SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.
Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?
No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.
How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?
On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.
With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.
Readers avoid extremes
What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.
What is a good SAT Essay score?
By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.
We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.
College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.
The role of luck
What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?
Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.
What do colleges expect?
It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].
Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.
How will colleges use the domain scores?
Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.
How low is too low?
Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.
Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?
For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.
Should I skip the essay entirely?
A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.
Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?
Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.
Will I be able to see my essay?
Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.
Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?
Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.
Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?
Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.
Key links in this post:
ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests
The scoring model on the new SAT differs significantly from the scoring model that was used on the old version of the test. It's important to be aware of these changes so that you can plan your studying and test-taking strategies accordingly.
In this article, I'll go through all the scoring differences that have taken place for the new SAT and what they mean for you as a student.
Main Scoring Differences
The biggest change in the new SAT scoring structure is that it uses a 1600 point scale instead of a 2400 point scale. The Math section is still worth 800 points. The Reading and Writing sections together are called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” and account for the other 800 points. The essay is optional and scored separately from the multiple choice portions of the test (your essay score doesn't affect your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score).
Another difference in the scoring methodology is the elimination of point deductions for wrong answers. On the old SAT, you were docked a quarter of a point for every question you answered incorrectly. The SAT is now more like the ACT in that incorrect answers are treated the same as questions that were left blank (no points added or subtracted). There are also four answer choices for each question now rather than five.
What Does This Mean for You?
Since there’s no guessing penalty, you don’t have to worry about whether you should guess or leave a question blank on the test. Guessing is always the right choice! This doesn’t necessarily mean that it's easier to get a higher score since the test is curved to account for these changes. However, it does take some of the stress out of the testing process.
The switch to a 1600 scale shouldn’t impact you unless you’re trying to compare your scores out of 2400 on the old SAT to scores on the new version. This may be a concern if you want to know how much you’ll need to improve to get a score on the new SAT that’s equivalent to your goal score on the old SAT. Here's a chart that will help you convert your current or older scores to their equivalent numbers on the new SAT.
However, keep in mind that the latest scoring model gives more weight to Math score. On the old SAT, Math only made up one-third of your total score. On the new SAT, it makes up half. This could mean that students who are especially strong in Math will do better on the new SAT by 50 or so points.
If you scored an 800 on Math and a 650 on both Reading and Writing on the old SAT, you would have a composite score of 2100. Assuming you continued to stay at the same level upon taking the new SAT, an 800 in Math and a 650 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section would give you a 1450. This score is 50 points higher than the 1400 you would predict for yourself if you multiplied 2100 by two-thirds for a direct conversion to the new scale.
Most colleges will accept scores from both the current SAT and the new SAT for at least a couple of years. The College Board will provide colleges with concordance tables to help them judge and compare scores across the two different tests. Also, score choice is still an option, so you don’t have to worry about that changing with the updated test.
Lock up your bad SAT score in a safe hidden behind a nondescript painting in your rich old uncle's mansion. No one will ever know about it unless he dies and you and your cousins have to spend a spooky night locked in his house (and his will stipulates that you have to disclose your deepest, darkest secrets to each other in order to get a piece of the inheritance).
New SAT Subscores
The new SAT also includes a complex scoring structure beyond the main section scores. There are test scores for Math, Reading, and Writing, each on a scale of 10-40. Also, the new SAT has two special categories of questions, Analysis in History/Social Sciences and Analysis in Science. These are also scored on a scale of 10-40. These scores are called “cross-test scores” because each of the categories cover questions in all three sections of the test.
Additionally, there are seven subscores, each on a scale of 1-15, for the following categories:
- Command of Evidence (Reading and Writing)
- Words in Context (Reading and Writing)
- Expression of Ideas (Writing)
- Standard English Conventions (Writing)
- Heart of Algebra (Math)
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis (Math)
- Passport to Advanced Math (Math)
Here's a breakdown of the different subscores in this graphic taken from the Khan Academy website:
This means that each question on the test fits into multiple subscore categories. Take, for example, this question from the Reading section of one of the new SAT practice tests:
The graph following the passage offers evidence that gift-givers base their predictions of how much a gift will be appreciated on
A) the appreciation level of the gift-recipients.
B) the monetary value of the gift.
C) their own desires for the gifts they purchase.
D) their relationship with the gift-recipients.
