True or False: Since essay length is not mentioned in the SAT essay grading rubric, it doesn’t matter how much you write in your essay.
Answer: True...but also false. Read on for an explanation of why and how the length of your SAT essay can affect your score.
feature image credit: How long by Martin Abegglen, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped & modified from original.
Why Does Essay Length Matter?
Why would you think that essay length even matters in the first place? As I said in the introduction, it's not as if the SAT essay rubric mentions essay length at all.
Well, there's at least one good reason to think this: essay length is positively correlated with essay score.
Ever since the essay was added to the SAT, current MIT research affiliate (and former director of the MIT undergraduate writing program) Les Perelman has been vocal about how the longer an essay is, the more likely it is to get a higher score. According to this 2005 New York Times article by Michael Winerip, Perelman analyzed the lengths and scores of 54 SAT-approved sample essays and found a nearly 90% correlation. The shortest essays (around 100 words) received the lowest possible score, 1 (or a combined score of 2 out of 12), while the longest essays (around 400 words), received the highest score, a 6 (or a combined score of 12 out of 12). Based on these findings, representatives of the CollegeBoard stated that they would be releasing shorter examples of higher-scoring essays.
This controversy first erupted in early 2005, right after the new SAT essay was introduced. To see if there had been any changes since then, I did my own analysis of the essays in the CollegeBoard's essay scoring guide that were all written in response to the sample prompt. Take a look at what I found:
Bonus graph reading practice for you in this, an article on essays. You're welcome.
As you can see, as essay length (measured by word count in the graph above) increases, the score also increases.
Just because longer essays tend to score better, however, doesn’t mean that you should just write the word “ideology” over and over again to fill up the page. The reason longer essays tend to score better is that students who write longer essays provide more support for their theses.
If this is the essay prompt:
"Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority,"
and all you write is the following:
"It's important to question authority because sometimes authority stops you from doing things you want. Like getting a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony."
for two pages, you'll still get a 0. Maybe a 1, if the grader is feeling generous and thinks that you made some attempt to write about the issue discussed in a prompt. For more on the thought process of essay grading, read our article about insights from real SAT essay graders (coming soon).
Similarly, if you try to drag out one example by writing larger than usual and restating the same facts and information over and over again, it won't automatically get you a higher score. In fact, you may lose points if either of your essay's graders think that your repeating of information leads to lack of coherence in your writing.
In any case, unless you have extremely small handwriting, it’s very difficult to write an essay that presents a thesis and supports it with at least two specific examples in less than one page.
Bad hair day by Brian Snelson, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Seriously, though. Look at that face. Wouldn't you want a pony?
So How Long Should Your Essay Be?
Many factors go into determining essay length, which makes it difficult to give a blanket length recommendation. Here are the most important factors when it comes to length of your SAT essay:
- Vocabulary. Often, the more advanced vocab you use, the fewer words you’ll need to get the job done, which might result in a shorter essay.
- Handwriting size. Students with larger handwriting will naturally take up more space on the page than students with smaller handwriting. This doesn't necessarily mean students with larger handwriting have an advantage, however; in fact, students with larger handwriting tend to run into the issue of having filled two pages and not finished saying everything they needed or wanted to say.
- How fast you can write and think. If you need to take longer to plan out your essay, you might end up writing a shorter essay, simply because you don't have as much time to write. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll do worse on the essay - since an organized essay with strong specific examples will score better than a disorganized one without specific examples - but it does mean that you might end up with less time to write out your ideas.
- How much time you leave yourself to write (vs. how much time you take to plan). This is something you need to figure out for yourself through practice and observation. Over the years, I've realized that I can write fairly quickly, which means that it's okay if I take a little more time to plan out my essay - I'll still be able to fill up those two pages. On the other hand, if you find that you're a slow writer, you might not be able to write enough unless you get very fast at planning your essay.
In general, assuming about 150 words per handwritten page, you need to write at least a page and a half (1.5 pages) to get a 3 or above on your essay (or a combined score of 6 or above). You'll need at least that much space to say what you need to say and support it clearly with concrete examples.
Want to find out more about how to write a good SAT essay? Watch us write a top-scoring essay step-by-step, then check out our tips on how to write a long SAT essay as well as our more general SAT essay tips.
Discover the secrets to getting a perfect 12 on your SAT essay here.
What if you're planning on taking the new SAT? Read our breakdown of the new SAT essay here.
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Essays Changes and Basic Features
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT essay, debuting in March of 2016 as an optional section on the new SAT, looks radically different than the earlier version of the essay. Instead of coming up with your own argument, you’ll now be required to analyze someone else’s argument. This argument takes the form of a 650-750 word article, and you’ll be given a total of 50 minutes, instead of 25, to read and respond to it.
