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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When you think of a grading curve, you’re probably most familiar with the kind sometimes employed on high school tests or assignments. This traditional curve takes the scores achieved by students in your class and distributes them across an even bell curve so that some students get the top grade, most students get a grade somewhere in the middle, and some students get the bottom grade. In this kind of scoring curve, the absolute values you score on a test or assignment are less important than your relative performance within your class.
But when people talk about the scoring curve on the SAT, is this the kind of curve they mean? Each year, around 1.7 million high school seniors take the SAT, most of whom presumably intend to use the results as they apply for college admissions or scholarships. This number does not include the many additional students each year who take the test earlier in their high school careers. So how can a standardized test with so many students taking it, whose age and experience vary so widely, be curved?
Well, the short answer: it isn’t, at least not in the way that most students think of a scoring curve. While your test is still converted from a raw score to a scaled score, your score does not depend on your performance relative to the performance of others on the same test. Instead, the score conversion relies on a number of precisely considered factors.
To learn more about how your SAT score is calculated and some common misconceptions about the process, read on.
How is the SAT scored?
When you take the SAT, you actually take several smaller subject-specific tests, which combine to form the larger SAT. These include the Math test and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test, which contains separate Writing and Reading sections.
On each section, you are given a raw score. This score is simply the total number of correct answers you submitted in each section. But the raw score does not appear anywhere on your score report. Instead, it is used to calculate your scaled score through a process called equating.
Raw scores are equated to a scaled score for each test, ranging from 200-800. The process of equating scores takes into account the specific difficulty of each version of the test. Because several different test forms are given during each test administration, the specific equating process for your test will depend on the specific version of the test that you took, and it may be different than the equating process applied to the tests of people sitting next to you.
Scaled scores derived from equating make it possible to compare scores obtained from different versions of the SAT. They ensure that an even scale exists on which a specific score indicates the exact same level of mastery, regardless of how difficult your test was.
How are scores curved on the SAT?
The equating process is quite different from a traditional scoring curve. Instead of taking into account how the greater population performed on the SAT, it takes into account how difficult your version of the SAT was compared to other versions. This is to ensure that there is no advantage to getting an easier test and no disadvantage to getting a harder test.
If you happen to take an easier form of the SAT and therefore receive a higher raw score, the equating process will account for this variation when converting your score. Any mistakes that you did make on the easier test will count more than a mistake would count on a harder version of the test. Similarly, the equating process is more forgiving for students who take a more difficult version of the test.
Who decides the difficulty of my SAT?
The goal when creating new test questions for the SAT is to create questions that are very similar in difficulty to questions that already exist. Detailed content and statistical specifications along with trial questions are used to inform test writers about the difficulty of each question.
While some SAT exams are definitely more difficult than others, in general the variation is fairly small and the equating process does not differ hugely from one test to another.
To see the differences in score conversions that you might expect, check out the score conversion charts supplied for two official SAT practice tests, located on page 7 of each packet:
Scoring Your SAT Practice Test #1
Scoring Your SAT Practice Test #2
If you compare the math conversion charts for each test, you will see that a raw score of 48 on Practice Test #1 will earn you a scaled score of 680, but a raw score of 48 on Practice Test #2 will earn you a scaled score of 700. While this might seem like a significant disparity, remember that this discrepancy accounts for differences in the difficulty of the test. Practice Test #1 must have slightly easier questions than Practice Test #2, so scores from that test are converted on a steeper curve.