On the old version of the SAT, the essay was required. Now, it’s optional. However, if you think that means you can skip it, you might want to think again.

Some colleges still require you to submit a standardized test essay, like the one on the SAT, but other colleges don’t. If you want to keep your options open for where you can apply to college, sign up for the essay portion of the SAT and make sure you do well. Even if they say they don’t require the essay, some elite schools may still take your SAT essay score into account on your application.

Has There Always Been an Essay on the SAT?

When the College Board created a new version of the SAT in 2016, they changed a lot of things. The SAT writing score now counts for less of your overall SAT score because the two main sections of the test are now the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section. Your SAT writing score comes from the multiple-choice part of the exam, while your SAT essay score is derived from a new part of the exam. That is the SAT Essay section, which stands on its own and does not affect your score in either of the multiple-choice sections.

You will have 50 minutes to complete the new version of the SAT Essay section. During that time, you will have to read and analyze a text and then you will compose an argumentative essay that examines and explains the effectiveness of the rhetoric in the passage you just read.

For this portion of the SAT, you will be scored on the SAT Essay rubric to earn a score out of 24 points. This score is separate from your 1,600-point score from the rest of the test. This section is also optional and costs an extra $11.50 in addition to the standard test fees.

Do Colleges Want Your SAT Essay Score?

All colleges want your SAT writing score, but that isn’t the same as the essay score. Some colleges want you to complete the essay, others recommend it and still others neither recommend nor require it. All in all, it depends on the college. When in doubt, contact the admissions office of your prospective college for more information.

A few elite colleges continue to require the SAT essay in its current form. Some of these colleges are in the Ivy League, notably Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. So, if you’re planning on applying to Ivy League colleges, make sure you take the SAT Essay section seriously.

Even if you’re planning on applying to state schools, you still may want to take the SAT Essay section. Both the University of Michigan system and the University of California system require SAT Essay scores from applicants who apply to any of their schools. On the other hand, some state schools like the University of Illinois only recommend that you take the essay, while other state schools have no stance on the section and most likely won’t take your score into account during the admissions process.

Why Do Some Schools Want the Essay?

We already know that some schools want the essay and others don’t, but why is there such a divide? The schools that do want the essay have several reasons for requiring it. The first is that they want students to understand that writing is an integral part of college coursework, and students who don’t have proficient writing chops will find themselves struggling with their college classes.

It also helps that the new version of the SAT essay lines up well with colleges’ expectations for clear writing and independent thinking skills. The new essay asks students to read and comprehend an argument and then synthesize one of their own based on the effectiveness of the passage’s rhetoric. The new SAT essay not only shows colleges that applicants can write, but it also shows them that applicants can think critically and recognize effective writing techniques as well.

The third reason some colleges may want the SAT essay is because they want as much information on each applicant as they can get. Sometimes, college applications provide an incomplete picture of the students who are applying. The essay gives colleges additional data that can help in choosing between two nearly identical applications, with the student who writes the best, of course, rising to the top.

Why Don’t Some Schools Want the Essay?

One of the main reasons many schools don’t require the essay is that it provides information they already have. Most college application requirements include the submission of a personal essay written by the student applying. This writing sample helps college admissions officers get to know the applicants on a personal level, sure, but it also gives students a chance to let their writing talents shine. So, giving admissions officers more data on writing is unnecessary.

Another reason some colleges don’t want the SAT essay is because they don’t require the writing portion on the ACT. Requiring the SAT essay might give an unfair advantage to students taking the SAT instead of the ACT, or it could also disadvantage students who do poorly on the SAT essay if it was required but the ACT essay was not.

Additionally, some experts believe that standardized test essays are not a good measure of future college success. This means that while the essay section does provide additional data, some colleges aren’t sure if that data is valid. Still, other schools are wary of the additional cost of the SAT essay, thinking that having to pay more money may represent a burden to underprivileged students.

Understanding the SAT Essay Rubric

To know how high you have to score, and to understand how to succeed on this portion of the test, you’ll have to take a closer look at the SAT essay rubric. On the rubric, your score comes in three parts: reading, analysis and writing. You can earn from one to four points on each part, which are then multiplied by two for your score. You can earn up to eight points in each part for an overall score of up to 24 points.

Earning Points for Reading

To earn the full eight points for reading on the SAT essay, your essay has to demonstrate:

  • That you understand the passage
  • That you can clearly communicate the passage’s main idea as well as its details and how they relate to the main idea
  • That you can interpret the ideas of the passage without errors
  • That you can both paraphrase and quote textual evidence with skill and ease

Earning Points for Analysis

To earn the full eight points for analysis on the SAT essay, your essay has to communicate:

  • Insightful analysis of the passage’s key features
  • A thorough evaluation of the author’s choices, especially in regard to rhetoric
  • Thoroughly reasoned claims that are supported by evidence from the text
  • A focus on the most relevant parts of the text instead of delving into extraneous features or tangents

Finally, the writing itself should be free of errors, precise and effective and should demonstrate a sophisticated command of standard English.

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About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.