In short, the SAT asks you to describe how the article in question persuades the reader of its point. In particular, you’re asked to consider its use of evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.
Scoring has also changed. Instead of receiving a cumulative score of 2-12, you’ll now receive three cumulative scores of 2-8 in three separate categories (with 2 being the lowest score and 8 the highest). Two separate graders will read your work and each will rank it on a scale of 1-4 for each category. When they’re finished, their scores will be combined into your three cumulative scores. The three categories are writing (how well write, i.e. your grammar and style), reading (how well you understood the article) and analysis (how well you assessed the writer’s persuasive techniques). It’s possible to do very strongly in one category but very poorly in another, and there is no overall single score for the essay as a whole.
Even though each essay will feature a different passage, the essay question itself—show how the author persuades the reader of her argument—will never change. For this reason it’s completely possible to prepare for the essay in advance.
Should You Take The New (Redesigned) Essay?
Unlike the old SAT essay, the new version is optional. Some colleges will require the essay, some will recommend it, and others will neither require nor recommend it. In the Ivy League, for instance, the essay is currently required by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, whereas Columbia, Penn, Brown and Cornell are not requiring it. You can find an official list of each college’s policy here.
Because a number of colleges do require or recommend you submit essay scores, I recommend anyone sitting for the SAT also sit for the essay. Even if you’re not currently planning on applying to a college that asks for the essay, you might later decide to apply to a school that does. College lists change frequently and you never know where you might want ultimately apply. The last thing you want is to have to retake the entire exam, or, worse yet, not be able to apply to a particular college, just because you took the exam without the essay.
How To Write A High Scoring Essay
Before you begin writing your essay, you’ll want to make sure you read the passage carefully. It’s important to read actively, always keeping in mind the author’s main point and how the various parts of her argument relate to that point.
Before you start reading, look at the question that follows the passage. This question tells you the main point of the passage, so you don’t have to figure it out on your own. For example, one official question reads “write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.” This means that the main point or argument of the passage is that natural darkness should be preserved.
After you’ve ascertained the main point from the question, keep it in mind as you read the passage. Ask yourself how the author uses evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements to convince the reader of this main point, as well as how the various parts of her argument relate to the main point. Everything should lead back to the main point in some way.
As you read, annotate or note whenever you come across a device the author uses to persuade you of her argument. If you don’t understand something, go back and reread it. You have ample time to make sure you understand the passage, and it’s important you do so in order to get the highest “reading” category score possible. Confusing moments are often easier to make sense of after you’ve read the entire passage and understand the full context.
Once you’ve read the passage and identified key persuasive devices, it’s time to make a brief outline for your essay. A powerful way to structure your essay is to have an opening paragraph that states the thesis, followed by two or three paragraphs, each devoted to arguing one part of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that restates the thesis (although in slightly different language than in the opening paragraph).
The thesis should make a central claim that the entire essay then sets out to prove. You might argue, for example, that “the author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade the reader that natural darkness should be preserved.” The next paragraph would then provide concrete examples of how the author uses statistical evidence to persuade the reader, the following paragraph would discuss examples of ironic language, and the next paragraph would discuss specific examples of emotional appeals. The concluding paragraph would wrap things up by restating the thesis. Here’s an example of what your outline might look like:
P1: Thesis – author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade reader natural darkness should be preserved
P2: Statistical evidence examples
P3: Ironic language examples
P4: Emotional appeals examples
P5: Conclusion (restate thesis)
After you’ve completed this brief outline, you’re ready to write. Keep an eye on the clock and make sure to leave a couple minutes at the end so that you can review what you’ve written. This will give you a chance to correct any grammatical, spelling or stylistic mistakes before you hand in the essay.
Key Pointers and Mistakes To Avoid
When you’re coming up with your thesis, make sure to focus on what the author does to persuade the reader, rather than on what the author fails to do. Even if there are some shortcomings in the author’s argument, your task is to analyze what devices are used in order to persuade the reader, not what shortcomings might exist in the argument.
Similarly, make sure that your thesis explains what persuasive devices the author uses rather than whether her argument is right or wrong. Even if you personally agree or disagree with the argument, it’s important to stay neutral. Think of yourself as an impartial outside observer, confined to commenting on how the author constructs her argument, not on the merits of the argument itself.
When you write about your examples of persuasive elements, always make sure to tie those examples back to your central argument about persuasion. It’s easy to get so caught up in the details that you forget to state what those details are actually doing—attempting to persuade the reader of something—but it’s important to make this connection clear.
When you choose your examples, look for those examples that are most important to persuading the reader of the author’s argument. Avoid marginal and insignificant details that don’t play a big role in persuading the reader of the main point.
While the SAT asks you to consider the author’s use of “evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive devices,” you’re not required to discuss all three. In fact, it’s better to go into more detail on just two than to try to address all three and use less detail in the process.
