Should You Take the SAT Essay in 2021?

NOTE: The SAT Essay no longer exists as of 2024. The SAT has transitioned into a new digital format, which is radically different. For an updated guide to the new digital SAT, follow the link here.

The SAT Essay is optional. Students do not have to sit for it. In fact, they must elect to take the Essay when registering for the SAT. This costs an additional $15.

Plenty of U.S. universities and colleges do not require the SAT Essay, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Brown. But in the context of college admissions, “optional” often takes on a whole new meaning. 

What’s more, the CollegeBoard will now be discontinuing the SAT Essay following the June 2021 SAT administration.

Should you take the SAT essay between now and 2021? Or should you pass on it and spend those 50 minutes elsewhere?

In this article, we answer these questions and more.

Here’s what we cover:

  • The SAT Essay: The Basics
  • How We’ve Approached the Essay Until Now (2021)
  • Should You Take the Essay Between Now and June 2021?

The SAT Essay: The Basics

If they’ve registered for it, students take the SAT essay after they have completed the first 4 sections of the test. The Essay portion is 50 minutes long (as opposed to the old SAT’s 25-minute essay section) and is hand-written.

The Purpose of the SAT Essay

According to the College Board, the SAT essay is “about the real world.”

The SAT Essay is a lot like a typical college writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. Take the SAT with Essay and show colleges that you’re ready to come to campus and write.

Yes, students must write analytically after nearly three hours of testing, when their brains are significantly fatigued! Nonetheless, the SAT essay is designed to showcase a student’s writing capabilities in the context of college preparedness.

The Prompt

Students must analyze a passage and write a response assessing the author’s argument. The SAT Essay prompt will always be the same on Test Day. The only thing that differs from test to test is the passage students must analyze prior to responding. Should I take the SAT Essay?

Source: College Board

Notice how students are not asked whether or not they agree with the author’s argument. Nor are they asked to assess its logical soundness.

They must simply identify the tools or “rhetorical devices” the author uses to make his/her argument persuasive.

Passages will be similar in length and style to those on the Evidence-Based Reading test of the SAT, although notably more argumentative in nature. Many essay passages are speeches or editorials. These can be from any century.

SAT Essay Scoring

Two separate readers will assess students’ essays and score these in three categories:

  1. Analysis
  2. Reading
  3. and Writing

They will award 1-4 points for each category. The SAT test graders then add the two scores for each category. Here’s an example:

Analysis Writing Reading
Essay Grader 1 3 2 3
Essay Grader 2 3 3 4
Total Score 6 5 7

A student’s SAT essay scores do not impact their SAT composite score or Verbal section score. Essay scores appear separately on the score report itself. These do not include a composite score or percentiles.

Our Historic Approach to the SAT Essay (pre-2021)

Before the CollegeBoard announced that it would be discontinuing the SAT Essay in June 2021, these were our thoughts on this optional section of the test.

First things first, plenty of institutions have dropped their requirement of the SAT or ACT essays due to the financial obstacle it may pose to some students. As we’ve already mentioned, the SAT essay requires $15 on top of the exam’s registration fee of $49.50. (Fee waivers do exist.)

Yet some colleges have sometimes filled the SAT essay gap with something else, such as supplemental writing materialsDespite not requiring it, a dwindling number of institutions have “recommended” that students take the essay if they have the means to do so.

College Application Requirements 

In the past, the CollegeBoard has been quick to emphasize that taking the SAT Essay enables students to apply to schools that “recommend or require it.” 

Indeed, some of the colleges on students’ lists may have different policies and/or requirements when it comes to the SAT Essay. 

The College Board has a helpful tool on its website for reviewing college essay policies quickly. Simply type the name of a college into the search bar to see if an institution requires, recommends, or neither recommends nor requires the SAT Essay.  SAT Essay Policies

If you do use this tool, be sure to confirm essay policies with what colleges specify on their websites.  

Essay Alternatives

Some colleges have requested an alternative to the SAT essay in past admission cycles.

While Princeton University has not historically required the SAT or ACT essay, it does request a graded academic writing sample from all applicants. This is designed to “assess the student’s written expression in an academic setting” and “further the holistic understanding of the student’s application.”

Other universities, such as Harvard, permit applicants to supplement their applications with academic papers, research projects, and other scholarly documents of which they are the sole author. 

In other words, colleges are keen to assess students’ writing capacities, SAT/ACT essay aside.

SAT Test Prep

The essay does incorporate much of what both SAT verbal sections already test: expression of ideas, logical organization, critical analysis of a text, and author’s intent.

Students who prepare for both SAT verbal sections will thus already be poised for success on the essay!  In this sense, studying for the SAT essay nicely complements any SAT test prep timeline and curriculum. 

AP English students may also be at an advantage for the SAT essay. The prompt’s focus on argument and rhetorical devices frequently aligns with AP English curriculum, making essay prep more straightforward. 

Taking the SAT Essay in 2021

The CollegeBoard will no longer offer the SAT Essay after the June administration of the SAT.

In the past, we’ve encouraged students to take the Essay to keep their options open, especially those applying to more selective colleges. We haven’t advised spending too much time preparing for the Essay, however.

Now what? Should you even consider signing up for the SAT Essay since it’s going away in six months?

In general, plan on taking the SAT Essay if:

  • You have already significantly prepared for the essay at this point in your SAT test prep
  • You’ve taken the SAT essay once and plan on taking the SAT at least one more time before or on June 2021
  • You plan on taking the SAT at least twice by June 2021  (this allows for SuperScoring with Essay)
  • You desperately wish to showcase your writing skills and/or
  • You have substantial extra prep time (i.e., preparing for the Essay won’t compromise your prep for other more valuable sections)

We recommend that you skip the essay if:

  • You are just starting your test prep journey now
  • You plan on taking the SAT after the June administration, at least one time
  • At least one college on your list requires an essay alternative (such as an academic paper)
  • You’ve already taken the essay at least twice and/or
  • Your time is better spent preparing for the required sections of the SAT (Math, Reading, Writing & Language)

At the end of the day, colleges are likely to still be interested in applicants’ ability to write well and think critically.

That’s why we encourage students to spend time honing their personal statements, in-class academic papers, and supplemental essay responses, regardless of their history with the SAT Essay.

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.