The lowdown on the SAT writing section


It’s already been five years since the College Board added a Writing section to the SAT and yet it’s still leaving students and parents confused. Do colleges even look at a Writing section score? Why did they add it and what’s on it, anyway? If my essay is scored from 1 to 6, how did I get a 9? Why is my multiple-choice score missing a zero?

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I love that the Writing section is part of the SAT. If the SAT tests a topic, I get to teach it! Even better, you’re now beholden to learning those skills it tests (which, frankly, is why the new material was added).

So let’s talk about this for a second. Invariably, the first thing people want to know when they’re applying to a particular college is whether or not that school actually considers the Writing score as part of the application, the subtext of which is “do I really have to prepare for this?” …and it’s true, there are plenty of schools that ignore it.

Nevertheless, I’m about to ask you a really difficult question:

Should that really influence whether or not you study for it? Can you think of a reason that you, the college-bound student, don’t need to be skilled in English grammar, punctuation, and construction of a solid piece of writing?

Put differently: whether or not your college of choice requires an SAT Writing score, you should strive for success on the section because it tests the most fundamental skills necessary to communicating effectively in an ever-evolving world. You’re going to college? You’re going to write. A lot. When it comes to mastering the SAT Writing section, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

That being said, let’s look at how the Writing section works and how to understand your scores. The Writing section is comprised of three parts: a 25-minutes multiple choice section that includes sentence editing and a short passage that needs to be corrected, a 10-minute section of sentence editing, and an essay. Essentially, the multiple choice portion is scored just like the Reading Comprehension or Math would be: you earn a point for each correct answer and lose a quarter point for each incorrect answer. Those raw scores are converted into a scaled score on the 20 to 80 scale (which reflects their eventual 200 to 800 point value).

Next, your multiple choice raw score is combined with your essay score. The essay is graded on a scale of 1 to 6, from disaster to near-perfection, respectively. Because two people grade each essay, you can earn a final score of up to 12 points. A statistic from a 2006 article reports that fewer than 1 percent of test-takers earn a 12, so keep that in mind as you learn to craft an essay to the College Board’s tastes.

Let’s take a closer look at how your essay influences your final Writing section score. Your score on the multiple choice sections is far more heavily weighted than your essay, and the scores work on a sliding scale.

For starters, let’s imagine that your raw score on the multiple choice portion of the test is perfectly average: a scaled score of 50. According to The Official SAT Study Guide, your Essay Scaled Score would influence your final score as follows:

Note: Please keep in mind that the grading scale varies slightly on every SAT, so this is not the gospel; it’s merely a guideline.

Essay Raw Score


   12  11  10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  0
 50 580  560  550  530  510  490  480  460  450  440  430  420 

You should see that at the 50 level you’ll need to make sure you get at least an 8 on the essay to not those points you earned on the multiple choice.

Now, if you’ve earned a scaled score of 60, the College Board expects more from your essay, too. This time you have to hit a 9 to avoid losing points:

Essay Raw Score


   12  11  10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  0
 60 670 650 630 620 590 580 560 550 530 520 500 490

The minimum of 9 holds true for a scaled score of 70, as well, but not if you achieve a perfect multiple choice section, an 80:

Essay Raw Score


   12  11  10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  0 
 70 740 720 710 690 670 650 640 620 610 590 580 570
 80 800 800 800 800 770 760 740 730 710 700 680 670

Ultimately, the trick to earning the best score you possibly can on the Writing Section is to practice, practice, practice…and then practice some more. The best writers are avid readers—strive to incorporate reading into your daily life as the first step to an improved SAT Writing Score.