Sat Essay Guides

The essay portion of the SAT has a somewhat lengthy and tumultuous history. After all, the very first College Board standardized tests delivered in 1900 were entirely essay-based, but the SAT had dropped all essays from its format by the 1920s and did not reappear again until 2005.


When another redesign of the SAT was announced in 2014, many wondered if the essay, as the most recent addition, would make the cut. The College Board, considering whether to keep it or not, reportedly sought feedback from hundreds of members in admissions and enrollment. Advocates of the essay felt it gave candidates more dimension. Critics believed that the essay was not indicative of college readiness. A review of assessment validity confirmed that the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT “is deeply predictive of college success,” whereas the essay is much less so.


Ultimately, the decision was made to make the essay an optional part of the SAT. This was an innovative move, signaling the first time that the College Board had made any component of the SAT optional.


Furthermore, the essay format has changed as well. Instead of arguing a specific side of a debate or topic presented in the prompt, you will now be asked to analyze a passage for writing style. This prompt is more aligned with the types of critical writing pieces that you can expect to be assigned in college.


As with all things new, the new SAT has taken some getting used to. Students, parents, teachers, and tutors alike have had to adjust to some significant changes in format and content. But the good news is that the new SAT is no longer an unknown variable. The essay in particular is now a well-known and understood piece of the puzzle, with the prompt remaining the same on each administration of the test. The only thing that has changed is the passage to be analyzed.


To learn more about the most significant changes on the SAT, read CollegeVine’s A Guide to the New SAT or review Khan Academy’s video overview of Content Changes to the New SAT.

Do I have to take the SAT with Essay?

As mentioned above, the essay is technically an optional section on the SAT — so no, you are not required to take it. That being said, some colleges or universities do require applicants to submit SAT with Essay scores. If you choose not to take the essay portion of the test, you will not be an eligible applicant for any of these schools. To find the essay policy at schools you’re interested in, use the College Board’s College Essay Policies search feature.

Should I take the optional SAT Essay?

If you are at all unsure of which colleges you’ll be applying to, or you know that at least one of the schools you’re interested in requires the SAT with Essay, you should go ahead and take the essay portion of the test. If you don’t register for the SAT with Essay at first, you can add it later through your online College Board account. Registration for the SAT with Essay costs $57 as opposed to the $45 for the SAT without the optional essay section.


What is the format of the new SAT Essay?

The new SAT Essay is a lot like a typical college or upper-level high school writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. You’ll be provided a passage between 650 and 750 words, and you will be asked to explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience. You will need to use evidence from the text to support your explanation. Unlike on past SATs, you will not be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic, and you will not be asked to write about your personal experiences.


You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your work, and write your essay. Although this seems like an extremely limited amount of time, it is actually double the time allowed on the SAT Essay prior to March 2016.


The instructions and prompt on the SAT Essay, beginning in March 2016, are always the same. They read:


As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses:


  • Evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims
  • Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed


These instructions will be followed by the passage that you’re intended to analyze. After the passage, you will see the prompt:


Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience of [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.


Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.


Although you can expect the passages to be different, they will all share some common characteristics. You can expect the SAT Essay to be based on passages that are written for a broad audience, argue a point, express subtle views on complex subjects, and use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims. These passages examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts and sciences; or civic, cultural, or political life; and they are always taken from published works.


How will my essay be assessed?

Your essay will be assessed in three scoring categories, each of which will be included on your score report. Two people will read your essay and score it independently. These scorers will each award between one and four points in each scoring category. If the scores you receive in a single category vary by more than one point, an SAT expert scorer will review your essay.


The scoring categories are:



A successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence.



A successful essay shows your understanding of how the author builds an argument by:


  • Examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic and persuasive techniques
  • Supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage



A successful essay is focused, organized, and precise, with an appropriate style and tone that varies sentence structure and follows the conventions of standard written English.


Scores on the SAT Essay range from six to 24. To review a more specific breakdown for each scoring category, see the College Board SAT Essay Scoring Rubric.


Is my essay score always included on my score report sent to colleges?

Yes, your essay scores will always be reported with your other test scores from that day. There is no option to report only specific sections of your score. Even if you use Score Choice to choose which day’s scores you send to colleges, you can never send only some scores from a certain test day. For example, you cannot select to send Math scores but not Writing and Language or Essay scores.