As you discuss specific persuasive elements, try to elaborate on how and why they work to persuade the reader of the main point. It’s not enough to simply mention a detail from the essay in one sentence. Try instead to really flesh out why a specific detail works persuasively—devote a number of sentences to explaining the different ways it functions. The highest scoring essays always go into great detail about a few select moments in the passage, rather than trying to briefly mention every persuasive moment in passing.
When discussing examples, avoid making broad claims that you can’t back up, such as “by discussing tragedy, the author moves the reader.” Instead, get into specifics: “when the author discusses tragedy, she chooses specific examples aimed at resonating with her audience. Since her audience is American, for example, she discusses the American tragedy of September 11th.”
You should also mention how key details and ideas interrelate to one another and the author’s main argument. Showing how everything “fits together” in the passage is critical for earning the highest score possible according to the SAT’s scoring rubric.
In citing specific examples, avoid lengthy direct quotations from the text. You should mainly reserve direct quotes for when you want to draw attention to the specific language or structure of the writing the author is using. Otherwise, it’s usually best to paraphrase what the author is saying. This is not only good writing practice, but it also demonstrates to the grader that you have understood the passage, which is critical to earning a high “reading” category score.
In order to earn a high “reading” score, it’s also important that you write a substantial amount. Essays earning the highest reading scores are usually among the longest, and this is because the more you write about the text, the clearer it is that you understand the text as a whole. Plan on using the full 50 minutes to write as much as possible when you’re not reading the passage or planning and reviewing your essay.
Common Persuasive Elements
There are an unlimited number of persuasive elements that an author can use to make a point, and each passage will feature different ones. That said, here are some common persuasive elements that you might see on any given passage:
Applying a general rule to a specific case
Deducing a general rule from specific cases
Using logic to rule a possibility in or out
Stylistic or Persuasive Elements
The author tries to sound like the reader
Irony or sarcasm
Grammar and Style Tips
Because your essay will receive a “writing” score, it’s important to use good grammar and style. Since you should already be studying grammar for the Writing and Language section of the redesigned SAT, try to apply the same rules you’re learning to your own writing on the essay.
To pick up as many “writing” points as possible, make sure that your writing flows smoothly from one idea to the next. Use strong and clear transitions at the start of each new paragraph. You might begin a new paragraph, for example, by saying “Similar to her use of historical evidence, the author employs statistical evidence to argue that the economy is strong.” You should also connect separate clauses with words and phrases that show the specific nature of their relationship, such as “thus,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” “for example” and “in contrast.”
It’s also important to vary the structure of your sentences. Instead of writing “John is hungry. John is tired. John is not having a good day,” write “John is feeling hungry and tired. As you might guess, he is not having a good day.” Avoid starting consecutive sentences and paragraphs with the same word. One trick to help mix up sentence structure is to throw in an occasional rhetorical question, such as “How would the early Monicaros have felt if they too lacked freedom?”
Whenever possible, forgo passive sentences for active ones. Instead of writing “The apple was eaten by the boy,” for instance, write “The boy ate the apple.” What you’re essentially doing is replacing any “to be” verb forms (“was”) with a verb that represents the action actually taking place in the sentence (eating, or “ate”).
The SAT also expects you to write formally. This means avoiding contractions like “it’s” or “that’s” in favor of “it is” or “that is,” as well as avoiding the first person (I, we, me, etc.). You should also avoid clichés or any expressions that sound too colloquial. Try to emulate the type of formal writing you find in many academic essays and school textbooks. This also means aiming to use advanced vocabulary when appropriate. Just make sure you’re using any advanced word correctly—when in doubt, leave it out.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to do on the essay, it’s essential to practice. You’ll ideally want to write a couple of practice essays before you sit for the real thing.
It’s best to practice with official College Board essay prompts, since prompts written by test prep companies might not always represent what you’ll see on test day as accurately. Fortunately, College Board has already released a number of prompts. You can find two prompts, including scored sample responses with College Board commentary, here. There are also another four included with the four released practice tests here, as well as an additional two in the new Official SAT Study Guide.
If you’ve exhausted these eight practice prompts, you can also practice with old AP English Language and Composition free response questions, available here. The second question in each free response asks you to compete essentially the same task as the SAT essay question.
Make sure to adhere to the 50 minute time limit when practicing!
The new (or “redesigned”) SAT features a very different type of essay question than the prior SAT did. Although this essay is optional, it’s a good idea to take it so as not to close the door on any colleges you might be eventually wish to apply to. You can make sure you’re prepared on test day by combining the advice in this article with writing multiple, timed practice essays. Because the assignment and scoring criteria never change, preparing should leave you with no surprises and a high set of scores.
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