Update: This post has been updated for the redesigned New SAT, which premiered in March 2016 and has an entirely new (and entirely optional) essay, by David Recine. Here’s what you need to know!
Only want the facts? Here’s the short answer:
Your New SAT essay will be scored by two professional, human, essay readers. Both essay graders will score each of the three different New SAT essay skills (reading, analysis, and writing) in your essay on a scale of 1 to 4, with the combined score expressed as three digits with slashes between them, each digit representing the score you got on one of the New SAT Essay skills components. (A perfect SAT essay score would be 8/8/8.) If you leave your New SAT essay blank or don’t address the essay topic at all, you will receive a score of zero. Now for more detail…
It’s natural that the New SAT essay has its own grading system, independent of the rest of the test; this portion of the test is an optional add-on, and it’s not multiple-choice or fill-in-grid like the rest of the exam. But it’s not immediately obvious how SAT essay scores fit into the big-picture New SAT 1600 point scale or what it means for you.
How SAT essay scores are calculated
The way your writing is graded is, on the surface, about what you would expect it to be. A human reader (a real live person!) takes a few minutes to read over your essay, then gives it a mark from 0-6. The 0 is the bad one, in case you weren’t sure.
Of course, 0 isn’t a real grade—it’s just what you get if write nothing or an essay on a completely different topic. In other words, memorizing a spectacular essay and then copying it down word for word wouldn’t help you. If you don’t write on the SAT essay prompt you’re given, you get nothing even if the writing is on par with Hemingway.
So if you write a single relevant word, then, you’re in the 1-4 range for each of the three New SAT essay skills—but that’s per grader. You see, SAT essay scores come from two readers. It would be pretty absurd if, by a role of the essay-grader dice, you just got that one crotchety old misanthrope who gave everybody a 1 (not that the College Board really hires guys like that), so there’s a safeguard. Two readers have to give similar scores, and you then get a combined score ranging between 2/2/2 and 8/8/8. If their two scores are more than 1 point separate (e.g. a 2 and a 4), then a third grader comes in to settle the dispute. An essay grader, that is. Not an elementary school student. That third reader, we can imagine, is a seasoned veteran. The score they give you would then be factored in to get your new, final 3-digit score.
Those original 1-4 marks are taken from a holistic view of your essay (check out the College Board’s rubric), at least theoretically. That means that there’s no special way to get an 8 (nor a 2)—everything is taken into account. That being said, some factors are more immediately noticeable than others. So be sure to practice fundamental New Sat Writing techniques that demonstrate your command of reading comprehension, rhetorical analysis, and the conventions of academic writing.
How essay grades affect scaled scores
In the previous version of the SAT, essays were a mandatory part of the exam, and essay scores had a significant impact on the final scaled score. However, in the New SAT, the essay is optional and scored completely separately from the main 1600 point four-section exam. On a New SAT score report, your essay score will appear separately from your scaled composite Reading/Writing/Math score—if you choose to take the essay, that is.
Certainly, if you choose to take the New SAT essay and do poorly on it, it can cast an otherwise good SAT score in a different light. A good 1600-scale score can look less impressive next to an essay score of—say—2/2/2 on the optional essay. Still, an essay score of at least 6/6/6 can complement a composite score on the main test nicely. And an 8/8/8 on an SAT essay is likely to impress university admissions representatives, even at universities that don’t require an SAT essay score.
And essay writing is, in some ways, one of the easiest SAT skills to improve. There’s a process you can follow, a structure of analysis, that will ensure decent scores. It’s not actually all that simple to go from a score of 2 to a score of 8 in all three categories, but with practice it’s definitely possible for a student to reach a score of 6 or higher in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. If writing a weak spot of yours, studying for the New SAT essay is still a potentially great opportunity to boost the value of your score report. Taking this optional component of the test is always worth considering.
About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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You've gotten back your SAT scores. On your score report, there's information about how you did on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math, compared to students in the previous year's graduating class who took the SAT.
But what about your essay? How does your essay score compare to everyone else? There's no percentile information for that in the score report.
Find out what an average SAT essay score looks like (and how you stack up) in this article!
feature image credit: FLL Small, Medium, & Large Trophies by David Luders, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
What’s an Average SAT Essay Score?
First, a quick reminder about how SAT essays are scored: two graders score each SAT essay on a scale of 1-4 across three different dimensions:
Summed together, this means your score can range between 2 and 8 for each area. There is no longer one single "total" SAT essay score, just Reading, Analysis, and Writing essay scores.
Logically, it would seem that the average SAT essay score in each domain should be a 5 (since that's halfway between 2 and 8). The most recent SAT essay score data bears this out except when it comes to the Analysis dimension.
The average SAT essay score for students graduating high school in 2017 was 5 out of 8 for Reading, 4 out of 8 for Analysis, and 5 out of 8 for Writing (source: CollegeBoard 2017 Total Group Report).
To get a better idea of how frequently different essay scores were assigned, I created several different SAT essay score distribution charts that show how many students got each essay score for Reading, Analysis, and Writing.
