SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

SAT Essay Scoring: The Real Story


It's 17-19 days after your SAT test date, so you log into the CollegeBoard website, eager to see how you did. You look at your essay score and see...“9.”

You check for more detail in your score report and see that Grader 1 gave you a 5, Grader 2 gave you a 4...and that's it.

So how are SAT essays graded, and how can you use this information to your advantage? Read on to find out!

feature image credit: Iffy explains it all by Quinn Dombrowski, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped and resized 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.


A Quick Look Into SAT Essay Grading

The first thing you do when you sit down to take the SAT is the 25-minute essay section. Once you write your essay (as well as the rest of the test), though, what happens to it?

Your essay is scanned and uploaded to an essay grading interface and graders then grade it. SAT essays are currently graded on a scale of 1-6 by two graders, giving you a total essay score out of 12. This score out of 12, along with your raw score on the SAT Writing multiple-choice questions, is factored into your total SAT Writing score. If the two graders give you scores more than 1 point apart (i.e. if one grader gives your essay a 2 and another gives your essay a 4), a third essay grader will be brought in to resolve the issue.

Your SAT essay scores are based on each essay grader’s impression of your essay as a whole, which is why the SAT essay is said to be graded "holistically." You don’t get a certain number of points taken off for grammar mistakes or for organizational issues, as you might on a normal school essay. In fact, graders are trained to ignore minor errors in grammar, sentence structure, and so on.

Important note: In March 2016, the SAT essay will be changing in format and grading structure, so some of this information may not be accurate for that test. Check back for updates!


SAT Essay Scoring: Official Policy

How are graders supposed to grade? I've copied the official policy from the CollegeBoard below:

“The SAT Scoring Guide expresses the criteria readers use to evaluate and score the student essays. The guide is structured on a six-point scale. Since the SAT essay is scored holistically, readers are trained to use the SAT Scoring Guide in conjunction with anchor papers, which have been scored by consensus as representative examples. The language of the Scoring Guide provides a consistent and coherent framework for differentiating between score points, without defining specific traits or types of essays that define each score point.”

What's the SAT Scoring Guide? While I've written another article that goes into detail about the SAT essay grading rubric, I'll give a quick rundown of its main points here:


Point of View, Logic, and Support

You must: Have a clear opinion on the prompt (a thesis).

Make sure you clearly answer the essay prompt, both in your introduction with a thesis statement and over the course of your essay. For example, take the essay prompt were "Are important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?" Your thesis (and your essay) should clearly answer this question, preferably with a "yes" or "no" (SAT essays that try to answer "sort of yes, sort of no" tend to be weaker, since you only have 25 minutes to write your essay).


You must: Use specific examples to support your point.

You can't just say "my point of view is correct because it is" and be done. Instead, you need to use specific examples from history, literature, pop culture/current events, or your own life to support your thesis.


You must: Explain these specific examples in a way that supports your thesis.

It's also not enough to just write your thesis and then describe a specific example - you also need to explain why that example supports your thesis.


Organization and Focus

You must: Keep your essay organized.

This means sticking to a clear essay structure (with an introduction, body paragraphs for each example, and a conclusion) as well as making sure your thoughts are organized within each paragraph.


Vocabulary and Word Choice

In order to score highly, you must: Use a wide variety of vocabulary correctly.

It's good to use advanced vocabulary, but only if you're using the words correctly. You can get away with a few errors, but if your word choice starts to seriously affect the meaning of your sentences, your essay score may drop.


Sentence Structure

In order to score highly, you must: Use a variety of sentence structures.

As I've said in other articles, this is the area that I struggle the most with under time pressure. As long as you don't start multiple sentences in a row with the same word (oops) or write sentences that all have the same underlying structure (e.g. "Gandhi was a great leader. India was in trouble. The world was watching."), however, you should be fine.


Grammar, Etc.

You must: Use standard written English grammar.

Again, it's all right to make minor errors in grammar and punctuation in your essay - graders are trained to overlook minor issues. If your essay has consistent issues with grammar that make it difficult to understand your reasoning, however, this will affect your essay score.


SAT Essay Grading in Practice

Essay graders don’t grade based on how correct your statements are. This means that you can write things like "My friend was killed by a polar bear because he didn't go to the instructional course about how to deal with bear attacks" or "The Scopes Monkey Trial ended with Scopes being executed for his belief in evolution" and the graders will have to take it as true.

My reaction when I first learned this: WHAT. How can that be true?! So I investigated further and found the reasons that lie behind this rule.

Because SAT essay scorers don’t have time to fact check each and every fact in each and every essay, they must take everything you write in your essay as true. Plus, the stated purpose of the SAT essay assignment is to "show how effectively you can develop and express ideas" in 25 minutes. The CollegeBoard understands that under the time pressure of a 25-minute essay students will sometimes write things like "World War I took place in the early 1800s" (instead of "the early 1900s"). As long as your statements logically support your thesis, you're in the clear (although if you write things that don’t make sense that undermine your main point, your essay grade will suffer).

Second, while there’s nothing in the publicly available official guidelines that say how long each grader has to grade, interviews with and articles by former SAT essay graders have provided further information about the grading process: if an essay scorer takes longer than 2-3 minutes to grade each essay, she has to be "retrained." This process is annoying, as the grader has to grade a series of pre-graded essays and make sure she's within a point of the grade before she can get back to grading actual student essays.

Graders may also be forced to retrain if they run into a prescored essay that's been thrown in among the student essays and don't score it within one point of the score. To avoid all of this retraining, graders will sometimes score in the middle of a range to stay on the safe side. For example, if an essay is at least a 4, a grader might score it a 5 because that grade is within one point of a 6 OR a 4 (and might be right on target with a 5).


"These score results show the need for retraining. Let us return Grader 18927 to the vat."


What Does This Mean for Your SAT Essay?

Now that you know a little more about the official SAT essay grading policies and the reality of SAT essay grading, how can you use this information to write higher-scoring essays?

Don’t hide your thesis. Graders spend 2-3 minutes per essay or else face a retraining penalty. They will not be happy if they have to hunt all over to find your point of view, so state your thesis clearly in your introduction.

Be organized. Again, because the grader is spending a short amount of time on your essay, you want to make it easier for her to follow your logic.

You can make a few mistakes. As long as errors in your grammar, punctuation, and spelling don’t significantly affect the readability of your essay, your essay's graders won’t penalize you for it. Similarly, as long as the facts you use in your essay logically support your thesis, it doesn't matter if they're actually true or not. For instance, you could completely change the plot of a novel like George Orwell's Animal Farm, and as long as the changes you've made make logical sense, the graders must not penalize you for it.


What’s Next?

Curious about what standards SAT essay scorers are using to grade your essay? Go into more detail on this topic with my article on the SAT Grading Rubric.

Now that you know how your essay is scored, find out what's a good SAT essay score and compare it to the average SAT essay score.

Get more insights on the SAT essay with our strategies for the SAT essay, based on stories of former SAT essay graders.



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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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