The Optional SAT Essay: What to Know

Tackling this section of the SAT requires preparation and can boost some students' college applications.

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Even though an increasing number of colleges are dropping standardized test requirements, students who must write the SAT essay can still stand to gain from doing so.

Although the essay portion of the SAT became optional in 2016, many students still chose to write it to demonstrate strong or improved writing skills to prospective colleges.

In June 2021, the College Board opted to discontinue the SAT essay. Now, only students in a few states and school districts still have access to — and must complete — the SAT essay. This requirement applies to some students in the SAT School Day program, for instance, among other groups.

How Colleges Use SAT, ACT Results

Tiffany Sorensen Sept. 14, 2020

High school students having their exam inside a classroom.

Whether or not to write the SAT essay is not the biggest decision you will have to make in high school, but it is certainly one that requires thought on your part. Here are three things you should know about the 50-minute SAT essay as you decide whether to complete it:

  • To excel on the SAT essay, you must be a trained reader.
  • The SAT essay begs background knowledge of rhetoric and persuasive writing.
  • A growing number of colleges are dropping standardized test requirements.

To Excel on the SAT Essay, You Must Be a Trained Reader

The SAT essay prompt never comes unaccompanied. On the contrary, it follows a text that is about 700 words long or approximately one page. Before test-takers can even plan their response, they must carefully read and – ideally – annotate the passage.

The multifaceted nature of the SAT essay prompt can be distressing to students who struggle with reading comprehension. But the good news is that this prompt is highly predictable: It always asks students to explain how the author builds his or her argument. In this case, "how” means which rhetorical devices are used, such as deductive reasoning, metaphors, etc.

Luckily, the author’s argument is usually spelled out in the prompt itself. For instance, consider this past SAT prompt : “Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.”

Due to the essay prompt’s straightforward nature, students should read the passage with an eye toward specific devices used by the author rather than poring over “big ideas.” In tour SAT essay, aim to analyze at least two devices, with three being even better.

The SAT Essay Begs Background Knowledge of Rhetoric and Persuasive Writing

Since your SAT essay response must point to specific rhetorical devices that the author employs to convince the reader, you should make it a point to intimately know 10-15 common ones. The more familiar you are with rhetorical devices, the faster you will become at picking them out as you read texts.

Once you have read the passage and identified a handful of noteworthy rhetorical devices, you should apply many of the same essay-writing techniques you already use in your high school English classes.

For instance, you should start by brainstorming to see which devices you have the most to say about. After that, develop a concise thesis statement, incorporate quotes from the text, avoid wordiness and other infelicities of writing, close with an intriguing conclusion, and do everything else you could imagine your English teacher advising you to do.

Remember to always provide evidence from the text to support your claims. Finally, leave a few minutes at the end to review your essay for mistakes.

A Growing Number of Colleges Are Dropping Standardized Test Requirements

In recent years, some of America’s most prominent colleges and universities – including Ivy League institutions like Harvard University in Massachusetts, Princeton University in New Jersey and Yale University in Connecticut – have made submission of ACT and SAT scores optional.

While this trend began as early as 2018, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 has prompted many other schools to adopt a more lenient testing policy, as well.

Advocates for educational fairness have long expressed concerns that standardized admissions tests put underprivileged students at a disadvantage. In light of the coronavirus pandemic , which restricted exam access for almost all high school students, colleges have gotten on board with this idea by placing more emphasis on other factors in a student’s application.

To assess writing ability in alternative ways, colleges now place more emphasis on students’ grades in language-oriented subjects, as well as college application documents like the personal statement .

The fact that more colleges are lifting their ACT/SAT requirement does not imply that either test or any component of it is now obsolete. Students who must write the SAT essay can still stand to gain from doing so, especially those who wish to major in a writing-intensive field. The essay can also demonstrate a progression or upward trajectory in writing skills.

The SAT essay can give a boost to the college applications of the few students to whom it is still available. If the requirement applies to you, be sure to learn more about the SAT essay and practice it often as you prepare for your upcoming SAT.

13 Test Prep Tips for SAT and ACT Takers

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Tags: SAT , standardized tests , students , education

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Stressed about getting into college? College Admissions Playbook, authored by Varsity Tutors , offers prospective college students advice on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, SAT and ACT exams and the college application process. Varsity Tutors, an advertiser with U.S. News & World Report, is a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. The company's end-to-end offerings also include mobile learning apps, online learning environments and other tutoring and test prep-focused technologies. Got a question? Email [email protected] .

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SAT Discontinues Subject Tests And Optional Essay


Elissa Nadworny

Eda Uzunlar headshot

Eda Uzunlar

No more tests in order to enter.

Updated at 5:03 p.m. ET

The College Board announced on Tuesday that it will discontinue the optional essay component of the SAT and that it will no longer offer subject tests in U.S. history, languages and math, among other topics. The organization, which administers the college entrance exam in addition to several other tests, including Advanced Placement exams, will instead focus efforts on a new digital version of the SAT.

In the announcement, the organization cited the coronavirus pandemic for these changes: "The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students."

College entrance exams have had a hard go of it during the pandemic. Many in-person testing dates for the SAT were canceled because of social distancing needs and closed high school buildings; a previous digital version of the SAT was scrapped in June after technical difficulties; and hundreds of colleges have removed the exam from admissions requirements , in some cases permanently.

Few colleges require the optional writing portion of the SAT or the subject tests, though students can still submit them to supplement their college applications. The AP exams have become far more important in demonstrating mastery of subjects and, in some cases, providing college credit.

Colleges Are Backing Off SAT, ACT Scores — But The Exams Will Be Hard To Shake

The Coronavirus Crisis

Colleges are backing off sat, act scores — but the exams will be hard to shake.

"Removing the subject tests can remove a barrier for students," says Ashley L. Bennett, director of college counseling at KIPP Sunnyside High School in Houston. But, she adds, "I believe that standardized testing in general needs to be less emphasized in the college search process."

Elizabeth Heaton advises families about college admissions at College Coach in Watertown, Mass. She thinks the changes could help put some students on a more level playing field. "For students who aren't getting great advising, it is nice to see that they haven't been eliminated from competition just by virtue of not having a test that they may not have known about."

But Catalina Cifuentes, who works to promote college access in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, has reservations. She worries that removing the SAT subject tests will create more barriers for her students, rather than less.

"Hundreds of my students take the subject tests in Spanish and other languages because it provides them an opportunity to show their understanding of a second language," explains Cifuentes.

Many of her students speak a second language at home and would be the first in their family to go to college.

She says her college-bound students often enroll in the University of California and California State University systems, which both require two years of coursework in another language for admission. The SAT foreign-language tests sometimes filled that requirement, but the removal of these exams means Cifuentes will have to shift gears.

"We will need to work closely with our world language teachers to expand on ideas ... for students who already read, write and speak another language," she says.

Her job is all about helping school districts adapt to decisions from colleges and organizations like the College Board, Cifuentes explains.

"Every decision they discuss — there's real repercussions. There's no right or wrong decision, but with everything they do, it should be students first."

Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.

Correction Jan. 20, 2021

A previous version of this story misspelled Ashley L. Bennett's name.

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All About the SAT Optional Essay

Rob Franek

In addition to the four required SAT sections ( Reading , Writing and Language , Math (No Calculator) and Math (Calculator)), you have the choice to opt in to a fifth section: the Essay. To learn more about what you're getting yourself into when you sign up for this additional section, read on!

SAT Essay: An Overview

The optional Essay follows the calculator-permitted Math section or a short, experimental section and is always the final portion of the exam. When you get to the Essay, you'll have 50 minutes to write one rhetorical analysis essay using the provided source text. Your essay will be graded by two human readers, who will each give three scores of 1 to 4 in three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Your score report will show the combined scores for each separate area (2 to 8), but will not provide an overall composite.

That's a lot of information to unpack, so let's start at the beginning.

If the SAT Essay Is Optional, How Do I Know If I Should Take It?

The primary reason to complete the Essay is because some schools require it for admission. Over the past few years, fewer and fewer schools have required the Essay, and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. However, there are still some schools that recommend you take the SAT Essay, and if you're applying to any of these, it's in your best interest to take (and do well on!) the Essay.

As you start your prep, check the standardized test policies for each of the schools on your list to see whether they require or recommend the SAT Essay. If none of those schools do so, and you're sure you won't be applying to any other schools, then don't take the Essay! If you don't have a list of schools locked down yet, or any of the ones you are thinking about do require or recommend the SAT Essay, then you should take it.

So, What's a Rhetorical Analysis?

The SAT Essay task is to write a "rhetorical analysis" of a given text. This means that you need to explain how the author of the provided text makes her or his argument: What are the elements that contribute to the persuasiveness of the argument, and how do those elements affect the audience? You may have encountered this type of writing before, especially if you've taken AP English Language and Composition (one of the Free Response Questions on that test is very similar to the SAT Essay prompt).

Notably, this task does not require you to give your opinion on the writing in front of you; in fact, the College Board explicitly want you to avoid giving your opinion! Focus on analyzing the devices that the author uses and keep your opinion out of it!

What's up With the Three Scores?

Here's the short and sweet version of all three scores you'll get on the SAT Essay:

  • Reading: How accurately you describe the main idea of the text, the major lines of reasoning and the context of the text.
  • Analysis: Whether you can 1) identify devices used by the author of the text, 2) describe the impact of those devices on the audience, and 3) tie that impact to how the device makes the author's overall argument more compelling.
  • Writing: How well-written your essay is, from the micro-level (grammar and word choice) to the overall structure of your essay.

There is no composite Essay score, as the College Board maintains that colleges should consider the three different scores separately. It's hard to tell exactly which scores the schools you apply to will value most, although it does seem as if the Writing score is the most varyingly used, with some ignoring it. It's still a good idea to aim for top marks in each category, and you can visit the College Board website to learn more about what earns high scores in each field.

Just like the rest of the SAT, the optional Essay is a test for which you can prepare. Pick up a copy of our book, SAT Prep , for access to practice tests and study tips, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for new, weekly content to help you reach your top SAT score.

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Retooling During Pandemic, the SAT Will Drop Essay and Subject Tests

By dropping or suspending the requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores, colleges have cut into the College Board’s business model.

sat essay optional

By Anemona Hartocollis ,  Kate Taylor and Stephanie Saul

In the latest sign of trouble for the standardized testing empire that has played a major role in college applications for millions of students, the organization that produces the SAT said on Tuesday that it would scrap subject tests and the optional essay section , further scrambling the admissions process.

The move comes as the testing industry has been battered by questions about equity and troubled by logistical and financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics saw the changes not as an attempt to streamline the test-taking process for students, as the College Board portrayed the decision, but as a way of placing greater importance on Advanced Placement tests, which the board also produces, as a way for the organization to remain relevant and financially viable.

“The SAT and the subject exams are dying products on their last breaths, and I’m sure the costs of administering them are substantial,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.

The main SAT, taken by generations of high school students applying to college, consists of two sections, one for math and the other for reading and writing. But since at least the 1960s, students have also had the option of taking subject tests to show their mastery of subjects like history, languages and chemistry. Colleges often use the tests to determine where to place students for freshman courses, especially in the sciences and languages.

But the College Board said the subject tests have been eclipsed by the rise of Advanced Placement exams. At one point, A.P. courses were seen as the province of elite schools, but the board said on Tuesday that “the expanded reach of A.P. and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the subject tests are no longer necessary.”

More than 22,000 schools offered A.P. courses in the 2019-20 school year, up from more than 13,000 two decades earlier, according to the College Board. There are some 24,000 public high schools in America.

The College Board said it would discontinue the essay section on the main SAT test because “there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing,” including, it said, the test’s reading and writing portion. The essay section was introduced in 2005 , and was considered among the most drastic changes to the SAT in decades. It came amid a broader overhaul of the test, which included eliminating verbal analogies that were a mainstay of SAT-prep courses.

Admissions officers hoped the essay would give them a way to look at original samples of students’ writing, to better evaluate their skills. It came to be criticized, however, for promoting an overly formulaic approach to writing, and was made optional in 2016 as part of another redesign.

In recent years, the SAT has come under increasing fire from critics who say that standardized testing exacerbates inequities across class and racial lines. Some studies have shown that high school grades are an equal or better predictor of college success.

More than 1,000 four-year colleges did not require applicants to submit standardized test scores before the pandemic, and the number rose — at least temporarily — as the coronavirus forced testing centers to close and made it difficult for many students to safely take the test.

Perhaps the biggest hit came in May, when, following a lawsuit from a group of Black and Hispanic students who said the tests discriminated against them, the influential University of California system decided to phase out SAT and ACT requirements for its 10 schools, which include some of the nation’s most popular campuses.

The College Board acknowledged that the coronavirus had played a role in the changes announced on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the pandemic had “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce the demands on students.”

But David Coleman, the chief executive of the College Board, a nonprofit organization that in the past has reported more than $1 billion a year in revenue, said that financial concerns were not behind the decisions, and that despite the growing number of schools making the SAT optional, demand for the test was still “stronger than some would expect.”

He said the organization’s goal was not to get more students to take A.P. courses and tests, but to eliminate redundant exams and reduce the burden on high school students. “Anything that can reduce unnecessary anxiety and get out of the way is of huge value to us,” he said.

Some experts, though, said eliminating the subject matter tests could have the opposite effect, increasing pressure on students to take A.P. courses and exams, especially in their junior year, so credits can be submitted in time for college admissions decisions.

Saul Geiser, a senior associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said the move would “worsen the perverse emphasis on test prep and test-taking skills at the expense of regular classroom learning.”

Mr. Geiser said that mastering writing skills and subject matter “is the best predictor of how students perform in college.”

Experts in college preparation said the announcement, while a major change, was partly just a recognition of a shifting environment for standardized testing. Jonathan Richard Burdick, vice president for enrollment at Cornell, said the “handwriting was on the wall for both the subject exams and the essay option long before the pandemic struck.”

Harris Zakarin, part-owner of the test preparation company Regents Review, said consideration of the tests had diminished in recent years. “From my experience, over the past couple of years, it has become extremely rare for a college to require a student to submit an essay with the SAT,” he said.

Mr. Zakarin said he expected that the SAT’s rival, the ACT, would follow suit and eliminate its writing component. The ACT said in a statement that it continuously evaluated demands for its products.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, officials dropped the SAT essay requirement in 2016 because they saw it as an undue burden on students, including an added fee, said Mike Drish, the university’s director of first-year admissions.

Mr. Drish said the university evaluated students’ writing preparedness based on their grades in English classes, as well as teacher recommendations and essays submitted as part of the admissions process.

Mark Rosenbaum, director of the California-based pro bono law firm Public Counsel, which represented the plaintiffs who sued the University of California over standardized testing, said the College Board’s decision was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough.

“Everyone knows that A.P. tests are also discriminatory in terms of student access to those tests and preparation for those tests,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “It’s not like it eliminates racial and class discrimination.”

In addition to dropping the essay and subject tests, the College Board said it would continue to develop a version of the SAT test that could be administered digitally — something it tried and failed to do quickly with an at-home version last year after the pandemic shut down testing centers. The board gave no time frame for when a digital version of the SAT might be introduced, but said it would be given at testing centers by live proctors.

There were about 2.2 million registrations for weekend SAT tests in 2020 (some students take it more than once), but because of the pandemic, only 900,000 such tests were taken.

Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book, “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” More about Anemona Hartocollis

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The essay portion of the SAT has a somewhat lengthy and tumultuous history. After all, the very first College Board standardized tests delivered in 1900 were entirely essay-based, but the SAT had dropped all essays from its format by the 1920s and did not reappear again until 2005.

When another redesign of the SAT was announced in 2014, many wondered if the essay, as the most recent addition, would make the cut. The College Board, considering whether to keep it or not, reportedly sought feedback from hundreds of members in admissions and enrollment . Advocates of the essay felt it gave candidates more dimension. Critics believed that the essay was not indicative of college readiness. A review of assessment validity confirmed that the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT “is deeply predictive of college success,” whereas the essay is much less so.

Ultimately, the decision was made to make the essay an optional part of the SAT. This was an innovative move, signaling the first time that the College Board had made any component of the SAT optional.

Furthermore, the essay format has changed as well. Instead of arguing a specific side of a debate or topic presented in the prompt, you will now be asked to analyze a passage for writing style. This prompt is more aligned with the types of critical writing pieces that you can expect to be assigned in college.

As with all things new, the new SAT has taken some getting used to. Students, parents, teachers, and tutors alike have had to adjust to some significant changes in format and content. But the good news is that the new SAT is no longer an unknown variable. The essay in particular is now a well-known and understood piece of the puzzle, with the prompt remaining the same on each administration of the test. The only thing that has changed is the passage to be analyzed.

To learn more about the most significant changes on the SAT, read CollegeVine’s A Guide to the New SAT or review Khan Academy’s video overview of Content Changes to the New SAT .

Do I have to take the SAT with Essay?

As mentioned above, the essay is technically an optional section on the SAT — so no, you are not required to take it. That being said, some colleges or universities do require applicants to submit SAT with Essay scores. If you choose not to take the essay portion of the test, you will not be an eligible applicant for any of these schools. To find the essay policy at schools you’re interested in, use the College Board’s College Essay Policies search feature.