What are the key strategies for the new SAT Essay test?


Remember The Prompt

On test day you will have only 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your analysis, and write your essay. Every minute will count. Because the prompt is the same on each SAT, you can save yourself some very valuable time by remembering exactly what the prompt asks you to do. That way, you won’t have to bother reading it on the day of your test.


Also remember that the prompt is asking only for your analysis. It is not asking you to summarize the passage or state your own opinion of it. Instead, while reading and creating a rough outline, you should focus on restating the main point that the author is arguing and analyzing how that point is made. Use only evidence taken directly from the passage and focus on how the author uses this evidence, reasoning, and other rhetorical techniques to build a convincing argument.


In short, when you begin your essay on test day, you should be able to skip reading the actual prompt and get straight to examining the author’s choices in presenting the argument. You should not waste any time summarizing the content of the passage or stating your own opinion of it.


Create a Rough Outline

When you’re under pressure to create a well-written essay in a limited amount of time, it can be tempting to skip the outline. Don’t fall into this thinking. While an outline may take some time to create, it will ultimately save you time and effort during the actual writing process.


The bulk of the outline you create should focus on the body paragraphs of your essay. You should have three main points you want to highlight, each being a specific method that the author uses to argue his or her point. These could include the use of logic, an appeal to emotions, or the style of diction or tone. As you read, identify the primary ways in which the author supports his or her argument. List the three most relevant methods in your outline, and then briefly cite examples of each underneath.


This very rough outline will shape the bulk of your essay and can ultimately save you the time it would take to remember these details during the actual writing process. 

The new SAT has a brand new Essay section! The essay is now designed to allow you, the student, to show off those analysis and essay-crafting skills you’ve been building in English class.

You will have 50 minutes to read a passage and then write an essay analyzing how the author makes his or her point. Two readers will grade your essay on a scale from 1-4 in each of three categories: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

Let’s break down each of these three scoring categories:

New SAT Essay Score: Reading

Your Reading score relies on three big questions:

1. Did you understand/correctly interpret the passage?

This seems like a no-brainer, but the passage that has been chosen for the Essay section has both explicit (obvious) and implicit (less-obvious) messages. The readers want to see that you have picked up on the implicit messages as well as the explicit and have incorporated them into your essay. For example, if the author reminisces about a time in his or her life when things were “better/nicer/cleaner”, the implicit message is that the current situation is worse than it was before and should be fixed, or at least changed to be more like it was. You’d want to point this out and perhaps explore if the author supports the need for change with evidence in the passage.

2. Did you fully understand the relationship between the main ideas and details?

The prompt for the essay will spell out what the author is trying to say. Your job is to examine the evidence and language he or she uses to get that point across and decide how well those details support the main message of the passage. Some passages will have much stronger evidence than others, and how you analyze it plays more into your Analysis score, but whether you find that evidence or not affects your Reading score. The goal is to demonstrate that you fully comprehend the passage and its message.

3. Did you use textual evidence?

Speaking of evidence, it needs to be built into your essay. The easiest way to do this is to directly quote selections from the passage.Paraphrasing is acceptable if you are discussing broader ideas, but make sure you are also including details. Using the author’s own words allows you to easily cite and analyze choices in syntax and diction. Remember, however, that you should choose your quotations carefully and with purpose. Don’t just throw some quotes in to “look good”.  The readers will see right through that. Spend part of your planning time on each essay deciding what evidence to cite from the passage, and you won’t have to resort to desperately hunting for something, anything to quote.


The Reading score is arguably the most important of the three on the essay. Without a full understanding of the passage’s message, it’s almost impossible for you to score highly on Analysis. It will also be difficult to write a coherent, organized essay, which affects the Writing score.

Luckily, most students practice analytical reading skills in English class, so you aren’t without resources. Ask an English teacher to give you some pointers on identifying the main idea and supporting details of a piece of writing or to look over any practice SAT essays you complete. With practice, you can become a master at spotting the important details that will help you get a four on the Reading part of the Essay test.

New SAT Essay Scores: Analysis

This is the category that tends to stress students out the most.

