Wondering about the new SAT essay scoring rubric? We’ve got that, and more!
It’s a fact of academic life that you need to write essays. You’ve done it in high school and you’ll write even more in college. Unless you’re in a creative writing class – and sometimes even then – you’ll be given directions about the format and general topic of the essay, and how well you follow those directions counts in your grade. The same thing applies to the SAT essay. It’s optional, as you know, but we encourage you to write it for some really good reasons; see Should I take the New SAT Essay for more about those reasons.
While your high school and college essays are probably read and graded by the teacher or teaching assistant, your SAT essays are read and scored by professionals who are trained to assess the essay in terms of exactly what the SAT is looking for in a good essay. There’s nothing ambiguous about the scoring criteria; the SAT has it down to a science.
SAT readers/scorers are generally high school or college teachers with experience in reading and grading essays. They’re thoroughly trained, have to pass tests to qualify as SAT readers, and once certified, are expected to absolutely conform to the scoring rubric—no personal opinions, no comments—just a number score from the rubric. Two scorers read each essay and if their scores diverge too much, a third reader scores it as well. Each reader gives a score of 1-4 for each of three criteria, the two scores are added, and the student gets three essay scores ranging from 2-8, one for each criterion.
So what are the criteria that readers so rigidly follow?
New SAT Essay Scoring Criteria
- Demonstrates little or no comprehension of the source text
- Fails to show an understanding of the text’s central idea(s), and may include only details without reference to central idea(s)
- May contain numerous errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes little or no use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates some comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) but not of important details
- May contain errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes limited and/or haphazard use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates effective comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details
- Is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes appropriate use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates thorough comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and most important details and how they interrelate
- Is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes skillful use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates little or no cohesion and inadequate skill in the use and control of language
- May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea
- Lacks a recognizable introduction and conclusion; does not have a discernible progression of ideas
- Lacks variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be poor or inaccurate; may lack a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing
- Demonstrates little or no cohesion and limited skill in the use and control of language
- May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea or may deviate from the claim or idea
- May include an ineffective introduction and/or conclusion; may demonstrate some progression of ideas within paragraphs but not throughout
- Has limited variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be repetitive; may deviate noticeably from a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a limited control of the conventions of standard written English and contains errors that detract from the quality of writing and may impede understanding
- Is mostly cohesive and demonstrates effective use and control of language
- Includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea
- Includes an effective introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
- Has variety in sentence structures; demonstrates some precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a good control of the conventions of standards written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing
- Is cohesive and demonstrates highly effective use and command of language
- Includes a precise central claim
- Includes a skillful introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
- Has a wide variety in sentence structures; demonstrates consistent use of precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a strong command of the conventions of standards written English and is free or virtually free of errors
- Offers little or no analysis or ineffective analysis of the source text and demonstrates little to no understanding of the analytical task
- Identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing
- Numerous aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
- Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant
- May not focus on features of the text that are relevant to addressing the task
- Offers no discernible analysis (e.g., is largely or exclusively summary)
- Offers limited analysis of the source text and demonstrates only partial understanding of the analytical task
- Identifies and attempts to describe the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing, but merely asserts rather than explains their importance
- One or more aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
- Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- May lack a clear focus on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
- Offers an effective analysis of the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task
- Competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
- Contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- Focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
- Offers an insightful analysis of the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task
- Offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
- Contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- Focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
The essay components are Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Reading refers to how well you demonstrate understanding of the text; analysis covers how well you examine the structure and components of it, and writing, as you might expect, assesses your ability to write clear, correct, and cohesive prose.
There’s a lot of detail under each score, but note that for reading, the scores go from the highest, “thorough,” (4) to the lowest, “little or no comprehension” (1). In the middle are “some” and “effective,” scores of 3 and 4 respectively, and probably where most students score. More or less the same scale, with different words, also applies to analysis and writing. It’s worth reiterating that SAT readers are held exactly to this scale and the specific breakdown under each score.
