Everything You Need to Know about the SAT Essay (+5 Tips for Success)


If you’re in the process of applying to college, you’ve probably registered for your SAT. Have you thought about whether you want to do the Essay portion or not? Before you decide, we’ve broken down the SAT Essay for you to help you prepare. 

If you haven’t registered yet, see our list of essential deadlines for this fall admissions cycle.

8 free resources to start your SAT prep

Optional vs. Required

For those of you who lean towards math and the sciences or strongly dislike writing, I have good news for you. The SAT essay is an optional portion of the test. It is completely up to you whether you want to take the essay portion. However, some colleges might require the essay section. Take a look at your college list and see if the SAT essay is listed. According to The Khan Academy, “If they don’t, you may still want to consider completing this section as it will showcase your analytical and writing skills.” Something to consider as you put together your application materials and register for the SAT. 

Grading Process 

You may be wondering how the SAT essay is graded and scored. Unlike what you may be used to in your English class, the SAT essay is graded on three categories. Two readers look at your essay and grade on a scale of 1 to 4 in 1) reading, 2) analysis, and 3) writing. The College Board Blog further breaks down each of these categories as follows:

  • Your reading score demonstrates your reading comprehension. Did you demonstrate that you understand the passage? 

  • Your analysis score shows your ability to analyze the author’s methods of persuasion. Did you list out and analyze the different strategies and information that the author used to persuade her point? 

  • Your writing score will reflect “the cohesiveness of your essay.” Did you show a command of language and meet “conventions of standard written English”? 

The most effective way to prepare for a higher score is to understand the formatting and take practice tests. 

Essay Prompt Format

Excluding breaks, students have 3 hours to complete the standard SAT sections, and “the optional SAT Essay adds another 50 minutes to that mix.” You’ll be given a passage to write about, which is centered on “arguments written for a broad audience,” explains The Khan Academy. Here is a sample of the prompt: 


In addition to understanding what format to expect, make sure you take practice tests. Timed practice along with getting a hang of the structure will help you feel prepared when it comes time to take the test. Before and after you take practice tests, look through sample essays and sample prompts to get an idea of what the responses should look like. The best way to prepare is to familiarize yourself with the prompts.


Tips for Success

  • As a way to prepare on a more ongoing basis, the College Board recommends that you read professional writing outlets like The New York Times to get into the practice of reading and analyzing information.  

  • Follow the standard essay structure that you’re used to writing in your English class:

    • Include introduction, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion. 

    • “Use your body paragraphs to back up your thesis statement by citing specific examples. Use short, relevant quotes from the text to support your points.” -The Princeton Review

  • Read the prompt first. “Knowing what the author’s claim is going into the article can help keep you focused on the argument, rather than getting caught up in reading the passage (especially if the topic is one you're interested in).” Prep Scholar