as long as the wording is your own)
  5. Prepare specific examples ahead of time.
  6. Make up examples to support your point if you need to (but make the examples convincing and clear)
  7. Aim for at least a 4 to give yourself a chance to edge over into another scoring level.


What’s Next?

Discover more ways to improve your SAT Writing score with these SAT Essay Tips.

Learn the distinction between using suggestions from a published SAT essay skeleton and plagiarism.

Watch us write a top-scoring SAT essay, step-by-step.

Do longer SAT essays score higher? Read about how essay score is related to essay length.



Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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