Now here’s a question for you. How long do you think each reader is expected to spend on reading, assessing, and scoring the essay? The answer is a minute or two. What does that mean for you? You’ll have to know and follow directions, read the text with structure and the writer’s elements in mind, think clearly, and write strongly from the very beginning. That’s quite a challenge, but keep checking in this blog site and we’ll give you some really good tips about meeting the challenge and writing a essay with the winning score of 8-8-8.
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Understanding how the SAT scoring system works is an important part of preparing for the test - how else are you supposed to measure progress and set goals? The SAT has undergone some recent changes, which means that the scoring system that most people were familiar with has seen a radical overhaul. Here, I’ll cover how the scoring system has changed and what that means for you.
Prior to 2005, the SAT had just two sections (Math and Reading), each scored from 200-800 points for a maximum total of 1600. In 2005, the College Board instituted a new test with three sections - this changed the maximum possible score to 2400. The new version of the SAT also came with updates to test content and question types.
At the beginning of 2016, the College Board once again updated the SAT both in terms of the scoring system and test content. We’re now back to two mandatory SAT sections (Math and Writing & Language), each scored from 200-800 points, but there’s also an optional essay section. You might notice that the structure is fairly similar to that of the ACT.
Another important change is the switch to rights-only scoring, which means that points are no longer deducted for wrong answers. Put simply, there’s no more guessing penalty on the SAT.
For more detailed information on these changes, check out our complete guide to the SAT.
The Highest Possible SAT Score
Like I mentioned, there are now only two mandatory SAT sections, each scored out of a maximum of 800 points. This means that the new highest possible SAT score is 1600.
Read more about what counts as a good, bad, or average SAT score.
The essay used to be a mandatory part of the SAT Writing section - it’s now an optional, separate section with an independent scoring system. Your essay score is not included in the total maximum score of 1600.
Two graders will read your essay and score your work on three different dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. Each grader will give you between 1-4 points on each dimension. In sum, then, each dimension is being scored out of a total of 8 points. Three separate scores (out of 8 points each) means that the highest possible essay score is 24 total points.
Read more about the SAT essay and how it’s scored.
Because the essay is now scored on three separate dimensions, it may make it easier for you to hone in on (and improve) your writing weaknesses.
What These Scoring Changes Mean for You
These changes may not seem like a huge deal, but these structure and scoring updates may change the way you approach the test. Here are the major things to keep in mind as prepare for this new SAT:
There’s a Greater Emphasis on Math
On the old SAT, the reading & writing sections accounted for ⅔ of your total score whereas math accounted for only ⅓. Now, the math section accounts for ½ of 1600 total points for mandatory SAT sections. If math isn’t your strong subject, you may want to dedicate more time preparing for that section than if you were prepping for the old test - math now counts for a bigger fraction of your score.
To get started, check out our ultimate guide to SAT math prep.
A New Essay Rubric Means New Expectations
The new essay means three separate scores on three different dimensions. Check out the rubric to see exactly what graders are looking for from essay-writers. For expert tips and strategies, read our guide to getting a perfect 8 on each of the three essay dimensions.
You Shouldn’t Be Scared to Guess on Questions
With the switch to rights-only scoring (no point deductions for wrong answers), there’s no more guessing penalty. This means there’s no reason to leave any questions blank - you have nothing to lose if you guess on a question that you’re otherwise unable to answer.
Read more about how and when to guess on SAT questions.
Guessing obviously isn’t ideal, but these changes mean you don’t have to stress about whether to guess if you’re super stuck on a question.
Knowing how the SAT is scored is great, but it’s even more helpful if you have a context for understanding these scores. Start off by checking out SAT scoring charts. Then, read up on what counts as good, bad, or excellent SAT score.
Intrigued by the idea of a perfect SAT score? Check out our famous guide on how to get a perfect 1600.
Disappointed with your scores? 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: