How to Write a High-Scoring SAT Essay

Abhaijot Kaur has a Master’s Degree in English and is a professional SAT essay scorer.

The most important thing to keep in mind when writing an essay for a standardized test like the SAT is that the people scoring the exam are instructed to consider the essay as a rough draft. What this means is that small errors in spelling and grammar, assuming they don’t impede understanding, don’t hold much weight in your overall score. It’s not uncommon for students to spend a disproportionate amount of time constructing the perfect paragraph, or even sentence, only to end up running out of time and ultimately not being able to communicate their full response to the prompt. When constructing a timed essay, it is better to get all your ideas on the page with a few spelling and grammar mishaps, than to not complete your essay. If you have time at the end, you can always go back and edit. The person scoring the essay can only assign a score based on the actual written content and cannot make assumptions about what-might-have-been based off one carefully-crafted paragraph.

The second action to keep in mind is to pay careful attention to the prompt. Often I will read a response that is incredibly well-written, and even interesting and entertaining, but does not actually address the question being asked. Test takers should know that the people scoring the exam are required to adhere to a strict rubric, and therefore have less leeway in assigning scores than their teachers in school might exercise when assigning grades. Usually the written portion of a test like the SAT asks the students to analyze the persuasive elements utilized by an author in a written excerpt. Students might be tempted to present their own opinions or experiences that might be relevant to the excerpt. However, this is considered off topic, and such an essay will receive a lower score, even if it is very well written. High scoring essays focus on the most relevant aspects of the text as they relate to the prompt.

That said, I do encourage test-takers to allow a personal edge or style to be evident in their essays. Allowing your unique writing style to shine forth in your essay is certainly possible, while still maintaining a focus on the relevant aspects of the text and prompt. It will also make for a more enjoyable reading experience for the person that is scoring your essay. Consider that the person scoring your essay has probably read at least 20 essays before yours, and will likely read 20 essays after yours. To be honest, after a while they all start to sound the same. It is always enjoyable to read an essay that both conveys the personality of the writer and successfully responds to the prompt. And if your essay is enjoyable, it is likely that after reading your essay, the person scoring the essay will be in a good mood and will probably feel a bit more generous. This means that if your essay is hovering between two score points on the rubric, you’ll be more likely to receive the higher score.

Finally, a word to the students who think nobody is reading these essays, or that they are scored arbitrarily, and therefore don’t bother trying their best, or trying at all. This is simply not true. In fact, a great deal of effort and detail is put into making sure that the people scoring standardized test responses are highly skilled and qualified to read these types of essays. In fact, all SAT responses are scored by a minimum of two people, usually three, and sometimes more if there is any disagreement among scores. Keep in mind that the purpose of these tests is not just to assess your skills in reading, writing, and analysis, but also to evaluate your attention to detail, and your willingness and ability to complete a task efficiently. These last qualities are extremely important both in higher education, and in the work force. Colleges are looking for these qualities, as are employers so I encourage you to set your mind to the task and try your best.

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