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
You know the ancient saying–if you want to pass the test, you need to understand the grader.
What? You’ve never heard that? Well, it’s true. If you understand just how your SAT essay is graded, you’ll have a much better idea about how to write a killer one. For more fantastic tips…come on a journey with me.
So you’ve just finished your SAT essay. You’ve crossed all your Ts, dotted all your Is, and you’re about to turn it in to your proctor, after which your essay will end up in some dark, cold abyss somewhere, never to be seen again…
Stinks, doesn’t it? After all, you spent SO much time studying for the SAT, writing practice essays, and learning all the essay tricks and hints. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what happens to your essay after you’ve turned it in? Or better yet, wouldn’t it be nice to know how your essay will be scored?
Well, you’re in luck! Lookin’ for answers? We’ve got ’em.
After reading this blog post, you’ll have a better idea of how exactly the SAT essay is scored, and you’ll take comfort in knowing that your essay isn’t wasting away in some ditch somewhere.
How are SAT essays scored?
Before I talk about the specifics of the SAT essay grading scale, and the makings of a perfect essay, it’s important that you understand the SAT essay grading process.
Sooo… Where exactly does my essay go?
Ah, great question.
After you turn your essay in, your essay gets scanned and sent off to two different essay readers via the interweb. (Note: “interweb” is a slang term, and you probably shouldn’t use it in your essay. Carry on.)
These readers read your essay thoroughly and, based on a number of criteria, assign your essay a score out of 6. The two readers scores are then combined, so your total score is out of twelve.
If the scores of the two readers differ by more than a point, a third grader is brought in (this rarely happens).
Readers are supervised by online scoring leaders, who, according to CollegeBoard, are “experienced essay readers with special training in online scoring” (whatever that means).
So you get the idea—your essay gets digitally sent off to a couple former teachers or grad students looking for some extra cash. But how do they actually score your essay? What criteria are you judged on?
What am I scored on?
Here’s a little snippet that should help, taken directly from the CollegeBoard website:
Pretty reasonable, right? After all, this is the SAT Reasoning Test (ba-dum-TSH).
Basically, they want to see that you can make logical connections to support some sort of argument or claim (your thesis) and that your paper is generally well-written (good vocabulary, organization, grammar, sentence structure, etc.).
If I had to pick one piece of criteria I think is most important, I’d say that you must draw from examples to support the claim of your essay, whether they be from history, literature, personal experience, or something you made up (you can make up examples in your essay, did I mention that?).
What am I NOT scored on?
Fortunately for those of you with bad penmanship, the quality of one’s handwriting is not taken into consideration when assigning their essay score. In fact, the SAT readers are actually trained to be able to decipher even the sloppiest handwriting!
Also, to those of you who are under the impression that a longer essay is a better essay, I’d hate to break it to you, but you are sadly mistaken. The SAT essay readers are instructed not to judge an essay on its length, but rather its quality.
BUT DON’T GO CRAZY. Just because the SAT readers aren’t supposed to judge you by your handwriting or the length of your essay, it does not mean that you should write a sloppy 2-sentence essay.
It is often very difficult to produce a quality essay in less than 3 paragraphs, and while the neatness of your handwriting cannot hurt you, it can only help!
What does my score mean?
As I mentioned earlier, your total SAT essay score is calculated by taking the sum of the scores assigned to you by two separate readers. Let’s say you receive a score of 10. That means that each essay grader gave you a score of 5 (scores cannot differ by more than one point).
Here’s a quick rundown of what each score means:
Score of 0—receiving a score of 0 means that you did not even attempt to write an essay on the given prompt. So if, for whatever reason, you decided to draw a pretty picture instead, that’s probably why you got a 0.
Score of 1—a score of 1 means that, while you did attempt the assignment and answered the question, you did so in a flawed manner. You probably did not include any relevant examples, and displayed consistent grammatical and spelling errors. If you simply write, “I agree” in the essay booklet, you will receive a score of 1.
Score of 2—a score of 2 basically means that, while you did make an effort to include examples to support your argument, the essay was not well organized and the examples given were not logically connected to the essay’s main argument. (So, if you say “I agree that cell phones should be allowed in classrooms…because I love Channing Tatum, and my friend and I went to lunch yesterday, and Sally Ride was the first American woman in space,” you’d get a 2.)
Score of 3—a score of 3 means that your essay was okay. You included relevant examples and wrote an essay that, for the most part, makes sense, but you may have strongly lacked in other areas (reasoning, sentence structure, grammar, etc.).
Score of 4—a score of 4 means that your essay is doing everything right, but could be doing a lot more. You probably showed okay reasoning skills, but maybe you could have broadened your vocabulary a bit, or varied up sentence structure a little more.
Score of 5—a score of 5 means your essay is really good, but that it’s missing…something. You may have made a good argument, and provided adequate examples to support your reasoning, but your essay is just missing that WOW factor.
Score of 6—a score of 6 means that your essay was perfect, save for a couple small errors. Essays with scores of 6 typically have some quality that makes them stand out, such as a strong voice.
So don’t worry! Your essay doesn’t just disappear when it leaves your hands.
Actually, the folks at CollegeBoard put a whole lot of effort into making sure that your essay is handled with care, and that you receive only the grade that you deserve.
And now you know:
- Two graders read your essay and give it a score of 0-6.
- SAT graders are trained to decipher even the sloppiest handwriting.
- If you try to answer the question, you’ll get at least a 1.
What are your experiences with essay-writing? Are you nervous about the essay portion? Did you write a killer essay and you’re just trying to re-live the moment? Let us know in the comments!
Dressler Parsons spent most of her childhood in an adobe house her father built in rural Arizona. Right now, she's taking so many business and art classes at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and plans to graduate in Fall 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Intermedia. And, handily enough, her SAT scores and grades qualified her for ASU's Presidential Scholarship (worth $24,000), as well as the AIMS tuition waiver. She is passionate about showing people their potential for a bright, beautiful future. In her free time, she cooks edible things and knits inedible ones.