Should I take the optional SAT Essay?

If you are at all unsure of which colleges you’ll be applying to, or you know that at least one of the schools you’re interested in requires the SAT with Essay, you should go ahead and take the essay portion of the test. If you don’t register for the SAT with Essay at first, you can add it later through your online College Board account. Registration for the SAT with Essay costs $57 as opposed to the $45 for the SAT without the optional essay section.

What is the format of the new SAT Essay?

The new SAT Essay is a lot like a typical college or upper-level high school writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. You’ll be provided a passage between 650 and 750 words, and you will be asked to explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his or her audience. You will need to use evidence from the text to support your explanation. Unlike on past SATs, you will not be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic, and you will not be asked to write about your personal experiences.

You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your work, and write your essay. Although this seems like an extremely limited amount of time, it is actually double the time allowed on the SAT Essay prior to March 2016.

The instructions and prompt on the SAT Essay, beginning in March 2016, are always the same. They read:

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses:

  • Evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims
  • Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed

These instructions will be followed by the passage that you’re intended to analyze. After the passage, you will see the prompt:

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience of [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.

Although you can expect the passages to be different, they will all share some common characteristics. You can expect the SAT Essay to be based on passages that are written for a broad audience, argue a point, express subtle views on complex subjects, and use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims. These passages examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts and sciences; or civic, cultural, or political life; and they are always taken from published works.

How will my essay be assessed?

Your essay will be assessed in three scoring categories, each of which will be included on your score report. Two people will read your essay and score it independently. These scorers will each award between one and four points in each scoring category. If the scores you receive in a single category vary by more than one point, an SAT expert scorer will review your essay.   

The scoring categories are:

A successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence.

A successful essay shows your understanding of how the author builds an argument by:

  • Examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic and persuasive techniques
  • Supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage

A successful essay is focused, organized, and precise, with an appropriate style and tone that varies sentence structure and follows the conventions of standard written English.

Scores on the SAT Essay range from six to 24. To review a more specific breakdown for each scoring category, see the College Board SAT Essay Scoring Rubric .

Is my essay score always included on my score report sent to colleges?

Yes, your essay scores will always be reported with your other test scores from that day. There is no option to report only specific sections of your score. Even if you use Score Choice to choose which day’s scores you send to colleges, you can never send only some scores from a certain test day. For example, you cannot select to send Math scores but not Writing and Language or Essay scores.

What are the key strategies for the new SAT Essay test?

Remember the prompt.

On test day you will have only 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your analysis, and write your essay. Every minute will count. Because the prompt is the same on each SAT, you can save yourself some very valuable time by remembering exactly what the prompt asks you to do. That way, you won’t have to bother reading it on the day of your test.

Also remember that the prompt is asking only for your analysis. It is not asking you to summarize the passage or state your own opinion of it. Instead, while reading and creating a rough outline, you should focus on restating the main point that the author is arguing and analyzing how that point is made. Use only evidence taken directly from the passage and focus on how the author uses this evidence, reasoning, and other rhetorical techniques to build a convincing argument.

In short, when you begin your essay on test day, you should be able to skip reading the actual prompt and get straight to examining the author’s choices in presenting the argument. You should not waste any time summarizing the content of the passage or stating your own opinion of it.

Create a Rough Outline

When you’re under pressure to create a well-written essay in a limited amount of time, it can be tempting to skip the outline. Don’t fall into this thinking. While an outline may take some time to create, it will ultimately save you time and effort during the actual writing process.

The bulk of the outline you create should focus on the body paragraphs of your essay. You should have three main points you want to highlight, each being a specific method that the author uses to argue his or her point. These could include the use of logic, an appeal to emotions, or the style of diction or tone. As you read, identify the primary ways in which the author supports his or her argument. List the three most relevant methods in your outline, and then briefly cite examples of each underneath.

This very rough outline will shape the bulk of your essay and can ultimately save you the time it would take to remember these details during the actual writing process. 

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Stick to the Standard 5-Paragraph Essay Format

By this point in your high school career, you should have some experience writing a five-paragraph essay. The format is probably already familiar to you. As a refresher, a five-paragraph essay is generally structured like this:

I. Introductory Paragraph

  • Give some very basic background about the topic (for example, why the author is writing this piece)
  • Restate the author’s argument clearly
  • Write a concise thesis statement summarizing three ways in which the author proves his or her point

II. Body Paragraphs

  • One body paragraph per method used by the author
  • Include two to three specific examples directly from the passage
  • Analyze how effective these are

III. Conclusion

  • Restate your thesis
  • Briefly summarize the effectiveness of the author’s argument

While you may feel that 50 minutes is not enough time to plan and write an entire five-paragraph essay, you are best off keeping each paragraph brief and to the point rather than writing a more detailed essay in a shorter format. Each body paragraph should be only five or six sentences, while your introduction and conclusion can be even shorter if you write them effectively.

Practice Reading and Critiquing Opinion Pieces

The best way to prepare for the type of thinking and analysis required by the SAT Essay is to immerse yourself in reading and critiquing similar opinion pieces. The passage for the SAT Essay will always argue one side of a debate or topic, so other opinion pieces, editorials, and persuasive essays are all similar in content.

Read lots of these to become familiar with the style of writing. As you read, make mental notes of the methods that the authors use to make their points. Recognize patterns in these methods across pieces. For example, you might notice that casual diction is used to create a feeling of communal cause. These are points that you could also use in your analysis on the SAT Essay if they apply to the particular passage you receive.

Be An Active Reader

This will take you right back to your early high school and even junior high years. To be efficient on the SAT Essay, you will need to read closely and carefully in a limited amount of time. Staying engaged in the passage and making effective notations that will aid your analysis are critical.

You are probably familiar with some active reading strategies, and if that’s the case, stick with whatever notation you usually use. There’s no right way to do it, as long as your markings keep you actively engaged in the text and make your writing process easier.

This could include circling or bracketing off the thesis statement as you read. You might underline supporting details or come up with a system to mark for different literary devices (for example, a heart in the margin to denote an emotional appeal). If part of the argument seems unclear, put a question mark in the margin so that you can review it later.

Keep These Key Questions in Mind

It’s easy to get off track when you’re under pressure and rushing to complete a task. These are some good questions to keep in mind to ensure your essay stays on track:

Does the author use facts or logic to support claims? How does he or she do so? Is this effective? Could it be more effective? How so?

Discussing the author’s use of logic — often called an appeal to logos — speaks directly to an audience’s sense of reason. This is a very effective method of persuasion since it will just “make sense” to most readers.

What stylistic rhetorical devices does the author use to support claims?

Another common strategy used by authors involves the style and flow of their words. Does he or she make use of analogies, word repetition, or alliteration? These are all rhetorical devices about which you could write.

How does specific word choice contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece?

Words are powerful. They can elicit emotions; they can create a sense of common cause; and they can use precision to draw pictures in your mind. What word choices are particularly powerful in the passage? Are there any patterns worth mentioning?

Of course, these are just a few of the many ideas you can use to get started with shaping and organizing your analysis. It’s a good idea to have a handful of possible questions to consider while reading. This will guide your thinking and can definitely help you out if you suddenly draw a blank.  

Study the Glossary

This is the most straightforward way to guide you as you prepare for the SAT Essay. Khan Academy has compiled an official Essay Glossary of key terms for the essay, and having a solid grasp of this vocabulary will allow you to use the correct words to describe the literary devices you discuss. And beyond that, the glossary can help give you some ideas for possible features in analyzing in your writing.

Where can I find free study materials for the SAT Essay?

Because the new SAT Essay was just rolled out in March 2016, there are not tons of resources yet for preparation. Many of the SAT Essay resources were designed before the new test, rendering them obsolete now. As you look for study materials, make sure that anything you use was created after March 2016 to ensure you are getting relevant information.

Some great resources are:

Sample passages and scored essays from the College Board are available for your review. These will give you an accurate idea of the types of passages you can expect to read and how your response will be assessed. These include examples of high-, medium-, and low-scoring student responses to help you gauge the quality of work that is expected.

Khan Academy tutorials are also available to help you prepare specifically for the SAT Essay. These include video overviews and a message board where students share and discuss strategies.

Finally, don’t skip the Khan Academy Essay Glossary as discussed above. Memorizing key terms from this resource will legitimize your response and help shape your thinking.

If you still have questions about the new SAT Writing and Language Test or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program , where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.

To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:

  • ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests
  • Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?
  • What Should I Bring to My SAT?
  • A Guide to the New SAT
  • The CollegeVine Guide to SAT Scores: All Your Questions Answered
  • How to Register For Your SATs

Want to know how your SAT score impacts your chances of acceptance to your dream schools? Our free Chancing Engine will not only help you predict your odds, but also let you know how you stack up against other applicants, and which aspects of your profile to improve. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to gain access to our Chancing Engine and get a jumpstart on your college strategy!

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The SAT Optional Essay – To Write or Not to Write

April 2, 2020

sat essay optional

By: Jordan Salley

The SAT optional essay is a section designed to test students’ ability to write under strict time constraints. For many, this can be an intimidating concept. After all, almost every student has encountered writer’s block at some point. However, this can be a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to communicate, create, and build an effective argument. This is a skill set that you will carry throughout your pursuit of higher-level education and is necessary in almost every industry or field.

However, this component is optional for a reason. Many colleges don’t ask to see your score and eliminating this essay out of your practice sessions saves you time, allowing you to focus more on nailing the math and reading sections. On the flipside, if you’re shooting for highly selective schools, an impressive performance on the SAT optional essay might strengthen your profile. To guide you through this component, I’ve talked more about the logistics as well as outlined the pros and cons of opting for the essay.

Let’s talk about the logistics of the SAT optional essay . Your response is graded independently and does not impact the composite score for the test. Two graders analyze the essay across three categories: reading, writing, and analysis, which are scored between one to four. They then average the score between the three graded elements, each of which ranges from two to eight. The reading section evaluates the writer’s understanding of the paragraph provided. The analysis portion assesses you on your ability to make and support claims.

The writing score depends on the clarity of the essay and language choices. You have fifty minutes total to respond to the prompt. The standard approach to writing the SAT optional essay includes:

  • Reading the prompt
  • Understanding the question
  • Writing a thesis or central argument
  • Outlining the essay
  • Proofreading

The goal is to analyze how an author would build an argument based on the statement or argument listed in the prompt. Now that we’ve discussed the layout of this test, let’s dive into reasons why you should or shouldn’t consider writing this optional essay.

Why you should write the optional essay:

Reason #1: it might not actually be optional.

Over the years, the College Board has changed its policy towards the SAT writing section. With that, universities have also taken to adapting to changes in testing policy. A few programs have started requesting an alternative way to evaluate this skill (e.g. Brown and Princeton requested a graded humanities paper, Harvard will accept a written publication by a student). Though the essay is optional, many undergraduate institutions and scholarships have begun to require it. Moreover, you cannot take the essay separate from the SAT test.

If you have already secured an SAT score that you are satisfied with but realize you need the essay portion, you will have to retake the entire test. This can be a scheduling nightmare, especially as you close in on application deadlines. It is worthwhile to make a list of schools that you’re interested in attending prior to planning for your SAT so that you can look into their policies towards the optional essay. If you are looking at applying to Ivy League or top tier schools, this is almost definitely a required component of your application. Nearly every university requires essays or written exams in a freshman seminar course, so it is natural that schools want to see your writing ability to ensure you would succeed in their academic setting.

Reason #2: An opportunity to shine  

Whether you are a future Pulitzer prize winning author or someone struggling in high school English, the SAT optional essay is a component that most students can study for in order to perform well. This is an extremely technical writing exam and can easily be boiled down to a structure that can be applied to almost any prompt. The majority of test-takers are able to score between the 25 th to 75 th percentile of this portion of the exam even with a small amount of preparation.

This portion of the test is an invaluable opportunity to showcase your ability to synthesize and create within a narrow window of time. It can be used as a comparison to affirm the quality of your college admissions essays. Moreover, it evidences your ability to communicate. Communication is a skill that universities and employers look for and is generally difficult to teach.

Taking an optional section is also a great way to show that you are an individual who is willing to go above and beyond what is asked of you. As a student, this shows a concrete level of drive beyond the qualities that you have described in your admissions essays or that your teachers discussed in your recommendation letters.

Reason #3: An opportunity to overcome a deficiency  

Almost every candidate has a setback at some point in their career. For some students, it is a failed class, a bad score on the advanced placement test, or a weak grade point average. For a student who struggled in an English based course – literature, writing, or grammar – the SAT optional essay is the perfect opportunity to show growth. This section should absolutely be taken by students with a weakness in English as a way to convey to colleges that the deficiency has been overcome. It removes concern that you will not be able to keep up with writing requirements that most college freshman face. It also shows grit and determination, which are necessary skills to carry into your undergraduate education.

Reason #4: Your school requires it to super score  

Super scoring is a practice that allows college applicants to combine their most competitive section scores from multiple SAT exams. Some universities may require the SAT optional essay in order to super score. This is another factor to take into consideration when reviewing your list of schools to apply to. Super scoring can allow you to advance your application to the top of the pile statistically. If this is applicable to you, I highly recommend taking this optional section in order to secure your ability to super score.

Why you shouldn’t write the optional essay:

Reason #1: you did not prepare.

There are a number of reasons to take the SAT optional essay . However, preparing for this section of the exam does require additional time and effort. I personally recommend my students work on writing prompts multiple times throughout the week leading up to their SAT date. The more prompts a student practices writing, the easier it will be to develop an argument in a short period of time on test day. There are a number of preparation books, and a simple Google search yields a number of prompts to get you started.

Ultimately, the first time you sit down to write the SAT essay should not be on test day. This is a difficult process if you have never completed writing an essay like this in fifty minutes and could result in a poor score. If you do not have adequate time to prepare for this section or do not feel that you will perform well based on your estimated scores, I would not recommend taking it.

Reason #2: None the schools you are applying to require the SAT Essay section  

If you plan to apply to schools and scholarships that do not require the SAT optional essay , it may not be worth spending the extra money. The addition of the essay costs $14 more. Notably, this cost can be eliminated if you qualify for a fee waiver. I would not let cost be your determining factor on taking this section, but it is something to keep in mind.

While there are arguments for or against taking the optional essay section of the SAT, the pros tend to outweigh the cons. Planning on doing this section of the test sets you up on a successful timeline for college applications. Scheduling an additional test if you end up needing the essay could be a difficult and stressful process. Including the additional essay also opens opportunities to apply to schools that require it should you decide to add schools later on in the application process.

In addition, it provides you with an opportunity to overcome a deficiency such as a failed class or a low grade. It allows you to super score your tests at some institutions. Ultimately, this can be a great opportunity to shine and show undergraduate universities another skill set that makes you a desirable candidate. Strong writing abilities are applicable in almost every field or industry. The hard work in preparing for college applications will serve you well in the long run. Best of luck!

About the Author

Jordan Salley is a senior test prep instructor for MyGuru, a boutique tutoring company. For more information on SAT prep, MyGuru’s approach, and SAT tutors, visit .

Tags : SAT optional essay , should i write the sat optional essay , SAT essay tips , SAT practice , SAT prep , SAT tips

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Is the SAT Optional? Your Guide to Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Is the sat optional test-optional colleges in 2021.

Most colleges require applicants to submit a personal statement, resume, transcript, supplemental essays, and recommendation letters. In the past, m any have also required students to submit ACT or SAT scores. 

The global pandemic has profoundly impacted college admissions , however.

For the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, many colleges decided to go test-optional or test-blind. Others have temporarily or permanently modified their standardized testing policies.

Given the evolving role of the SAT in college admissions, is the SAT optional? Should you even take it? What do you need to know about test-optional schools in the wake of COVID?

Here’s what we cover in this post:

  • COVID’s Impact on Standardized Testing & College Admissions
  • Test-Optional Schools in 2021
  • Should You Even Take the SAT Now? Our Thoughts

COVID, the SAT, and College Admissions

A large portion of U.S. colleges and universities have historically required students to submit test scores from either the SAT or the ACT.  (Most colleges don’t prefer the SAT over the ACT or vice versa–they accept either equally.)

The big question, of course, has been the role SAT or ACT scores play in the college admission decision. How much weight have colleges actually been giving them? The answer: it depends.

Is the SAT Optional_ Quote 1 (1)

In a Common Data Set from 2019-2020 , for example, the University of Notre Dame specifies the following:

Standardized test scores are “important” to the admissions decision (but not “very important”) The university does make use of SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores in admission decisions  The university uses the SAT essay or ACT essay for advising purposes only (but does not require it)

Such data sets are not available for all U.S. colleges and universities.  However, it is safe to assume that, if required, SAT or ACT scores can range from slightly to very important in informing the college admissions decision.

For more competitive, elite institutions–like the Ivy Leagues–these scores can be very important .

The chart below sums up the role of standardized test scores in college admissions pre-COVID. Most schools have placed considerable importance on test scores.

Test-Optional Schools_Is the SAT Optional?

Now, of course, the story is a little different. The pandemic has significantly impacted students’ ability to actually sit for the SAT (or ACT). Many of our students have faced endless test center closures and test cancellations.

In an effort to bring equity into their admissions process, many colleges have modified their test score policies for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. In fact, for this year alone, two-thirds of colleges have gone test-optional, meaning that they’ll accept test scores from students but won’t require them .

For some colleges, this change is only temporary. For others, it’s semi-permanent or permanent.

We take a deeper dive into how COVID has impacted college admissions in another post . For now, keep reading to learn more about test-optional colleges in 2021.

Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Before the pandemic began, quite a few U.S. colleges and universities did not require SAT scores or standardized test scores for that matter. Now , more schools have either become test-optional or significantly modified their test score policies.

According to , more than half of 4-year U.S. colleges and universities will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. At the time of writing this post, 1,240 institutions are test-optional at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle .

You can find the full list of top-tier U.S. colleges and universities “deemphasizing” test scores in college admissions here, via .

Historically Test-Optional Schools  

Here is a sample of U.S. institutions that were test-optional before COVID-19.

Newly Test-Optional Schools

Here is a small sample of elite U.S. colleges and universities that have become test-optional ( at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle ) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Brown University
  • CalTech University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • UPenn University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Yale University

We want to point out that test-optional does not mean test-blind (meaning that the school won’t even look at test scores if they are submitted). Here’s what MIT says , for example, about test scores for this admissions cycle, which are not required for only this year:

Students who have already taken the SAT/ACT are encouraged to report their scores with the understanding that they help us more accurately evaluate their preparedness for MIT, and with the knowledge that tests are only  one factor among many in that process. 

What’s more, test-optional schools likely still require other standard components of the college application, including (but not limited to the following):

  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcripts
  • Additional supplements (portfolios, essays, interview, etc.)

In some cases, these schools may place even greater emphasis on these components, especially those that can demonstrate a student’s academic promise. Some students may also need standardized test scores to qualify for certain scholarships, especially when it comes to athletic recruiting, and for advising or placement purposes.

Harvard , for example, is not requiring students to submit test scores for this admissions cycle. But it is encouraging enrolling students who did not submit scores to do so in the summer prior to enrollment:

Because standardized test results are used for academic counseling, placement, and institutional research, enrolling students who applied without considerations of tests will be invited to submit test scores over the summer, prior to matriculating at Harvard.

Test-Flexible Schools

In the past, some colleges and universities have required students to submit something in lieu of ACT or SAT scores. Once again, in the wake of the pandemic, more schools are becoming test-flexible.

These schools may permit applicants to submit AP Exam scores in relevant subjects. Still others may waive the SAT or ACT score requirement for applicants with a certain GPA, or require students to submit a graded academic paper instead.

Test-flexible schools are likely to have a wide range of policies and score alternatives. For this reason, it’s essential to check out the school’s website to know exactly what you need to submit to be an eligible applicant.

Should You Take the SAT?

Given the SAT’s evolving role in college admissions, should students even take it?

It’s certainly a valid question.

At PrepMaven, we do encourage students to still take the SAT (or the ACT, depending on which test suits their skills).

Doing so will allow them to keep their options open as they navigate future college admissions cycles, and our philosophy as educators is to give our students as many tools as possible to maximize their future opportunities.

Higher test scores will still give applicants an advantage at most schools. Students who have top grades and extracurriculars but have never considered a selective school before because of less-than-competitive test scores should certainly do so for this reason.

What’s more, many currently test-optional schools, especially selective ones, might eventually revert to requiring test scores. Some still look at test scores (even if they are required), too .

Others, like Harvard, might require scores after a student has accepted an offer of admission.

Younger students–i.e., freshmen and sophomores–should thus continue to prepare for the SAT even if the colleges on their list are currently test-optional. Just in case such colleges do extend these test-optional policies, however, students should keep prioritizing grades and extracurriculars.

Regardless, students should make sure they are 100% clear on the standardized testing policies of every college on their list. As these are also evolving, it’s wise to regularly check college websites throughout the admissions process.

Feel free to give us a shout if you have any questions!

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 


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January 2, 2020

The majority of U.S. universities and colleges do not require prospective students to submit their SAT essay scores. While the SAT Essay is technically optional, however, it may be a wise addition to competitive applications.

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SAT Sections | Learn All About the Test Parts and Questions to Get a High Score!

The SAT is divided into 3 major SAT Sections and 1 optional portion. 

If you're studying with a SAT test prep book (we have the best one right here ), you are familiar with the different parts of this standardized exam. If this is the first time you've heard about SAT sections, format and question types, then this post is for you. We also covered the  SAT Reasoning Test .

Familiarizing yourself with the different SAT sections can even make or break your SAT scores, especially if you want that perfect score to which we dedicated this post . And before you move on, check out our  SAT vs GRE tests comparison.

What Are the SAT Sections?

According to the 2016 update from the College Board (the non-profit organization that created the SAT), the SAT consists of four sections: 

  • Reading - To test Words in Context and Command of Evidence
  • Writing and Language - To test Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Words in Context and Command of Evidence
  • Math (divided into the "No Calculator" and "with Calculator" subsections) - To Test problem solving, data analysis, Heart of Algebra and other additional SAT math topics
  • Essay (optional) - To Test reading comprehension, analysis, and writing skills (have in mind that there are  colleges where SAT essay is required )

All the contents of the SAT are supposed to be "everything you learned in high school" and "everything you need to survive college." Simply put, all the questions of the SAT ensures you are well-equipped with the right writing skills, reading comprehension, advanced math skills required for college students.  This is why you can also take SAT after high school .  There are plenty of SAT prep courses to help you with this (here's our reviews for the best ones). 

So how many questions are on the SAT all in all? 

Every section has a corresponding number of questions and amount of time allotted to finish. 

The entire SAT has 154 questions, which you are allowed to answer for 180 minutes.

The SAT Essay is separate and involves only one essay, which you are allowed to write for another 50 minutes. 

The breakdown of SAT questions is as follows: 

  • Reading:  52 questions (65 minutes)
  • Writing and Language:  44 questions (35 minutes)
  • Math (No Calculator):  20 questions (25 minutes)
  • Math (With Calculator):  38 questions  (55 minutes)

Except for the essay section and Math with calculator subsection, all other sections follow a multiple choice SAT format.

Sometimes, students will receive experimental or pre-test questions (that do not turn into SAT scores), but are included in the exam. The College Board uses these questions and the data gathered from the answers as a survey or study if such questions are fair and appropriate for future use... or if not. When this is the case, you are given an additional 20 minutes and more questions squeezed into your exam. 

The SAT Reading Section

The SAT Reading Section is subdivided into five types of passages. They are: 

  • 1 Fiction Passage (includes 10 questions) - This is taken from a novel or short story based in U.S. or world literature
  • 2 Science-based Passages (includes 10-11 questions per passage) - The passages are taken from science journals, books, and other science documents.
  • 2 History/social studies (includes 10 to 11 questions per passage) 

The entire reading section runs 65 minutes with a total of 52 questions, which means you'd have around 1 minute and 15 seconds to answer each question so you will need to take  SAT reading practice seriously.

The Reading section tests your ability to comprehend the context of passages, determine the tone of a text, and find evidence within a particular passage to support your answer to the questions given. You will find our advice on SAT reading most helpful.

Reading passages are not exclusive to texts. Sometimes, there will be charts, graphs and other types of data. 

For some people, this is the easiest SAT section of all, but since we aren't equal, other students may still find the questions hard. If this is the case, the best advice is to skip that particular passage, continue with the Reading section and come back to the unanswered questions.                

The SAT Writing and Language Section

You may think that the Writing and Language section seems similar to what's on the SAT Reading section, and you're not entirely wrong. This section also revolves around how well you'll understand the passages, so if Reading tests your comprehension, writing tests your editing skills. 

The writing and language section, usually just called 'writing' part by SAT proctors, consists of four passages. Each passage has 11 questions. You must answer the entire section within 35 minutes. 

Unlike the Reading passages that are fiction and focus only on specific topics, passages on the Writing Section are all nonfiction with topics ranging from science to humanities, careers, social studies, history, and so much more. You'll be faced with arguments or narratives, which you will deem either right or wrong (and then correct).  

As you guessed , your best bet to score high on this section is to practice SAT grammar rules . 

The SAT Math Section

As we mentioned in our SAT math prep guide , t he Math Section has two subsections: 

  • You are given 55 minutes to complete this subsection.
  • Note that you cannot use just any calculator - the one you bring to the testing center must be one of the SAT-approved calculators.
  • You are given only 25 minutes to complete this subsection. 

