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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What’s a good SAT score? If you’re trying to figure out your SAT score goal for 2018 admissions, you’ll want to look at the SAT averages for the schools to which you’re applying. There are great resources like the College Board where you can search for averages at a wide variety of colleges.
The new SAT is based on a 1600-point scale, with two sections—Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing—scored between 200 and 800, and the optional essay evaluated separately. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so your raw score is the sum of the number of questions you answer correctly. Raw scores are converted to scaled scores, which are used to determine percentile ranks. The percentile indicates how well you did compared to other test takers. For example, if you score in the 72nd percentile, you did better than 72% of test takers.
What does this mean for you? Here’s what you need to know about your SAT score:
These scores will put you in the top 10% of all test takers
EVIDENCE-BASED READING AND WRITING: 660 – 800
MATH: 680 – 800
These scores will put you in a highly competitive place in admissions (top 25% of all test takers)
EVIDENCE-BASED READING AND WRITING: 590 – 650
MATH: 610 – 670
Above Average Scores
These scores put you ahead of the pack (50%+), but won’t be as advantageous when applying to highly competitive programs
EVIDENCE-BASED READING AND WRITING: 510 – 580
MATH: 520 – 600
Below Average Scores
These scores may be enough to get into a wide variety of college programs, but will be below average compared to the testing population
EVIDENCE-BASED READING AND WRITING: 500 or lower
MATH: 510 or lower
Your answer sheet is scanned, and your raw score is calculated by the College Board system. Because there’s no penalty for guessing for the New SAT test, your raw score is the number of questions you answered correctly. Raw scores are converted to scores on a scale of 200 to 800 using a process called equating. This process ensures that your score is not affected by different forms of the test or other test-takers’ ability levels. This scaled score is what you see when you get your scores.
The SAT is scored on a 200-800 scale in each section in 10 point increments. The two sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math) will have scores provided separately. This relatively small scale means that small improvements in your score can make a big difference in your percentile ranking (sometimes, a ten point increase in your score can boost your percentile ranking by 5 points).
Remember that on the new SAT, you are NOT penalized for wrong answers. Understanding the scoring and knowing how to approach each section is important part of doing your best on test day.
SAT Essay responses are scored using a carefully designed process:
- Two different people will read and score your essay.
- Each scorer awards 1–4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing. 4 will be Advanced, 3 Proficient, 2 Partial and 1 Inadequate.
- The two scores for each dimension are added.
- You’ll receive three scores for the SAT Essay — one for each dimension — ranging from 2–8 points.
Remember that your SAT score is not the only factor that will be considered. Whether or not you are admitted to a college program (and whether or not you receive scholarship money) can depend on several factors. In addition to focusing on achieving the best SAT score possible for you, you should also work on obtaining the best GPA possible, writing a spectacular personal statement, taking a challenging course load and, and rounding out your application with extra-curriculars.