Learn About the Optional SAT Essay

Although optional, the SAT Essay can help strengthen your college applications.
Although optional, the SAT Essay can help strengthen your college applications. Getty Images | Jamesmcq24

The essay is an optional part of the SAT, but some colleges do require it and others recommend it. Even if a college does not ask you to write the essay, a strong score can help strengthen your college applications. If you plan to take the SAT with Essay, be sure you know what to expect before setting foot in the exam room. 

Aim of the SAT Essay

According to the College Board, the purpose of the optional essay "is to determine whether students can demonstrate college and career readiness proficiency in reading, writing, and analysis by comprehending a high- quality source text and producing a cogent and clear written analysis of that text supported by critical reasoning and evidence drawn from the source."

The skills measured by the exam—textual analysis, critical reasoning, close reading—are central to college success. It makes sense, then, that a strong score on the SAT Essay can strengthen a college application. 

Format of the SAT Essay

  • 1 prompt
  • 1 650 – 750 word passage to read
  • 50 minutes
  • An assessment of three domains: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.  

The SAT Essay Prompt and Passage

The SAT Essay prompt does not ask for your opinion or beliefs on a particular subject. The SAT Essay exam provides a high-quality, previously published passage of text that argues for or against something. Your job is to analyze the author's argument. The prompt for every SAT administration will be very similar—you'll be asked to explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience. The prompt will inform you to study the author's use of evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive elements, but you'll also be given the freedom to analyze whatever else you'd like from the passage.

You will be instructed that the SAT Essay should not, under any circumstance, tell whether or not you agree with the author. Essays that head in that direction will be graded poorly as the content will be irrelevant. Rather, the graders want to see if you can pick apart the text to determine if the author makes a great argument or not.

Skills Tested on the Redesigned SAT Essay

The SAT Essay is assessing skills other than just writing. Here's what you'll need to be able to do:

Reading:

  1. Comprehend the source text.
  2. Understand the central ideas, important details, and their interrelationship of the text.
  3. Represent the source text accurately (i.e., no errors of fact or interpretation introduced).
  4. Use textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both) to demonstrate understanding of the source text.

Analysis:

  1. Analyze the source text and understand the analytical task.
  2. Evaluate the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features chosen by the student.
  3. Support your claims or points made in the response.
  4. Focus on features of the text most relevant to addressing the task.

Writing:

  1. Use a central claim. (Did the author provide a solid argument or not?)
  2. Effectively organize and progress ideas.
  3. Vary sentence structure.
  4. Employ precise word choice.
  5. Maintain a consistent, appropriate style and tone.
  6. Demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard written English.

Scoring of the Essay

Each essay is read by two people, and each person assigns a score of 1 to 4 to each category (reading, analysis, writing).

Those scores are then added together to create a score between 2 and 8 for each category.

Preparing for the SAT Essay

The College Board is working with the Khan Academy to offer free test prep for any student interested in practicing for the SAT. In addition, test prep companies like Kaplan, The Princeton Review and others have put together test prep books to help get students ready for this test. Finally, you can find some practice essay questions on the College Board website.