Both subsections will test your problem solving and real-world math skills. 

In addition, 22% of the math section has a grid-in question format. Instead of choosing from the provided multiple choice answers like the rest of the SAT sections, grid-in questions require you to solve the problem and enter the answer in the provided grids of your answer sheet. Make sure you understand how this is done, since entering numbers in the wrong location could lead to a wrong answer immediately. 

You should also brush up your knowledge about algebra, problem solving, data analysis, structure of equations, geometry, trigonometry, complex numbers, and so on.

The SAT Essay (Optional)

The SAT essay is an optional section, since not all colleges and universities require this for college applications. Plus, the College Board only attaches one essay per student, so taking multiple essays wouldn't really be ideal unless you feel your first essay was just average. 

If you're going to take the essay, you'll have 50 minutes to work on it. 

  • First, must read the 600 to 800-word passage. Don't rush. Complete reading the entire passage before writing.
  • Make your outline. Note that the essay isn't about explaining if you agree about the passage or not. Your goal is to analyze the author's argument and explain if the argument is persuasive or not.
  • Do not rush writing. It is important that you spend the bulk of your essay time with the actual writing.
  • Leave a couple of minutes for proofreading to correct spelling mistakes, grammar errors or incomplete sentences that you may have left. 

The essay will be graded according to your reading comprehension, analysis, and writing skill. Two people will be grading your essay based on these 3 components and giving them a score on a scale of 1 to 4. Scores from both grades will then be added to look something like 2|2|2 (the lowest essay score) to 8|8|8 (the highest score possible).

Are Certain SAT Sections More Important Than Others?

What does the SAT test you on? Are certain sections more important than others? 

To answer this, you must first understand how SATs are scored. You can read about the SAT percentiles here .

When it comes to scoring, the SAT has two major test sections: Math Test and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test. Each section will receive a score ranging from 200 to 800. When you add scores to these sections, you get the composite score that ranges between 400 and 1600.  This number is a big deal because it is prominently displayed at the top of your SAT score report and colleges usually look at the score to gauge a student's college readiness or as a major factor for initial screening. 

However, there are some instances where universities and colleges look at section scores. It is for this reason as well that students could focus better on certain SAT sections than others. These instances include: 

  • If your strengths match the school's main courses. Colleges may sometimes check either your math section scores if you're applying for a math-heavy course. Meanwhile, the Reading/Writing section scores could be more important for liberal arts schools.
  • If you get an average composite score, but at closer look, you got exceptionally high in math and significantly lower in English (which brought down your total SAT score). If you're aiming for a degree in any mathematical field and your case is exactly like this, the college admissions could ignore your composite score and just focus on your Math section score.
  • If the college is looking for a tie-breaker. Maybe you and another student are fighting for the last spot and the admissions committee is looking for something extraordinary that could pop out from your section scores. 

Key Takeaways for the SAT Sections

All high school students planning to go to college will eventually take the SAT. If you're among the thousands of students who are heading to these testing centers soon, you know how important this endeavor is for your career. 

Most students work hard studying for the SAT, but many also overlook the step of learning all about SAT sections. We hope by reading this guide, you have now learned that: 

  • Every SAT section tests the student's different academic skills
  • Colleges use your total SAT score (or composite score) for initial screening, so aim high.
  • You must focus on your weaknesses when studying. If you're behind math, double-up on your Math SAT preps. 

Make sure to check the official College Board website, especially if you're scheduled to take the SAT soon. They regularly update guidelines for this standardized test, which is why you could find guides comparing the old SAT vs new SAT. Always go with the most updated guidelines. If not, you might be following an outdated rule and waste all your hard work.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, how to write an sat essay, step by step.

SAT Writing , SAT Essay


Writing an SAT essay consists of four major stages :

  • Reading : 5-10 minutes
  • Analyzing & Planning : 7-12 minutes
  • Writing : 25-35 minutes
  • Revising : 2-3 minutes

There’s a wide time range for a few of these stages, since people work at different rates. Some people, for instance, will be a lot faster at reading than they are at planning, while it might be the other way around for others. You'll need to find the timing combination that works best for you through a little bit of trial and error.

Writing takes the large bulk of the 50 minutes, but reading and analyzing and planning are equally important parts of the SAT essay writing process.

Stage 1: Read the Passage (5-10 minutes)

There are a couple of different ways to read through the passage on the SAT essay, each with their own advantages. No matter which strategy you use, though, make sure to keep an eye on the time so you don’t run out of time for analyzing and writing!

If you can just read straight through the passage without getting too hung up on details, go for it. This strategy works well for students who are naturally fast readers and don't have trouble getting distracted under time pressure.

If you’re a slow reader, get anxious about reading in timed situations, or find that the subject matter of the article is confusing, you might want to try skimming the article. You can use similar strategies to those you might use on SAT reading passages .

In either case, you'll want to make sure you get a good idea of the way the passage is laid out before you do a detailed pass through it. Why?

You'll probably end up reading through parts of the passage multiple times to make sure you fully understand it. Giving the passage a quick read-through before you do any detailed analysis can help cement which parts you'll want to come back to and which parts aren't as important.

When you go back do a more detailed reading of the article, sure to keep an eye out for argument-building techniques and to try to remain objective . You may want to circle or underline examples of these techniques as you read, which leads right into the next stage of SAT essay writing.

Stage 2: Analyze and Plan (7-12 minutes)

Many students resist planning on the SAT Essay because it already feels like there's not enough time to read and write, let alone take away some of that precious time for planning. But take it from us: you're better off with a plan. This is because the SAT essay graders look for a clear structure : introduction, conclusion, and specific evidence in between. It's almost impossible to create this kind of structure and still write quickly without a plan

You can write all over the passage as you analyze it – circle or underline key points , scribble in the margins, etc. This way, when you go back to quote the author in your essay, you’re not searching the text for the quote or supporting detail.

One way to mark up your passage is by numbering your examples and then circling and numbering any evidence from the passage you’ll be referring to in each paragraph. Another option is to write a brief description of the details from the passage in your planning and outlining, along with the location of the details. Taking this time during the analyzing and planning stage will end up saving you time in the long run.

I personally find it helpful to take notes as I read the passage and then organize them into an essay outline . Below are the TOTALLY LEGIBLE notes I took as I was analyzing the passage for the essay prompt:


As I was reading the passage, I scribbled down key details and the way I’d use them to support my thesis in the essay. For instance, I wrote, “ last paragraph – We need…we need (x4) -> overall use of “we” drawing reader into his POV ” in my notes. This describes what I want to talk about (the author's use of the word "We" and "We need"), what it means (it draws the reader into agreeing with his point of view), and where this is illustrated in the passage (last full paragraph).

I then organized these notes into some semblance of an outline I could use to plan the organization of my essay.


Here's a (rough) transcription of my outline:

Intro Facts/evidence -first paragraph stats and facts - to show issue is real, lend credibility -by not explaining has a couple of effects ->forces reader to draw own conclusions/think about which draws them into the argument ->alt makes reader look to author in rest o/article (b/c had facts at first + so can be trusted) Reasoning -acknowledges counterargument -so very easily could’ve gone on a rant abt twitter which would’ve undercut argument, disconnected from reader -instead, provides examples of when social media has been helpful (Arab Spring) -counterargument is more powerful as a result - take his “unease” more seriously Diction/style -“We” draws reader in, makes author sympathetic (not lecturing) -contrasts b/t ideal + real, b/t prof + amateur engage reader in the comparison, force to admit author is right -language elsewhere reinforces the idea that prof journalism under siege, words like “assailing” and “eroding” Conclusion

You can see that in the section labeled “Diction,” the first point is "We" draws reader in, makes author sympathetic (not lecturing)" .

You can combine these two steps if you’re comfortable enough doing it; I just find that separating them takes the pressure off to make sure that I take notes in an organized fashion.

Stage 3: Write Until 2-3 Minutes Are Left (25-35 minutes)

Once you have your analysis and planning done, it’s time to write like the wind. If you’ve taken notes and planned effectively, you should be able to jump right in and not have to go back and forth too much between the text and your essay.

Body Paragraphs

For most people, writing body paragraphs is easier than writing introductions. If this is the case, start with the body paragraphs, and just leave 10 lines or so at the top of the page to add the introduction later. One example should take up 1-2 paragraphs.

Let's use a methodical structure to try out a body paragraph about how the author uses a counterargument to add support to his own claim. The sample paragraphs below are all taken from an essay that I handwrote (and planned) in the 50-minute time limit.

Sample Body Paragraph

Start with a transition:

In addition to employing facts to his argument’s advantage, Goodman also cunningly discusses the counterargument to his position.

Then (briefly) introduce your topic:

By writing about how social media and man-on-the-ground reporting has assisted the state of foreign news reporting, Goodman heads off naysayers at the pass.

Explain the example’s context and relationship to your thesis:

It would have been very easy for Goodman to ignore the whole issue of citizen reporting, but the resultant one-sided argument would have been much less convincing. Instead, Goodman acknowledges things like “the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances.” As a result, when he partially refutes this counterargument, stating the “unease” many longtime profession correspondents feel over the trend of ‘citizen journalism’ feel, the reader agrees.

Clearly state, in one sentence, how it is proof of your thesis:

Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined, in turn, to take Goodman’s concern about the limits of social media seriously.

When you put all these pieces together, it’s a winning body paragraph. We start with a smooth transition from the introduction (or previous body paragraph), give enough background to understand why the example is relevant, and then connect it back to the thesis for the knockout punch.

Try to read through this again so the structure really makes sense to you.

Notice how this is formulaic – every one of your body paragraphs can be written in this structure , and you’ll get an excellent score! Having a structure like this will make many students less anxious about the new SAT essay.

You’d then go through the above process with the other 1-2 examples. In some cases, one very good example of the way the author builds his/her argument can be enough, if you can write 2-3 relevant paragraphs about it without repeating yourself. But having two examples is usually safer, because it gives you a better chance to show how well you've understood the passage.

Introduction and Conclusion

After finishing your body paragraphs, don't forget your introduction and conclusion paragraphs . Both should briefly mention the author’s argument and the examples you're using to support your thesis, but everything else is up to you. Some students write about the concept in general, and others just try to restate the thesis in different ways. Even a couple of sentences is better than nothing—try to scribble something in even if you're running out of time.

Sample Introduction Paragraph

In the article “Foreign News at a Crisis Point,” Peter S. Goodman eloquently argues the point that news organizations should increase the amount of professional foreign news coverage provided to people in the United States. Goodman builds his argument by using facts and evidence, addressing the counterarguments, and couching it all in persuasive and compelling language.

Stage 4: Revise (2-3 Minutes)

Much like planning on the SAT essay, revision seems unnecessary to most students. But trust us, it will help your score. There are two reasons for this:

  • Revising helps you change up your vocabulary and fix mistakes and/or illegible words
  • If you know you’ll revise, you can write much faster because you don’t have to worry about making it perfect

On the SAT essay, you can cross out words that you don’t want the grader to read. You don’t need to waste time erasing them, unless you want to replace them with something else.

So what do you do when you revise? Well, let’s take the body paragraph we wrote earlier and revise it. New text is bolded .

In addition to employing facts to his argument’s advantage, Goodman also cunningly discusses the counterargument to his position. By writing about how social media and man-on-the-ground reporting has assisted had some positive impact on the state of foreign news reporting, Goodman heads off naysayers at the pass. It would have been very easy for Goodman to ignore elide over the whole issue of citizen reporting, but the resultant one-sided argument would have been much less convincing. Instead, Goodman acknowledges things like “the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances.” As a result, when he partially refutes this counterargument, stating his the “unease” many for longtime profession correspondents feel over the trend of ‘citizen journalism’ feel, the reader agrees. is much more likely to believe him. After all, Goodman acknowledges that social media does have some power. Knowing that Goodman takes the power of social media seriously will make the reader more inclined, in turn, to take Goodman’s concern about the limits of social media seriously.

At this point, you’ll have a complete winning essay.

Want to see what this essay looks like put all together? Read our article on how to get a perfect 8 on the SAT essay .

Our goal here was to show you how formulaic the SAT essay can be. By making the essay more predictable, you’ll go into every test with a game plan in mind , making the essay much easier (and less scary!).


"Guys guys guys! I figured out a plan for the SAT essay!"

Where to Go From Here

Now you know how to write an SAT essay. To put this information to good use, you need to practice with real SAT essay prompts . We’ve written the most comprehensive guide to SAT essay topics and prompts here .

Aiming for a perfect SAT essay score? Read our guides to get strategies on how to get an 8/8/8 on your SAT essay .

And if you haven’t read our 15 SAT essay tips article yet, do so now!

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points?

Check out our best-in-class online SAT prep classes . We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your SAT score by 160 points or more.

Our classes are entirely online, and they're taught by SAT experts . If you liked this article, you'll love our classes. Along with expert-led classes, you'll get personalized homework with thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step, custom program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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Standardized testing is one of the application requirements that can highlight academic preparedness.

At Stanford, we review applications holistically, meaning every component of the application is valuable to us as we get to know each student. There are no minimum test scores required to be admitted to Stanford, and there is no score that guarantees admission.


ACT or SAT scores are not required at Stanford for first-year and transfer students applying in 2023-2024 and 2024-2025. Our test optional policy will extend to applicants applying for the Fall 2025 entry term. Applications without ACT or SAT scores will not be at a disadvantage. In previous test-optional cycles, we admitted students who submitted ACT or SAT scores, and we admitted students who did not.

Reporting Test Scores

If you choose to submit ACT/SAT test scores as part of your application, we recommend that you simply self-report your highest scores in the testing section of the application. You can also have official scores sent to Stanford, but this is not required for us to review your application. We will review applications using either self-reported or official scores. If you would like to have official scores sent, please use the following codes: 

SAT PROFILE/TOEFL Code number: 4704

  • ACT Code number: 0434

If you are offered admission and choose to enroll, official scores will be required. In order for test scores to be considered official, they must be sent directly from the College Board or the ACT.

Stanford reserves the right to revoke an offer of admission if an applicant's self-reported test scores do not align with those in the official score report.

Frequently Asked Questions

If i have already taken the act or sat, do i have to report my scores.

If you feel that your scores are a positive reflection of your academic preparedness, then you are welcome to self-report them.

Your application will not be at a disadvantage if you do not report your scores.

How do I update my decision to submit or not submit my ACT or SAT scores?

In your application, you will have the opportunity to let us know whether you have submitted or will be submitting ACT or SAT scores.

If you would like to change your response, please log into your Stanford portal for instructions on how to make this change.

The deadline to change your response about submitting or not submitting ACT or SAT test scores is November 11 (REA), January 15 (RD), and April 1 (Transfer).

However, please know we review application files when they are complete, and we cannot guarantee that we will review your application with the change if it is made after the application deadlines: November 1 (REA), January 5 (RD), or March 15 (Transfer).

What are the deadlines for testing?

Last Acceptable ACT Test Date:

September (Restrictive Early Action) | December (Regular Decision)

Last Acceptable SAT Test Date:

October (Restrictive Early Action) | December (Regular Decision)

We recommend students take the ACT or SAT well in advance of application deadlines. It is unlikely that scores from tests taken after the deadlines will arrive in time for review. We cannot delay the review of an application in anticipation of scores that will arrive after the deadline nor can we guarantee that late scores will be reviewed.

What should I do if my test results arrive after I submit my application?

If you indicated in your application that you intend to submit ACT or SAT scores and your most recent test results arrive after you submit your application, you can self-report these scores by logging in to your Stanford portal and filling out the Self-Report Test Scores form.

Does Stanford superscore test results?

We want you to have the best test representation possible, so we will review your results according to the following rubric:

For the ACT, we will review all subscores and focus on the highest Composite from all sittings.

For the SAT, we will superscore, focusing on the highest individual Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math scores from all test sittings.

For the SAT, you may have taken a sitting with the essay and a separate sitting without the essay. We will superscore your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math scores across these two versions of the exam.

Are SAT Subject Tests and AP exams required?

No; the College Board discontinued SAT Subject Tests in June 2021. If you took a subject test prior to this time, you are welcome to self-report your results in your application. If you have taken a subject test more than once, you may report your highest score.

Similarly, if you have taken Advanced Placement exams, you are welcome to self-report your scores in the application.

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Some top schools are bringing back ACT and SAT requirements — but most colleges are still test-optional. Here's what you need to know.

  • Some colleges that were test-optional during the pandemic are requiring SAT or ACT scores again.
  • Those schools have said that having scores will help them recruit a more diverse student body.
  • Still, the majority of colleges in the country are remaining test-optional.

Insider Today

Some colleges are bringing standardized testing requirements back to their admissions processes after nixing them during the pandemic.

But they're still not in the majority.

Since the start of 2024, some prestigious schools announced they will once again require SAT or ACT scores in prospective students' applications. Dartmouth, for example, announced in February that while it took on the "test-optional" policy in response to the pandemic, it will be reinstating the testing requirement for the class of 2029.

"Our bottom line is simple: we believe a standardized testing requirement will improve—not detract from—our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus," the university said in a statement.

