The Essay
How Is the Essay Scored?
Ah, the million-dollar question. Let’s talk about a few different aspects of scoring.
Holistic Scoring
Writing—even writing a first draft in 25 minutes—is an extremely complex task. Each element of good writing depends at least partially on every other element. Therefore, essays are graded holistically. Holistic scoring means that the parts make up the whole. In other words, the parts that make up an essay, such as grammar, logic, usage, sentence structure, and the use of evidence, cannot be judged in isolation from one another. They can only be understood (and judged) in relation to one another and as parts of a whole essay.
The College Board aims to reward you for what you do right rather than punish you for what you do wrong.
The Scoring Rubric
The scoring rubric is a chart that instructs readers on how to score the essay. Each of your two readers will give your essay a score between 1 and 6, with 6 being the highest. (If you write nothing, or write on a topic not asked about in the prompt, you’ll get a 0.)
The scoring rubric is organized by score level. The several features of a 6 are listed, then the features of a 5, a 4, and so forth.
Dissecting the Scoring Rubric
We’re going to look at the scoring rubric in the following way. First, we want to show which features appear across the score levels. That will highlight exactly what the readers are trained to consider when assessing your essay. Then we’ll discuss the scoring rubric in detail, feature by feature, showing the differences between and among the various score levels. By studying the scoring rubric in detail, you’ll start to understand what your writing should include and what you should avoid. Most important, you’ll gain an understanding of how The College Board defines good writing, which is not necessarily identical to how you, your friends, or your parents may define it.
In a sense, we are giving you a crash course in how to grade an SAT essay. In becoming an essay-reader, you will know how to give the real readers exactly what they want.
Here’s a distilled version of the scoring rubric, showing what features of writing readers are trained to assess. Note that the first feature is all about holistic scoring—the general overall impression the reader has of your essay.
Score 6 5 4
Features General overall impression
Point of view; critical thinking; examples, reasons, and evidence
Organization, focus, coherence, and flow
Vocabulary and use of language
Sentence structure
Errors in grammar and usage
Score 3 2 1
Features General overall impression
Point of view; critical thinking; examples, reasons, and evidence
Organization, focus, coherence, and flow
Vocabulary and use of language
Sentence structure
Errors in grammar and usage
Note how we divide the upper-half scores (4, 5, and 6) and the lower-half scores (1, 2, and 3). We’ll return to the significance of this division in a subsequent section.
This scoring rubric determines which concepts are essential for you to master.
General Overall Impression
Remember, essays are graded holistically; this feature represents an overall impression.
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 An exceptional essay that shows sustained expertise, but which contains a few minor errors
5 A successful essay that shows mostly sustained expertise, even though it contains occasional mistakes or slips in quality
4 An adequate essay that shows competence, but which contains more than occasional mistakes or slips in quality
3 An insufficient essay that shows signs of evolving competence and features one or more specific flaws
2 A weak essay that shows serious limitations, insufficient facility, and which features one or more specific flaws
1 An essentially deficient essay that displays fundamental inability and features severe manifestations of one or more specific flaws
0 No essay written.
Essay that doesn’t respond to the assignment.
An illegible essay
These are the general characteristics that readers keep in mind. Let’s now discuss the one or more specific flaws mentioned in the chart above. These are the more specific features of writing the readers will be on the lookout for.
Point of View; Critical Thinking; and Examples, Reasons, and Evidence
First, let’s define some terms:
Point of View: Keep in mind that we’re dealing with persuasive writing. You must take a stand on the issue presented, and you’ll need to present a definite point of view.
Critical Thinking: Your essay will be graded, in part, on how deep your analysis is and how unique your thoughts are.
Examples, Reasons, and Evidence: We’ve touched on this before. All of your experience and knowledge is fair game—the key is to use appropriate examples that help build your case. You should have at least a couple of reasons for your point of view and ample evidence, including examples, to back up your reasons. (We’ll provide a template for you in Essential Strategies that will ensure that your essay fulfills these requirements.)
Now let’s look at the different score levels with these features in mind:
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 Impressively insightful point of view
Outstanding critical thinking
Completely appropriate reasons, examples, and evidence to support point of view
5 Well-developed point of view
Strong critical thinking
Generally appropriate reasons, examples, and evidence to support point of view
4 Fairly well developed point of view
Adequate critical thinking
Mostly appropriate reasons, examples, and evidence to support point of view
3 Develops a point of view
Some evidence of critical thinking, but inconsistently apparent
Sometimes inappropriate reasons, examples, and evidence to support point of view
2 Develops a vague point of view
Little evidence of critical thinking
Insufficient or inappropriate reasons, examples, and evidence to support point of view
1 Does not develop a point of view
No evidence of critical thinking
Little or no evidence to support point of view
The scoring rubric has a lot to say on these three components of good writing. That should tell you something: the SAT wants you to demonstrate the ability to create a reasonable argument that displays some independent and reasonably deep thinking that you support rather than simply state.
Critical thinking is all about building a good argument; encouraging and rewarding critical thinking is the goal of the essay. (We’ll discuss the basics of argumentation in a subsequent section.)
