Test Prep

Are SAT Essay Scores Accurate?

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My son took the SAT with writing a few months ago. He plans to take it again once he's able to, but we have a question about the writing part. My son got a 1600 on the SAT but only a top score of 4 for the essay section. This seems like a big discrepancy to me if the best score possible is an 8 and a student with a perfect SAT only got a 4 on his best essay work. Are these scores accurate? How do they come up with the scores?


"The Dean" feels strongly that your son should not retake the SAT. If admission officials were to spot his initial middling Writing score and then see that he'd retested — even with a better Writing outcome — they'd be likely to think, "This student is a hyper-perfectionist," which might actually work against him far more than a mediocre writing result would. And even if the admission folks didn't get wind of the first test at all, it seems like a colossal waste of your son's time to take a second shot just to boost the Writing numbers.

I do understand why you — the parent of a strong student — were probably surprised to see any score that seems just so-so. But if you read this article about SAT Essay scoring, you'll find that as "bad" as a 4 may seem, it really falls more under the "Okay" rubric and not the "Lousy" one.

You'll also learn that the grading of the SAT essay is a highly subjective (and thus uneven) process, which is one of many reasons why most colleges — especially the uber-selective ones — are no longer requiring the SAT Writing section (and may be barely glancing at these scores, even when they are included).

If your son is a rising senior now, you surely know that many colleges and universities that ordinarily expect SAT or ACT scores as part of the application process have changed this policy for the high school class of 2021 and, in some cases, beyond. In fact, there is currently a movement afoot that could make ALL colleges test-optional for at least the coming year because the pandemic-related cancellations and closings have turned test-registration into a nightmare for countless students.

So I urge you to read this article and then push your son's SAT Essay score out of your mind. Then, when it comes time for him complete his college applications, help him to make sure that the writing components he submits will demonstrate that he can capably put words together and in a voice that seems authentically his own.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

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