This question would naturally be included in the subscore for the Reading test. It would also be included in the Analysis in History/Social Sciences cross-test score: since it deals with the interpretation of a graph that contains data about a sociological phenomenon, it requires you to think analytically in a social sciences context.
It would not be a part of the Command of Evidence or Words in Context Reading subscores because it doesn't ask you to provide evidence for your answer to a previous question or demonstrate your understanding of the meaning of a word in the passage.
What a thoughtful gift! I definitely won't throw these away in the next trash can I happen to see!
What Does This Mean for You?
The new subscores mean more information about your strengths and weaknesses on the test. These scores help highlight your specific strengths for colleges and also provide guidance on where you can improve your skills. College Board has partnered up with Khan Academy to offer a free prep program for the newSAT that personalizes your prep plan based on your subscore distribution to help you focus on improving your specific weak areas.
The subscores also point to new question types on the current SAT. Notice that “Command of Evidence” is a subscore category for Reading questions. Questions that ask you to cite evidence for your answers are now a major component of the Reading section. These questions ask which lines of the passage provide the best evidence for the answer to the previous question, pushing you to understand the reasoning behind your response. This can be a plus in that it might eliminate silly mistakes on some reading questions, but it also adds a challenging new layer of analysis.
“Words in Context” is also a telling category; understanding vocabulary in context is now a bigger part of the Reading section. The elimination of sentence completion questions means that there are more vocabulary in context questions. These focus less on obscure vocabulary and more on understanding nuances in the meanings of more commonly used words.
The existence of “Problem Solving and Data Analysis”, along with the two cross-test analytical scores, means that there are questions that ask you to interpret data and apply mathematical and logical reasoning to real-life scenarios.
On the current SAT, the essay is optional, and its format has also been updated. Rather than asking you to write about your opinion on a general question, the essay prompt asks you to read a passage and analyze the argument that is presented. The College Board says that the new essay is “a lot like a typical college writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text.”
The essay is scored from 2-8 across three different dimensions: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The essays are still read by two graders, but now each grader scores the essay on a scale of 1-4 in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. These scores are then added together for a score from 2-8 in each category. This means the maximum essay score is a 24, and the minimum is a 6.
Here's a rubric that explains exactly how these scores are determined. Essentially, the difference between an "advanced" essay and a merely "proficient" essay is the level of understanding of the source text that the student demonstrates. An advanced essay shows a thorough comprehension of how details in the text interrelate to support the author's argument. It goes beyond a basic summary of the author's points to give an insightful, focused analysis of the argument.
You really should be able to use a magnifying glass on the essay. From what I've seen on Google images, analysis can't happen without one.
What Does This Mean for You?
The College Board has created a new essay format in which students must demonstrate analytical skills that are critical for success in college. On the new essay, you’re asked to explain how the author builds his or her argument in the passage and support your points with relevant evidence and details. Asking students to write an essay about another person’s argument is a better way of judging reading and writing skills than asking them to write an opinion piece.
Whether or not you end up in a humanities discipline in college, you’ll probably write a research paper or at least analyze other people’s scientific or historical findings at some point. An ability to understand and synthesize key points in an argument made by someone else is crucial for intellectual discourse. The text for the prompt on the new SAT is always taken from a published work, so it is high quality, advanced material similar to what you might see in a college course.
You now have 50 minutes to write the essay instead of 25, so you might not be as concerned about time pressure. Remember that you have the option of taking the SAT without the essay, which can eliminate a lot of stress from the testing process. However, many schools, especially the most selective ones, still require applicants to submit essay scores. Check the requirements for schools that interest you!
The SAT now has an updated scoring model to account for changes in question types and testing methodology. The main difference between the old scoring format and the current format is the switch back to a 1600 point scale. You can no longer lose points for incorrect answers, and there are four answer choices for each question rather than five.
The SAT has also added subscores that give you a more detailed picture of your strengths and weaknesses on the test along with a greater degree of personalized support and prep advice through a partnership with Khan Academy.
The essay is optional. It also has a more complex scoring system that judges a student’s ability to read an advanced text effectively, analyze the author’s argument, and write coherently about the author's main points.
There have been some major changes to the format the SAT, but if you start preparing now, you'll be ready to take on these new challenges in no time!
Now that you know how the new SAT is scored, you might be wondering if it's the best standardized test option for you. Read this article on whether you should take the new SAT or the ACT.
Take a look at this article for some tips on how to study for the updated version of the SAT. You should also read our complete guide to the new SAT.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: