Should You Take the SAT Essay?

The SAT has 5 sections: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing & Language, Math (No-Calculator), Math (Calculator), and an Essay. 

The SAT Essay, however, is optional on the new exam. 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. 

Should you take the SAT essay to make your application more competitive? Or should you pass on it and spend those 50 minutes elsewhere?

In this article, we answer these questions and more to help you make an informed decision.

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.

Should I Take the SAT Essay? Points to Consider

Many students are understandably on the fence about taking the SAT essay. What does “optional” really mean in the context of college admissions?

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 may still fill the SAT essay gap with something else, such as supplemental writing materials (discussed below).

Despite not requiring it, a dwindling number of institutions may “recommend” that students take the essay if they have the means to do so.

What should you do? Here are some important points to consider for taking the SAT essay.

College Application Requirements 

The College Board is 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. Keep these in mind when deciding whether or not to sit for the 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 may not require the SAT essay, but they may request an alternative.

While Princeton University does not require 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: What do we recommend?

So, should you take the SAT essay? 

Our answer: yes (for now).

The SAT Essay is significantly less important than the other sections of the SAT. However, a small number of schools still require or recommend it.

We generally recommend that students considering the more selective colleges still consider taking the SAT Essay to keep their options open.

However, we don’t advise spending too much time preparing for the SAT Essay. If the value of the SAT Essay continues to decline, we might change our stance.

The good news is that you can raise your scores fairly quickly on the Essay section if you know how to approach it properly. Begin by reviewing some sample SAT essay responses to get a sense of the SAT’s writing standards. 

Then work with an expert to learn targeted tips for writing a compelling SAT essay response.

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.