How is the SAT Essay scored?

SAT Prep


Although most SAT test-takers have a good grasp of how the overall test is scored (you get a score out of 2400 points, with each of the three sections earning a score between 200 and 800), many don't really know how the SAT essay is scored. Here's the deal.

The SAT Essay (you can see some examples here) is a writing exercise you complete right at the start of the test. You are given a prompt and an assignment, which will look like this:

SAT Essay prompt

You are expected to express your opinion on the assignment (in the example above, "Is it possible to become friends with someone without that friendship changing you?") and then write a clear, coherent essay supporting your opinion. You are given two lined pages and 25 minutes to do it in. As per the instructions on the SAT:

The essay allows you to demonstrate how successfully you can articulate and expand on your opinion. You must effectively describe your idea, communicate examples in a clear and rational manner, and use standard language.

In essence, the point of the essay is to see how effectively you can express and support your opinion regarding a question that has no clear right or wrong answer. It's not a test to see if you agree with the test-maker's opinion--it's a test of your thinking and reasoning skills.

The essay is given a score between 2 and 12. This score is obtained by combining the individual score given to your essay by two completely separate, unrelated readers, each of which gives your essay a score from 1 to 6 (except in the case of an essay that does not address the question in the assignment at all--those essays are given a score of 0). 

But what separates an essay that gets a score of 1 from an essay that gets a score of 6? Here's what the College Board (the makers, administrators, and graders of the SAT) has to say:

An essay given a score of 1:

An essay in this category demonstrates very little or no mastery, and is severely flawed by ONE OR MORE of the following weaknesses:

  • Develops no viable point of view on the issue, or provides little or no evidence to support its position
  • Is disorganized or unfocused, resulting in a disjointed or incoherent essay
  • Displays fundamental errors in vocabulary
  • Demonstrates severe flaws in sentence structure
  • Contains pervasive errors in grammar, usage or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning

An essay given a score of 2:

An essay in this category demonstrates little mastery, and is flawed by ONE OR MORE of the following weaknesses:

  • Develops a point of view on the issue that is vague or seriously limited, and demonstrates weak critical thinking, providing inappropriate or insufficient examples, reasons or other evidence to support its position
  • Is poorly organized and/or focused, or demonstrates serious problems with coherence or progression of ideas
  • Displays very little facility in the use of language, using very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice
  • Demonstrates frequent problems in sentence structure
  • Contains errors in grammar, usage and mechanics so serious that meaning is somewhat obscured

An essay given a score of 3:

An essay in this category demonstrates developing mastery, and is marked by ONE OR MORE of the following weaknesses:

  • Develops a point of view on the issue, demonstrating some critical thinking, but may do so inconsistently or use inadequate examples, reasons or other evidence to support its position
  • Is limited in its organization or focus, or may demonstrate some lapses in coherence or progression of ideas
  • Displays developing facility in the use of language, but sometimes uses weak vocabulary or inappropriate word choice
  • Lacks variety or demonstrates problems in sentence structure
  • Contains an accumulation of errors in grammar, usage and mechanics

An essay given a score of 4:

An essay in this category demonstrates adequate mastery, although it has lapses in quality. A typical essay:

  • Develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates competent critical thinking, using adequate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
  • Is generally organized and focused, demonstrating some coherence and progression of ideas
  • Exhibits adequate but inconsistent facility in the use of language, using generally appropriate vocabulary
  • Demonstrates some variety in sentence structure
  • Has some errors in grammar, usage and mechanics

An essay given a score of 5:

An essay in this category demonstrates reasonably consistent mastery, although it has occasional errors or lapses in quality. A typical essay:

  • Effectively develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and focused, demonstrating coherence and progression of ideas
  • Exhibits facility in the use of language, using appropriate vocabulary
  • Demonstrates variety in sentence structure
  • Is generally free of most errors in grammar, usage and mechanics

An essay given a score of 6:

An essay in this category demonstrates clear and consistent mastery, although it may have a few minor errors. A typical essay:

  • Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
  • Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate and apt vocabulary
  • Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
  • Is free of most errors in grammar, usage and mechanics

As long as you write on the topic given in the assignment, the lowest score you can receive is a 2. However, remember that essays not written on the topic are given a score of 0.

You can see examples of essays that received scores of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 here