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“I heard the SAT essay doesn’t even matter,” said my first student of the day as we settled into our chairs in my SAT tutoring office.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” I asked her.
“Well, my best friend said that she heard that nobody even looks at it. She said you can just write whatever you want, and you don’t even have to answer the question because your score doesn’t really matter to colleges or scholarships.”
“Hmm…” I said, and let her continue.
“Yeah, and, (I think) my counselor said it doesn’t matter either. Like, colleges don’t look at the Writing section so your essay doesn’t matter, or something.”
Me: Long sigh….
What is the SAT essay?
The SAT test is made up of three primary sections:
The Writing section tests your knowledge of English-language grammar and composition. As part of the Writing section, there is a 25-minute timed essay.
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When it comes to the SAT Essay:
- The topic is unknown before the test
- The 25 minute time limit is virtually no time at all
- Forget what you know: you’ll get a great score by writing a predictable essay
- A better vocabulary will always help you
What is tested by the SAT essay?
There are some good reasons behind giving you an essay on the SAT. Since the test is designed to assess your college readiness, doesn’t it make sense to ask you to:
- Take one side or the other on an issue
- Clearly build an argument
- Provide concrete evidence to support your points
- Show the organization behind your thought process
- Prove you can write an argumentative short essay
- Demonstrate the strength of your vocabulary
These don’t matter to your SAT Essay score:
What’s not tested by the SAT essay are things like:
- Avoiding cliche ideas
- Accuracy of your evidence (you can lie!)
Isn’t that crazy? It doesn’t matter if your writing is interesting or unique. It doesn’t matter if you use the same examples everyone else did. It doesn’t even matter if you get your facts completely wrong.
You can literally support your essay by using evidence drawn from the life of “Mahatma Gandhi, moon-president of dolphin-land in the year 2099,” as long as your use of the evidence stays on-topic.
While this might seem fun and entertaining, the truth is, there’s not enough time to enjoy making up lies for your essay.
Instead, use this no-facts-necessary loophole in a less-obvious way: just relax about your facts. If they’re not perfect, you’ll still be ok.
How is the SAT Essay scored?
The SAT essay is graded by two human graders on a scale of 1-6 (6 is best). Then the scores are added and your essay is combined with your Grammar multiple-choice test.
A 6 is an “average” score on the SAT Essay. A 9 or a 10 is a “good” score. An 11 or a 12 is a great score. I believe any student can get a 10, and almost every student can get an 11 or a 12, as long as they study and practice.
There is some room for flexibility, but on average, the essay is about 30% of your entire Writing score, (about 10% of your entire SAT score).
Surprisingly, it is possible to get a perfect 2400 on the SAT without getting a perfect 12 on the essay. I think this means that grammar skills are slightly more important than essay-writing skills, at least for SAT prep.
Do colleges care about your SAT essay?
So, does the SAT essay score matter?
On the one hand, yes, it definitely does.
On the other, I think I can see where this urban legend that it doesn’t matter got started, because I agree that the SAT essay is the least important section of the SAT.
Here’s the thing, though – all sections of the SAT are important.
They all interact and work together, contributing to the impression your college resume and scholarship apps make on the people judging and comparing you as a student.
Every point, every accolade and award matters in this highly-competitive environment. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise is not using their common sense.
So bottom line, yes, your SAT essay score makes a difference.
Differences between colleges:
Some consider it highly important; others think of it more like a tie-breaker; some schools ignore it entirely.
Yup, you heard that right. After everything I just said about how important the essay is, I’m now telling you that some colleges will ignore it entirely.
Mostly, though, these are large and very large universities that either don’t have time to read everyone’s essay, or that haven’t adjusted yet to the SAT writing section (it’s a relatively recent addition to the test).
To maximize your chances at the widest variety of great schools, you must take the SAT essay seriously and get a solid score on it (shooting for a 10, 11, or a 12.)
Enough colleges give serious consideration to your essay score to make it worth the preparation and study time needed to ace the test.
How to improve your SAT essay score:
Hopefully this article has done its job and convinced you that the SAT essay is, in fact, quite important to your future (and so is the rest of the SAT test!).
It’s also significantly different from any other essay you’ve ever written. The short time limit, random prompt, standardized grading, and ability to lie about your evidence all contribute to an effective strategy.
Three tricks to ace the SAT essay are:
Other articles on this site discuss where to get evidence (including my most popular post on SAT historical evidence). You should also check out my books for more ideas and details and be sure to build up your SAT vocabulary to improve the strength of your writing.
Finally, practice is something you do on your own time by setting a stopwatch for 25 minutes and writing a complete essay on a random prompts.
I hope this article has removed a little bit of misinformation from your life – as a pro tutor I know just how much bad advice there is surrounding this essay test!
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