When changes to the SAT were instituted in March of 2016, there were understandably a lot of questions. After all, the SAT is one of only two high-stakes standardized tests widely accepted as a gauge of college readiness and used by college admissions committees to assess applicants.
As news of the changes trickled back to students, teachers, SAT tutors, and high school counselors, some of the most commonly asked questions centered on the difference between the new Writing and Language section of the SAT and the new Essay section. Previously, the writing and essay tests had been combined and required. Now, they’re separate, and the essay itself is optional.
How does the content of each section now differ from that of its predecessor? What form does each exam take, and what skills does it assess? In this post, we will outline the basics of the new SAT Writing and Essay sections, describe what you are asked to do on each portion of the test, and give you an overview of the skills assessed.
Read on to learn more about the difference between the new Writing and Language SAT and the new SAT Essay section.
What is the format of the new SAT Writing and Language Test?
The new Writing and Language section of the SAT is part of the larger Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test. This section of the test includes 44 questions and lasts 35 minutes. All questions are multiple-choice and all are based on passages.
As you take the Writing and Language test, you will read four passages, each between 400-450 words. There will be one nonfiction narrative, one to two informative or explanatory texts, and one to two arguments. Some passages will be accompanied by informational graphics such as tables, graphs, or charts.
Passages and questions are presented in side-by-side columns with passages on the left-hand side of the page and questions along the right-hand side. Question numbers are embedded in the text of the passage, along with underlining, to indicate which part of the passage is being tested. Some questions may also assess the passage as a whole.
What skills does the Writing and Language Test Assess?
The Writing and Language Test assesses your skills in five primary areas:
Command of Evidence
These questions will ask you to improve the way passages develop information and ideas. For example, you might sharpen an argumentative claim or add a relevant supporting detail.
Words in Context
These questions will ask you to improve word choice, choose the best words to use based on the text, make a passage more precise/concise, or improve syntax, style, or tone.
Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science
These questions test your ability to critically read passages about topics in history, social studies, and science, and to make editorial decisions that clarify them or improve their focus.
Expression of Ideas
These questions will ask you to consider a passage’s organization and its effectiveness in expressing concepts, as well as which words or structural changes could improve how well the passage makes its point or how well its sentences and paragraphs work together.
Standard English Conventions
These questions assess your knowledge of the building blocks of writing, including sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. You may be asked to change words, clauses, sentences, and punctuation, or edit for verb tense, parallel construction, subject-verb agreement, or comma use.
Basically, on the Writing and Language Test, you will be asked to make editorial decisions to improve the passages on both a minute and large scale.
What is the format of the Essay Section?
By contrast, the essay section (which is now optional and is administered after the required sections of the SAT) includes a passage between 650-700 words long that you will read and then critique. You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your writing, and write your essay.
The passage you are asked to assess varies from test to test, but it is always written for a broad audience and taken from published works. Unlike on the Writing and Language test, the Essay passage is not crafted to intentionally include organizational and grammatical errors.
The passage will argue a point; use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims; and examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts, science, civics, cultural studies, or politics.
Unlike on previous iterations of the SAT Essay, you won’t be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic or to write about your personal experience.
The prompt for the new SAT Essay is always the same or nearly the same:
As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses:
•Evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
•Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
•Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.
It’s important to note that since the SAT Essay is based on a published work, you are not likely to identify major grammar mistakes or failures in structure. Instead, you will primarily discuss the specific ways in which the passage succeeds at supporting its claims and identifying methods it uses to build an argument.
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