The data in this first chart shows the distribution of scores across all three dimensions for students who graduated high school in 2017.
Distribution of SAT Essay Scores for the 2017 Graduating Class
(data source for all graphs: CollegeBoard)
From this chart, we can see that there's the same general trend for the numbers of students who got various Reading and Writing scores, while there's something quite different going on with Analysis scores. Let's separate these scores out into separate graphs, starting with Reading and Writing essay scores.
Distribution of SAT Essay Reading Scores for the 2017 Graduating Class
Distribution of SAT Essay Writing Scores for the 2017 Graduating Class
If you compare the graphs for the distribution of Reading and Writing scores, you'll see a striking similarity between them when it comes to how many students got each score on Reading and Writing. There's a huge drop-off from the middle range of scores (4-6) to the upper and lower ends of the scale.
Because so many people score towards the middle on SAT Essay Reading and Writing scores, it's safe to say that if you score a 3 or below, your essay score is definitely lower than average; if you score a 5-6, your score is pretty average; and if you score a 7 or above, your score is significantly higher than average.
Things are a little murkier when it comes to the Analysis essay scores. Let's take a look.
Distribution of SAT Essay Analysis Scores for the 2017 Graduating Class
In contrast to the trend for Reading and Writing scores, Analysis scores are heavily skewed toward the bottom of the scale. Even though the average Analysis score for 2017 was a 4 out of 8 (which is towards the middle), the Analysis score the most students received was 2 out of 8.
Why did so many students score lower on Analysis, while still managing to do okay on Reading and Writing? The most likely answer is that the Analysis dimension is the part of the SAT essay task that is most different from what students have had to do on other standardized test essays.
Instead of giving their opinion on the passage in the SAT essay prompt, students are asked to analyze the author's opinion. While this analysis is pretty straightforward once you manage to wrap your mind around it, it is very different from what students had to do on the old SAT essay (and what students are still asked to do on the ACT essay) and other standardized essays like DBQs.
Because of the different trends for Analysis scores on the SAT essay, an Analysis score of a 6 or above puts you well above average; a score of 3-5 is solidly middle of the pack; and a score of 2 is low. If you did get a 2/8 Analysis score, the good news is that you can most likely boost it to at least a 4 (if not a 6 or higher) by reviewing these 15 SAT essay tips.
When colleges look at your SAT scores, however, they usually won't look at your essay scores all by themselves. Most schools look at your overall SAT score first, your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math scores next, and your essay scores last (if they care about your SAT essay scores at all). This leads into my next point...
How Much Does My Essay Score Matter?
Because your essay score no longer affects your Writing section score on the SAT, the importance of the SAT Essay has decreased significantly. More and more schools are dropping the requirement for students to submit SAT with Essay scores entirely, and schools that do require the SAT Essay often place much less importance on your essay score than on your other SAT scores.
Still, there are highly competitive programs and schools that use SAT scores to place students in the appropriate level classes that require students to submit SAT Essay scores. For these kinds of schools, while your SAT essay score still won't matter as much as almost any other part of your application, you'll still want to aim for a high enough score that you're not immediately disqualified (or so that you don't get bumped down into remedial writing).
So what's the average SAT essay score you should target for more competitive schools?Our advice is to aim for at least a 6 out of 8 on Reading, Analysis, and Writing.
Higher essay scores (particularly on the Analysis dimension) are even better, but a 6 out of 8 shows that you have above-average writing skills on a standardized essay written at the end of a multihour-long test. In cases where admissions offices might wonder if your application's personal statement was a fluke, your SAT essay scores can confirm that you do have a certain level of writing ability. And the SAT essay rubric requirements to get a 6 out of 8 on each section are a pretty reasonable minimum standard for colleges to expect students to meet.
What If My SAT Essay Scores Are Below Average?
If you're struggling to get a 4 or above on each SAT essay section, don't despair—you're not alone, and there is hope.
Start by reading our collection of SAT essay blog articles. I recommend starting with our introduction to the new SAT essay prompts, our SAT essay tips article, and our explanation of the SAT essay rubric. Next, follow along as I write an SAT essay, step-by-step. With these four articles, you'll learn just what is required to excel in each dimension of the SAT essay and how to approach reading the prompt, analyzing the passage, and writing the essay.
For further help, you can take a look at how to create your own SAT essay templates and how to get a perfect 8/8/8 score on the SAT essay. If you're struggling with identifying how the authors of SAT essay prompts build their argument, we also go into the six most common argumentative essay devices.
Finally, if you think you'd benefit from more personalized feedback on your essay writing, you might want to try out PrepScholar SAT. You'll get to write essays on official SAT essay prompts and receive feedback from graders on what you're doing well and how you can improve and boost your score to the next level.
Now that you know what an average SAT essay score is, what should be your target? Learn more with our article on what a good SAT essay score is for you.
Discover what the relationship is between SAT essay length and essay score here!
Do you need to submit an SAT essay score for the schools you're applying to? Find out if your schools are on the list of schools requiring the SAT with essay here.
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