True or False: Since essay length is not mentioned in the SAT essay grading rubric, it doesn’t matter how much you write in your essay.
Answer: True...but also false. Read on for an explanation of why and how the length of your SAT essay can affect your score.
feature image credit: How long by Martin Abegglen, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped & modified from original.
Why Does Essay Length Matter?
Why would you think that essay length even matters in the first place? As I said in the introduction, it's not as if the SAT essay rubric mentions essay length at all.
Well, there's at least one good reason to think this: essay length is positively correlated with essay score.
Ever since the essay was added to the SAT, current MIT research affiliate (and former director of the MIT undergraduate writing program) Les Perelman has been vocal about how the longer an essay is, the more likely it is to get a higher score. According to this 2005 New York Times article by Michael Winerip, Perelman analyzed the lengths and scores of 54 SAT-approved sample essays and found a nearly 90% correlation. The shortest essays (around 100 words) received the lowest possible score, 1 (or a combined score of 2 out of 12), while the longest essays (around 400 words), received the highest score, a 6 (or a combined score of 12 out of 12). Based on these findings, representatives of the CollegeBoard stated that they would be releasing shorter examples of higher-scoring essays.
This controversy first erupted in early 2005, right after the new SAT essay was introduced. To see if there had been any changes since then, I did my own analysis of the essays in the CollegeBoard's essay scoring guide that were all written in response to the sample prompt. Take a look at what I found:
Bonus graph reading practice for you in this, an article on essays. You're welcome.
As you can see, as essay length (measured by word count in the graph above) increases, the score also increases.
Just because longer essays tend to score better, however, doesn’t mean that you should just write the word “ideology” over and over again to fill up the page. The reason longer essays tend to score better is that students who write longer essays provide more support for their theses.
If this is the essay prompt:
"Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority,"
and all you write is the following:
"It's important to question authority because sometimes authority stops you from doing things you want. Like getting a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony."
for two pages, you'll still get a 0. Maybe a 1, if the grader is feeling generous and thinks that you made some attempt to write about the issue discussed in a prompt. For more on the thought process of essay grading, read our article about insights from real SAT essay graders (coming soon).
Similarly, if you try to drag out one example by writing larger than usual and restating the same facts and information over and over again, it won't automatically get you a higher score. In fact, you may lose points if either of your essay's graders think that your repeating of information leads to lack of coherence in your writing.
In any case, unless you have extremely small handwriting, it’s very difficult to write an essay that presents a thesis and supports it with at least two specific examples in less than one page.
Bad hair day by Brian Snelson, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Seriously, though. Look at that face. Wouldn't you want a pony?
So How Long Should Your Essay Be?
Many factors go into determining essay length, which makes it difficult to give a blanket length recommendation. Here are the most important factors when it comes to length of your SAT essay:
- Vocabulary. Often, the more advanced vocab you use, the fewer words you’ll need to get the job done, which might result in a shorter essay.
- Handwriting size. Students with larger handwriting will naturally take up more space on the page than students with smaller handwriting. This doesn't necessarily mean students with larger handwriting have an advantage, however; in fact, students with larger handwriting tend to run into the issue of having filled two pages and not finished saying everything they needed or wanted to say.
- How fast you can write and think. If you need to take longer to plan out your essay, you might end up writing a shorter essay, simply because you don't have as much time to write. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll do worse on the essay - since an organized essay with strong specific examples will score better than a disorganized one without specific examples - but it does mean that you might end up with less time to write out your ideas.
- How much time you leave yourself to write (vs. how much time you take to plan). This is something you need to figure out for yourself through practice and observation. Over the years, I've realized that I can write fairly quickly, which means that it's okay if I take a little more time to plan out my essay - I'll still be able to fill up those two pages. On the other hand, if you find that you're a slow writer, you might not be able to write enough unless you get very fast at planning your essay.
In general, assuming about 150 words per handwritten page, you need to write at least a page and a half (1.5 pages) to get a 3 or above on your essay (or a combined score of 6 or above). You'll need at least that much space to say what you need to say and support it clearly with concrete examples.
Want to find out more about how to write a good SAT essay? Watch us write a top-scoring essay step-by-step, then check out our tips on how to write a long SAT essay as well as our more general SAT essay tips.
Discover the secrets to getting a perfect 12 on your SAT essay here.
What if you're planning on taking the new SAT? Read our breakdown of the new SAT essay here.
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If you plan to sign up for the SAT, you probably know that the Essay section of the test is optional. Though you may not be excited about taking the extra time on test day to complete the Essay section, it may be a good idea.
Some colleges will ask for an SAT Essay score, so it’s smart to check the admissions requirements of the colleges you’re interested in before you make this decision. Some students write the SAT essay so they have the score in case it’s needed for a last-minute addition to their college list.
If you decide to take the SAT Essay section, there are a few tips to keep in mind so you can submit the most impressive sample of your writing, especially considering that like every other section of the test, the Essay section is timed. Even if you apply to take the SAT with extended time due to a disability, you’ll need to complete your essay within a limited amount of time, so it’s important that you manage your time wisely.
Create a Writing Schedule for Test Day
The SAT with essay time included lasts for a total of three hours and 50 minutes. You are given exactly 50 minutes to write your essay. Fifty minutes may not seem like enough time to write an essay, but it is if you adhere to a writing schedule.
This writing schedule doesn’t have to be on paper; you can make a mental schedule. You should dedicate five to ten minutes to reading the prompt and making an outline for your essay on scrap paper. Next, spend about 30 to 35 minutes writing your essay. This leaves you with approximately five to ten minutes for proofreading your work. After the timed Essay section begins, look at the clock or your watch to remind yourself that you should be finished making your outline within ten minutes of that time. Before you start to write your essay, glance at your watch and remind yourself that you should be finishing up approximately 35 minutes from that point.
A mental writing schedule can keep you from running short on time and rushing to finish. This is a useful strategy if you’re taking the SAT with extended time, too; you’ll just need to modify this schedule based on whether you’re receiving time and a half or double time to complete the Essay section.
Use Your Outline to Refocus
There are lots of reasons why it’s smart to take the time to make an outline before starting your essay. One of the best reasons to make an outline is that you can use it to refocus yourself if your mind wanders during the writing process. Looking at the organized ideas and details included in your outline can get your mind back on the right track. Also, your outline helps you to avoid forgetting any important points that can be the difference between a high-scoring essay and one that doesn’t represent your true talents.
Follow the Basic Essay Format
When you opt to take the SAT with writing time, you may wonder how to set up your essay. It’s best to use the basic essay format: You’re no doubt already familiar with the format, and it’s a good template for an essay that asks you to evaluate an author’s argument.
The Importance of Writing Practice Essays
The most effective way to remember these tips while completing the SAT Essay section is to practice them ahead of time. When starting your practice essay, check your watch to get an idea of how quickly you must work to read the prompt and finish an outline in ten minutes or less. After practicing a few times, you’ll develop a rhythm for your essay-writing that allows you to adhere to your schedule and finish without hurrying. The time you spend practicing also gives you a chance to become familiar with the topics found in SAT prompts so when you take the SAT with writing time, you aren’t venturing into unfamiliar waters.
At Veritas Prep, we are here to help students like you get the highest possible score on the Essay section of the SAT. We understand how to approach the Essay along with every other section, and our instructors can help you meet or exceed your goals for taking the SAT with essay time. We’ll evaluate your practice essay and provide you with tips on how you can achieve a high score in each of the three areas evaluated by SAT graders. We want you to score 8’s across the board on your SAT essay! Contact us today to get the strategies, guidance, and support you need to master the SAT Essay section.