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All About the SAT Optional Essay

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Nov. 13, 2020
All About the SAT Optional Essay


In addition to the four required SAT sections (Reading, Writing and Language, Math (No Calculator) and Math (Calculator)), you have the choice to opt in to a fifth section: the Essay. To learn more about what you're getting yourself into when you sign up for this additional section, read on!

SAT Essay: An Overview

The optional Essay follows the calculator-permitted Math section or a short, experimental section and is always the final portion of the exam. When you get to the Essay, you'll have 50 minutes to write one rhetorical analysis essay using the provided source text. Your essay will be graded by two human readers, who will each give three scores of 1 to 4 in three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Your score report will show the combined scores for each separate area (2 to 8), but will not provide an overall composite.

That's a lot of information to unpack, so let's start at the beginning.

If the SAT Essay Is Optional, How Do I Know If I Should Take It?

The primary reason to complete the Essay is because some schools require it for admission. Over the past few years, fewer and fewer schools have required the Essay, and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. However, there are still some schools that recommend you take the SAT Essay, and if you're applying to any of these, it's in your best interest to take (and do well on!) the Essay.

As you start your prep, check the standardized test policies for each of the schools on your list to see whether they require or recommend the SAT Essay. If none of those schools do so, and you're sure you won't be applying to any other schools, then don't take the Essay! If you don't have a list of schools locked down yet, or any of the ones you are thinking about do require or recommend the SAT Essay, then you should take it.

So, What's a Rhetorical Analysis?

The SAT Essay task is to write a "rhetorical analysis" of a given text. This means that you need to explain how the author of the provided text makes her or his argument: What are the elements that contribute to the persuasiveness of the argument, and how do those elements affect the audience? You may have encountered this type of writing before, especially if you've taken AP English Language and Composition (one of the Free Response Questions on that test is very similar to the SAT Essay prompt).

Notably, this task does not require you to give your opinion on the writing in front of you; in fact, the College Board explicitly want you to avoid giving your opinion! Focus on analyzing the devices that the author uses and keep your opinion out of it!

What's up With the Three Scores?

Here's the short and sweet version of all three scores you'll get on the SAT Essay:

  • Reading: How accurately you describe the main idea of the text, the major lines of reasoning and the context of the text.
  • Analysis: Whether you can 1) identify devices used by the author of the text, 2) describe the impact of those devices on the audience, and 3) tie that impact to how the device makes the author's overall argument more compelling.
  • Writing: How well-written your essay is, from the micro-level (grammar and word choice) to the overall structure of your essay.

There is no composite Essay score, as the College Board maintains that colleges should consider the three different scores separately. It's hard to tell exactly which scores the schools you apply to will value most, although it does seem as if the Writing score is the most varyingly used, with some ignoring it. It's still a good idea to aim for top marks in each category, and you can visit the College Board website to learn more about what earns high scores in each field.

Just like the rest of the SAT, the optional Essay is a test for which you can prepare. Pick up a copy of our book, SAT Prep, for access to practice tests and study tips, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for new, weekly content to help you reach your top SAT score.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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