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Highest You Can Score On Sat Essay

Update: This post has been updated for the redesigned New SAT, which premiered in March 2016 and has an entirely new (and entirely optional) essay, by David Recine. Here’s what you need to know!

Only want the facts? Here’s the short answer:

Your New SAT essay will be scored by two professional, human, essay readers. Both essay graders will score each of the three different New SAT essay skills (reading, analysis, and writing) in your essay on a scale of 1 to 4, with the combined score expressed as three digits with slashes between them, each digit representing the score you got on one of the New SAT Essay skills components. (A perfect SAT essay score would be 8/8/8.) If you leave your New SAT essay blank or don’t address the essay topic at all, you will receive a score of zero. Now for more detail…

It’s natural that the New SAT essay has its own grading system, independent of the rest of the test; this portion of the test is an optional add-on, and it’s not multiple-choice or fill-in-grid like the rest of the exam. But it’s not immediately obvious how SAT essay scores fit into the big-picture New SAT 1600 point scale or what it means for you.


How SAT essay scores are calculated

The way your writing is graded is, on the surface, about what you would expect it to be. A human reader (a real live person!) takes a few minutes to read over your essay, then gives it a mark from 0-6. The 0 is the bad one, in case you weren’t sure.

Of course, 0 isn’t a real grade—it’s just what you get if write nothing or an essay on a completely different topic. In other words, memorizing a spectacular essay and then copying it down word for word wouldn’t help you. If you don’t write on the SAT essay prompt you’re given, you get nothing even if the writing is on par with Hemingway.

So if you write a single relevant word, then, you’re in the 1-4 range for each of the three New SAT essay skills—but that’s per grader. You see, SAT essay scores come from two readers. It would be pretty absurd if, by a role of the essay-grader dice, you just got that one crotchety old misanthrope who gave everybody a 1 (not that the College Board really hires guys like that), so there’s a safeguard. Two readers have to give similar scores, and you then get a combined score ranging between 2/2/2 and 8/8/8. If their two scores are more than 1 point separate (e.g. a 2 and a 4), then a third grader comes in to settle the dispute. An essay grader, that is. Not an elementary school student. That third reader, we can imagine, is a seasoned veteran. The score they give you would then be factored in to get your new, final 3-digit score.

Those original 1-4 marks are taken from a holistic view of your essay (check out the College Board’s rubric), at least theoretically. That means that there’s no special way to get an 8 (nor a 2)—everything is taken into account. That being said, some factors are more immediately noticeable than others. So be sure to practice fundamental New Sat Writing techniques that demonstrate your command of reading comprehension, rhetorical analysis, and the conventions of academic writing.


How essay grades affect scaled scores

In the previous version of the SAT, essays were a mandatory part of the exam, and essay scores had a significant impact on the final scaled score. However, in the New SAT, the essay is optional and scored completely separately from the main 1600 point four-section exam. On a New SAT score report, your essay score will appear separately from your scaled composite Reading/Writing/Math score—if you choose to take the essay, that is.

Certainly, if you choose to take the New SAT essay and do poorly on it, it can cast an otherwise good SAT score in a different light. A good 1600-scale score can look less impressive next to an essay score of—say—2/2/2 on the optional essay. Still, an essay score of at least 6/6/6 can complement a composite score on the main test nicely. And an 8/8/8 on an SAT essay is likely to impress university admissions representatives, even at universities that don’t require an SAT essay score.

And essay writing is, in some ways, one of the easiest SAT skills to improve. There’s a process you can follow, a structure of analysis, that will ensure decent scores. It’s not actually all that simple to go from a score of 2 to a score of 8 in all three categories, but with practice it’s definitely possible for a student to reach a score of 6 or higher in Reading, Analysis, and Writing. If writing a weak spot of yours, studying for the New SAT essay is still a potentially great opportunity to boost the value of your score report. Taking this optional component of the test is always worth considering.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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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.


What’s Changed?

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

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.

What’s Next?

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: