What is the SAT Essay? - Learn About the Essay and How It is Scored

The SAT Essay is a 50-minute essay at the end of the SAT that measures a student's writing skills. Students will be asked to read a passage and write an essay in which they analyze how the author builds his or her argument. To do this successfully, students will need to identify specific literary features that the author uses to persuade the reader and explain how the author uses these features to build a convincing argument.

While the SAT Essay is optional, we recommend that students always take the SAT with the SAT Essay, as some colleges and universities require students to submit the SAT with the Essay score.

In this article, I'll introduce you to the SAT Essay, describe how the scoring works, and give you a few tips along the way to help you achieve a higher score on your SAT Essay on test day.

The Essay Prompt

The SAT Essay will feature a long passage in which the author will be taking some sort of position. The topic of the passage can be on pretty much anything, as the assignment is to analyze how the author builds his or her argument. The task is not to write a persuasive essay, so students should not write about whether they agree or disagree with the author's position.

Take a look at this example prompt below:

The box at the top of the assignment will be the same on all SAT Essays. This box instructs students to look for how the author uses literary features and gives a quick list of common types of literary features. The bullet points given in this box are just a few recommendations of types of literary features, but students can use any literary feature that they find in the passage, so it is okay to quite literally think outside of the box here.

At the end of each prompt, there will be box that describes the essay assignment. The assignment will be the same on every single SAT (with the exception of changes for the author's name and position of course):

It is critical that students know what their assignment is before taking the SAT. Many students who are not familiar with the essay prompt will write an essay about whether or not they agree with the author's position and, since this does not complete the assignment, they receive poor scores.

The assignment here is to select a few literary features (we recommend 3) and analyze how the writer uses these literary features to build his or her argument. We always recommend that students separate each literary feature that they discuss into different body paragraphs. This will help the students keep their thoughts more organized and helps the readers more easily spot the various literary perspectives being discussed.


The SAT Essay is scored on a scale of 2-8. Your essay will be graded by two readers and given three scores from 2-8 in the categories of Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The three scores are reported separately on your score report, so there is no composite score.

Since the SAT Essay is optional, the SAT Essay score does not affect the composite SAT score. On score reports, the SAT Essay is reported as a separate score.

This would be a pretty good SAT Essay. A perfect score on the SAT Essay is an 8/8/8.

The SAT Essay is graded in 3 domains:

Reading: This score reflects your ability to show that you effectively read and understood the passage. To do this, you must demonstrate that you clearly understood the author’s overall message and how author’s smaller points or ideas relate to the major themes running throughout the passage. Good scores are achieved by students who use multiple examples from the text of the passage for each of the literary features that they discuss in their essays. In case you missed that, let me restate it for emphasis: make sure you use multiple examples from the passage (we recommend 2 or 3) for each literary feature you discuss. This shows that you were able to effectively read and thoroughly understand the passage.

Analysis: Scores in this domain reflect your ability to understand how the author builds his or her argument in the passage. To do this, you must identify how the author uses literary features in the passage to develop of his or her position. In addition, you must select good proof from the passage and explain how the author uses the chosen examples to further convince the reader of the position being argued in the passage. Strong writers are able to clearly state the literary features used by the author, illustrate how the author uses these features with well-chosen examples from the passage, and explain how the author uses both of these to build a convincing argument.

Writing: Scores in this domain depend on your ability to properly use written English to convey your arguments with clarity. You can think of this score as a reflection of your writing skills, as graders will be considering word choice, flow between sentences, varying sentence structure, tone, transitions, and grammar. Strong writers are able to use proper grammar throughout their essay and use different sentence structures and tones to write an essay that clearly communicates their position and smoothly flow between various ideas and arguments.

How Long Do The Readers Take to Grade The Essay?

The readers grading the essay will only read each essay for 2-3 minutes. That is not very long! It is critical to take time before you begin writing to outline (we recommend 5-10 minutes) to make sure you know exactly what literary features and examples from the text you will be using in your essay. Before you begin to write, you should have a clear outline of the author's position, the literary features you will discuss, the quotes from the passage you will use as evidence, and what you thesis statement is going to be.

Imagine grading this many essays...there is no way wouldn't read them all carefully!

Also, make sure you take the time to write a strong introduction, lead with your strongest body paragraph, and have a clear conclusion. In the 2-3 minutes, the readers will not have time to read your entire essay carefully. A strong introduction, first body paragraph, and conclusion will help you score better, as these parts of the essay are where most readers will spend the time reading your essay carefully. The rest of the essay will be more likely to read more quickly.

So What is A Good Score?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. A good score depends on each student's scoring goals and writing abilities. If you are a good student and an average writer, I would recommend setting a goal for a Writing score of 6/6/6. The majority of good students will end up with 5's or 6's on the Essay. If you are a stronger writer, shoot for the higher scores of 7's or 8's.

The SAT does not release percentiles for essay scores, so there is no way to measure how your score compares to students nationwide.

What's Next?

To learn more about the ACT Essay, go here to check out another sample SAT Essay Prompt and some sample essay responses released by the SAT.

Keep an eye out for more SAT Essay Tips in new blog posts coming soon.

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