SAT Essay: In Search of a Perfect Score

I have had several students who were excellent writers, yet were disappointed at not being able to score above a 10 on their essays after taking the SAT multiple times. I have also read numerous reports on the internet about students who had similar experiences.

My advice to all of you – don’t lose sleep over it. Let’s see why:

Two graders read your essay. Each assigns a grade of 1 – 6, so you get a total of 2 – 12 (note that a third reader will be asked to grade your essay if the first two scores are more than 1 point apart).

The graders are presented with a scoring rubric. Let’s have a look at The College Board’s description of what a “5 essay” and a “6 essay” should be:

Score of 6

An essay in this category demonstrates clear and consistent mastery, although it may have a few minor errors. A typical essay:

  • Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
  • Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary
  • Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
  • Is free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics

Score of 5

An essay in this category demonstrates reasonably consistent mastery, although it will have occasional errors or lapses in quality. A typical essay:

  • Effectively develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and focused, demonstrating coherence and progression of ideas
  • Exhibits facility in the use of language, using appropriate vocabulary
  • Demonstrates variety in sentence structure
  • Is generally free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics

You can see that all of the differences are subjective. Arguably, any well-written essay could be described as belonging to either of the categories.

Many of my students order Question-and-Answer service, and I’ve looked at their essays as they were written. And in my mind, many of the essays that received a score of 10 or 11 were superior to others that received a 12. Other SAT experts have reported similar findings.

I have read about professional authors who have received less-than-perfect scores, despite repeated attempts at the SAT. How is that possible? A score of 6 is not supposed to be reserved for a perfect essay (if one even exists). No, a 6 is supposed to be assigned to a decent first draft written at advanced high school level. That’s a far cry from what a professional author will churn out easily.

The problem is that the graders’ ideas of what constitutes a “6 essay” are subjective. I have read reports from graders who say that they only assign a 6 if an essay is “special.” Fine, but what exactly constitutes “special”?

I have read that some graders are impressed by students who cite classic works of literature. This isn’t surprising; a large percentage of the graders are English teachers. But I’ve read that other graders frown upon cited sources, preferring the “creativity” of personal experience. And since graders are looking for their own idea of “special,” there is simply no way to ensure that you’ll get that perfect grade.

The College Board seems to have recognized this fact; the scoring scales for the first 3 tests in the “Blue Book” (The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd ed.) reveal that you can achieve a perfect 800 score on the writing section even if you score only a 9 on the essay. However, if you don’t do well on the multiple choice, you can lose 40 or 50 points because your grader doesn’t think your essay was “special.” So much for the claims of pinpoint accuracy of SAT scores.

Another issue may be that graders are reluctant to give many essays a score of 6, given that the other grader of any particular essay may assign it a 4. The College Board keeps track of how often a third reader needs to be called; the consequences for exceeding a certain threshold include mandatory retraining, and eventually, the possibility of being fired.

A few years ago, I signed up for The College Board’s online course. I was able to submit essays for scoring. Since the scores were returned immediately, it was obvious that they were using some form of software to do the grading. I cut-and-pasted the example essay from the Scorebusters course manual, and received a score of 5. Then I wrote some low-level nonsense (including a paragraph about an invented book titled Lizard Man and the Green Meanies by Harold Wheresmyshorts; the plot was as inane as the title implies), and sure enough, reached a 6. I can assure you that the first essay was superior in every way mentioned on the rubric.

Lizard Knows Best

I offer a solution to this problem: Let the graders continue to assign grades of 1 – 6, but convert all the 6’s to 5’s before calculating scaled scores (i.e render scores of 5 and 6 identical). Stop penalizing students because of graders’ subjective opinions of what is “special.”


6 comments on “SAT Essay: In Search of a Perfect Score

  1. 516-765-6491; says:

    I preach answwering the ethical question with the climactic scenes from three classic works of literature. Are your 5s only responding with two works of literature? Two will only get 10 out of 12. Sincerely, Philip Becker.

  2. Thanks for the input, Philip.

    I have seen essays receive a 12 that had 0, 1, 2, or 3 literary examples. My personal favorite is 2 literature + 1 history (which shows that you’re well rounded), but there is no set formula.

    Check the example essays in the Blue Book that received a 6.

  3. I have found “If it aint broke don’t fix it.” Somebody preached to me to about a trend of using two works of literature and one personal experience example has increased chances of getting a 12 out of 12. With my three works of literature approach, I hear from students a lot of 12 out of 12s. Is my adviser/preacher just messing with my head? Sincerely.

  4. Hi Philip,

    I think you just answered your own question – you cited two different approaches, either of which can yield a perfect score.

    Look at it this way: no one can know exactly what goes on during SAT essay grading – not even someone in charge at Pearson. But we can employ at little common sense. Prospective graders apply online, and receive minimal training. They are not instructed to look for any specific collection of sources; in fact the wording of the essay prompts suggests that a variety of sources is acceptable (“Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experiences or observations.”).

    Therefore, we can expect that some graders, who tend to be very open-minded, will assign perfect scores to essays that differ widely in their inclusion of sources. But others will allow their preconceived notions to affect their grading.

    Since the majority of graders are English teachers, it makes sense to include literary sources to impress them. But there will always be graders who see things differently, so a perfect score can never be guaranteed.

    If you’ve examined over 100 scored essays, you’ve certainly seen that the grading is somewhat inconsistent, particularly when it comes to assignation of perfect scores. There’s nothing wrong with picking your ‘favorite formula,” as long as you present it as just that – not the only way, but a good way.

    My rationale for including one non-literary (or least non-fiction – a biography is okay) source is based on common sense. It makes the writer look well rounded. Furthermore, fiction is…well, fiction. Factual evidence is more compelling than made-up evidence. Finally, if you do happen to draw a grader who doesn’t care for novels as sources, at least you’ve included one source that will please him.

    My students have tinkered with a few formulas to try to maximize their grades. I can’t say for sure which is best based on empirical evidence; there are just too many factors involved. I’d need a sample of many thousands of essays to have a clue. So common sense it is.

  5. Abigail says:

    Thank you for posting this. I just received my scores from the May 5th SAT, and I admit that I am a little heartbroken. English is not only my best high school subject; it is also my greatest love. When I took the SAT essay, I thought that I had done a really good job. I finished in time. I had a conclusion. I used a relevant life example and illustrated it clearly. This morning, I saw that I had scored an 8. I think that I could have been okay with a 10 or 11 (knowing that I am going to take the test again), but an 8 really gets to me. So thank you for this post.

  6. Hi Abigail,

    Sorry to hear about your disappointing score. Since you are going to retake the SAT, why not read some advice on how to write the essay, and write some for practice? You will likely score higher, and your 8 will become a distant memory.

    Good luck,


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