Analysis is really what the new Essay section is all about. Instead of asking for your opinion, the prompt tells you to analyze how an author makes his or her point in a piece of writing. This is not a personal essay. It should resemble an essay you would write for English class. You will be pointing out details in the passage, then providing commentary on how effective those details are at convincing the reader of the author’s main point.

There are three major questions that the graders will answer to determine your score on the Analysis section.

1. Did you thoughtfully evaluate the author’s persuasiveness?

This is the biggest part of Analysis. To score well here, you must address the author’s methods of persuading his or her audience. As you read, you should be annotating anything that might help you do this. A great way to start is to look for the use of logos, ethos, and pathos. If you need a refresher on what these rhetorical devices are, the Purdue Online Writing Lab has a detailed description of each of them and their strengths and weaknesses. You should also keep an eye out for word choices that the author has made to create a particular tone and affect the reader’s perception of the topic.

2. Does your essay include relevant evidence pulled from the passage?

Part of properly analyzing the passage is being able to back up your analysis with carefully chosen pieces of evidence. The easiest way to do this is to quote directly from the passage. Consider the following sentence:

Stevenson uses statistics and facts to prove to the reader that most pigeons in New York City are overweight.

This observation may be correct, but it’s far too general. Now look at the same point, presented with evidence snipped from the passage:

Stevenson points to a study from 2014 that found “80% of pigeons examined in New York City qualified as being overweight”.

These sentences are both pretty basic, but the second one does a much better job of proving that the writer is able to connect evidence from the passage to the author’s overall strategy. This evidence should then be followed by a couple of sentences providing commentary on whether this evidence is effective in proving the main point or whether it could be improved upon.

3. Does your essay focus on parts of the passage that help you answer the question?

This is the caveat to the second question. To score well, you should reference plenty of evidence, but also make sure it’s focused on helping you make your point. Don’t just throw quotes in and hope it looks good. The graders will know the passage very well and will know what you should have picked up on. Planning your essay before you begin writing is essential to ensuring your essay stays focused and only uses evidence that backs up any claims you make about the author and his or her point. 


Analyzing a passage can be daunting, but if you dig out your English notes and refresh your knowledge of rhetorical devices and arguments, you’ll have all the tools you need. Just remember: find your evidence, cite your evidence, and then analyze your evidence. Following those steps will help you score well on all three big questions and master the Analysis part of the SAT essay.

New SAT Essay Score: Writing

Writing is the part of the Essay score in which the nitty gritty details come to play. It is also the most likely to be harmed by rushing through the essay and not having time to proofread or check your work.

To determine what Writing score your essay deserves, the graders will ask themselves three questions.

1. Is your essay cohesive and logically written?

This question ties in with the Reading and Analysis scores in that it is based on how you put your thoughts together. The graders want to see that you have a clear central claim (thesis statement) that you maintain throughout your essay. A good way to set yourself up for success  here is to make sure that every claim you make connects to your thesis. Never assume that your readers will make the connection on their own. The other half of this question addresses whether you have a well-written introduction and conclusion and whether your ideas flow logically and smoothly between them.

2. Does your essay display an appropriate style and tone?

You should treat this essay the same way you would treat one you were planning to turn in to your English teacher. Pick your words carefully to reflect a formal style and to keep your tone as objective as possible. This is a great opportunity to show off your stellar vocabulary. However, don’t throw in words just to sound “fancy”, and just stick to ones you know well and feel comfortable using. Varying your sentence structure is also a great way to improve your writing style. Avoid using too many simple sentences (such as this one!). Instead, occasionally combine two or three clauses in a sentence to make your writing more interesting to read.

3. Does your essay demonstrate good grammar and mechanics?

This part of the score depends on the nitty gritty details of your writing. The graders understand that you are under a time limit and they don’t expect absolute perfection. However, if any grammar or mechanics errors get in the way of their ability to understand your writing, they will mark you down. Make sure you’re comfortable with topics such as subject-verb agreement and punctuation rules.


Chances are good you have already had plenty of practice writing cohesive, formal essays and using correct grammar. If any part of the Writing score makes you nervous, however, try practicing by editing some of your writing. Grab an old essay or journal entry and see how you could improve its flow, sentence structure, or grammar. Knowing what kind of mistakes you tend to make can arm you against making them on the SAT.

About Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

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