Organization, Focus, Coherence, and Flow
A primary characteristic of good writing is a well-organized and coherent argument that is focused and flows naturally. Here is how these features play out in the scoring rubric:
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 Well organized
Tightly focused
Tight coherence
Smooth flow of ideas
5 Well organized
Coheres reasonably well
Mostly smooth flow of ideas
4 Generally organized
Generally focused
Shows some coherence
Discernable but not particularly smooth flow of ideas
3 Partially organized
Partially unfocused
Some incoherent portions
Interrupted or disrupted flow of ideas
2 Poorly organized
Mostly unfocused
Systemic problems with incoherence
Flow of ideas difficult to discern
1 Disorganized
Flow of ideas impossible to discern or entirely absent
Compare this chart to the others in this section. Note that the SAT is pretty tough on disorganization, lack of focus, and incoherence. In fact, we can probably conclude that this feature of writing is the biggest concern. Readers want to see how well you can create, plan, and execute a persuasive piece of writing. If you’re disorganized or unfocused, you’ll be unpersuasive.
Don’t worry—we have a plan and a method for you. You’ll encounter it soon. But let’s continue dissecting the scoring rubric.
Vocabulary and Use of Language
One component of effective writing is choosing the appropriate word and using a varied vocabulary. Study the following chart, noting the differences between the characteristics that define each score level:
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 Skilled use of language
Varied, accurate, and appropriate vocabulary
5 Capable use of language
Appropriate vocabulary
4 Satisfactory but inconsistent use of language
Generally appropriate vocabulary
3 Inconsistent use of language that shows signs of evolving competence
Some inappropriate word choice; weak vocabulary
2 Insufficient use of language
Very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice
1 Basic vocabulary errors
The take-home message here is that misusing highfalutin, ten-dollar words will definitely hurt you. Using appropriate, reasonably varied vocabulary will help get you toward the top of the scoring rubric.
Sentence Structure

Bill went to the store. Bill got some milk. Bill met Jane. Jane got some gum. Bill and Jane said good-bye. Bill went home.

Are you bored yet? The SAT will look for varied sentence structure. Simply writing “subject-verb-object” declarative sentences over and over again will put a ceiling on your score. Let’s see what the scoring rubric looks for at each score level.
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 Displays meaningful variety
5 Displays variety
4 Displays some variety
3 Does not display variety
Displays problems
2 Displays frequent problems
1 Displays serious and widespread problems
Merely displaying some variety in your sentences will help get you a 4, 5, or 6. But note the difference between a 5 and a 6: the purposeful and significant use of particular types of sentences will earn you a 6. (We’ll discuss the basics of sentence structure in Essential Concepts.)
Errors in Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics
Grammar, usage, and mechanics are the rules of written language. But note how forgiving the SAT is about these rules. While you can’t ignore them, you do have some grammatical leeway: the readers are realistic about what degree of accuracy is reasonable to expect in a 25-minute, high-pressure essay.
Score Level Defining Characteristics
6 Free of most errors
5 On the whole, free of most errors
4 Has some errors
3 Has a lot of errors
2 Has so many errors that meaning is partially hidden
1 Persistent and widespread errors that obscure meaning
Note that even a 6 does not need to be error-free. Readers know that this is a first draft written by teenagers under strict time constraints and a lot of pressure. Readers are out to give you the highest score they can. The next section will show you exactly how.
How the Essay-Readers Apply the Scoring Rubric
Remember, the overarching principle of essay-scoring is to do so holistically. So, while readers use the scoring rubric as a guide, they also adhere to several other general principles and procedures when scoring your essay.
First, remember that your essay will be read not by one, but by two different readers. If their scores differ by more than one point, a third, very experienced reader is brought in. Second, readers are trained to read your entire essay quickly to get a general impression. They then score it immediately. That is a very effective way to keep the readers focused on holistic grading: readers don’t have the time to get nitpicky. Scoring decisions often occur in two steps:
  • Step 1: Readers first decide whether an essay is in the top or bottom half of the scoring rubric—is it a 1, 2, 3 or a 4, 5, 6?
  • Step 2: Then they make decisions within the “half”—is it a 4 or a 5? Is it maybe a 6?
Third, The College Board demands that readers read “supportively.” That means readers are trained to look for positive aspects to reward rather than negative aspects to punish. That means that the readers are literally rooting for you.
Fourth, readers are trained to ignore handwriting as much as is humanly possible. Particularly difficult handwriting will be bumped up to more experienced readers. However, one way to get a zero is to write illegibly. So, while we don’t recommend totally retooling your handwriting, make sure to be as neat as you can.
Fifth, despite what you may have heard, a longer essay doesn’t equal a higher score. Longer is not necessarily better. In fact, readers are specifically told to judge essays as is, holistically, and by using the scoring rubric. If a shorter essay earns a 6, so be it. Furthermore, and most important, the idea that writing a long essay will automatically raise your score leads to some of the worst possible essay-writing strategies. The SAT wants to see a first draft that develops a well-thought-out and well-supported point of view on the issue that is written engagingly, with varied and mostly correct language. The point is to achieve that goal, not to attain some “magic” length within the allotted time.
Finally, the readers couldn’t care less whether you quote Plato’s Republic, your own diary, or an advertising jingle. What matters is the appropriateness of your evidence, examples, and reasons, not the status of the knowledge you use to support your argument and point of view.
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