Yale and Brown made similar announcements, saying they conducted studies that found requiring testing allowed them to attract the most diverse student body.

"Our analysis made clear that SAT and ACT scores are among the key indicators that help predict a student's ability to succeed and thrive in Brown's demanding academic environment," Brown's Provost Francis Doyle said in a statement.

However, these elite schools are still outnumbered by the colleges that decided standardized testing stood in the way of otherwise-qualified applicants. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 80% of colleges will be test-optional for fall 2025 admissions.

"Test-optional policies continue to dominate at national universities, state flagships, and selective liberal arts colleges because they typically result in more applicants, academically stronger applicants and more diversity," FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder said in a statement.

The pros and cons surrounding standardized testing have been long-debated . While some argue the tests can put lower-income students at a disadvantage because they might not have access to the same tutoring resources that wealthier students have, others argue the tests give students from all backgrounds a way to show their skills — and give schools an easy way to choose who they should admit.

Dominique Baker, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who researches education policy — primarily financial aid and admissions policies — told Business Insider that the schools that are reinstating testing requirements right now didn't choose to go test-optional because they thought it was "a good policy decision." The pandemic forced them to do so because students couldn't get to testing sites, and that's no longer an issue.

"The institutions we're currently talking about, they're requiring tests again and didn't necessarily want to ever stop requiring tests," Baker said. "That matters."

Related stories

Here's what students should know about the schools changing their policies this year — and what it could mean for them.

The return of some testing requirements

While many of the Ivy League schools that are reinstating testing requirements cited their aim to help broaden diversity on campus, some other schools have put forth slightly different reasons for their shift in policies.

The University of Texas-Austin, for example, announced its reinstatement of testing requirements in March after shifting to test-optional during the pandemic. Its reason: requiring testing scores would help the school choose between many high school seniors with high GPAs.

"Our experience during the test-optional period reinforced that standardized testing is a valuable tool for deciding who is admitted and making sure those students are placed in majors that are the best fit," the university's president Jay Hartzell said in a statement. "Also, with an abundance of high school GPAs surrounding 4.0, especially among our auto-admits, an SAT or ACT score is a proven differentiator that is in each student's and the University's best interest."

However, other schools that adopted test-optional during the pandemic have chosen to maintain the practice. The University of Michigan, for example, announced in February that it would be formally adopting a test-optional admissions policy. It said that since the fall of 2020, the school saw "a significant increase in applications from students from all backgrounds," suggesting that a test-optional policy opened the door for a more diverse student body.

What it means for schools and students

One reason some schools have wanted to maintain test score requirements, Baker said, is because of their link to financial aid. While some financial aid is need-based — or based on a student or family's income level — a college can choose to award aid based on merit, which it evaluates using a student's GPA or test scores.

"Frequently, the most generous state financial aid that those states offer require test scores. And so what the state could do is they could say, 'We did a really short pause, but now we're going back to requiring test scores for these financial aid pieces,'" Baker said. "And state legislatures could also encourage institutions to go back to requiring tests. So I also think that there is a role that politics plays within this."

On top of that, the wide range of testing policies can be confusing for students. For many schools, the two test-optional and testing-required categories are just umbrellas — there can be different policies within each college, like requiring tests for an honors program but not for regular admission.

Even so, data has shown students have continued to take tests despite applying to schools with test-optional policies. According to the College Board, 1.9 million students in the high school class of 2023 took the SAT at least once, an increase from 1.7 million in 2022.

Moving forward, Baker said it's important that if more schools choose to switch their testing policies, they consider the announcement's timing.

"The more times you take the test, the better your score is. So if an institution announces in February or March that they're going to be requiring tests for the fall, then students really do not have a ton of time to take them," Baker said. "And so I do think that the timing of the announcement and the timing of when the policy takes effect really, really matter."

Watch: Why student loans aren't canceled, and what Biden's going to do about it

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sat essay optional

SAT and ACT test scores matter. Schools should use them | Editorial

E ven their biggest proponents acknowledge that standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are imperfect tools for university admission. Expensive test prep can give affluent students a significant leg up. Critics have attacked some questions as culturally biased.

But in recent months, a handful of well-regarded universities have decided to once again require the tests after a COVID-induced suspension led as many as 2,000 schools to make them optional. Universities such as Dartmouth, MIT, Georgetown and Yale say they now believe that assessment testing is key to something crucial — helping schools identify promising students who might otherwise fly under their admissions radar.

We’re talking about the low-income student whose SAT score is 400 points higher than his school’s average. Or the student whose GPA suffered from family issues, but who still managed to ace the test.

“With a test-optional policy ... we were unintentionally overlooking applicants from less-resourced backgrounds who could thrive here,’’ wrote Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock, a cognitive scientist who said that will change starting next year.

Mercifully, optional testing was never an issue in Florida because state schools never dropped the requirement. In fact, Florida has actually added a testing option since COVID — the conservative and Christian-backed Classic Learning Test, which focuses on the classical Western and Christian canon.

State leaders were right to be stubborn (at least about the ACT and SAT). When combined with other traditional tools such as grade point average, student essays and teacher recommendations, standardized tests allow for a fairer, more holistic evaluation of applicants.

We’re not trying to criticize the many schools that went to optional testing after COVID began ripping through the nation four years ago. Most testing centers had to be closed because of social distancing. And given the already existing concerns about standardized tests, the path of least resistance clearly was to leave the testing decision up to students, who were told they could submit a score if they thought it would help but would not be penalized if they didn’t.

Dartmouth’s experience illustrates why that probably wasn’t the best move. When Beilock became president last year at the New Hampshire university, an Ivy League school that typically accepts about 6% of freshmen applicants, she asked for an internal study on standardized testing. She told The New York Times there were two main findings, one surprising and one not.

The not surprising: that test scores were a better predictor than grades, essays and teacher recommendations of academic success at Dartmouth. But researchers said their analysis of test score data also showed something unexpected — that lower-income students were withholding test scores that would have helped them get in.

The applicants thought their scores were too low, when admissions officers would have seen them as evidence they had overcome social and financial obstacles. Beilock said the analysis didn’t support claims that the tests are racially or economically biased.

“The research suggests this tool is helpful in finding students we might otherwise miss,’’ she told the Times.

That sounds like a win for everyone.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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    The SAT Essay is a part of the test that is only administered in certain states. Learn how to prepare if it is included in your upcoming test. ... Until 2021, the SAT Essay was also an optional section when taking the SAT on a weekend. That section was discontinued in 2021.

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    The SAT Essay used to be required at many top colleges, but it has become optional at many schools. Now, among elite schools, only the University of California schools require the Essay. Other selective colleges like Duke University, Amherst College, and Colby College recommend the Essay, but it's not required.

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    The SAT optional essay is a section designed to test students' ability to write under strict time constraints. For many, this can be an intimidating concept. After all, almost every student has encountered writer's block at some point. However, this can be a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to communicate, create, and build an ...

  17. SAT Essay Prompts: The Complete List

    While most colleges had already made SAT Essay scores optional, this move by the College Board means no colleges now require the SAT Essay. It will also likely lead to additional college application changes such not looking at essay scores at all for the SAT or ACT, as well as potentially requiring additional writing samples for placement.

  18. Is the SAT Optional? Your Guide to Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

    Now, more schools have either become test-optional or significantly modified their test score policies. According to, more than half of 4-year U.S. colleges and universities will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. At the time of writing this post, 1,240 institutions are test-optional at least for the 2020-2021 ...

  19. PDF Optional SAT Essay

    Adding the optional essay to their SAT registration is an individual student choice. Schools or districts should not make policy decisions regarding which students will or will not take the SAT essay. Studentswho wish to take the essay must register between January 18th and February 16th, 2021.

  20. SAT Sections

    The SAT Essay (Optional) The SAT essay is an optional section, since not all colleges and universities require this for college applications. Plus, the College Board only attaches one essay per student, so taking multiple essays wouldn't really be ideal unless you feel your first essay was just average.

  21. Everything You Need to Know About the Digital SAT

    The SAT puts your achievements into context. That means it shows off your qualifications to colleges and helps you stand out. Most colleges—including those that are test optional —still accept SAT scores. Together with high school grades, the SAT can show your potential to succeed in college or career. Learn more about why you should take ...

  22. What You Need to Know About Sending Your SAT Scores

    Send all your scores or only some of your scores to each recipient. If you've taken the SAT more than once, you can send only your best score. However, the institution you're sending scores to might have a policy that requires you to send all your scores. As you select scores to send, review the policy requirements of the schools you selected.

  23. How to Write an SAT Essay, Step by Step

    This is the argument you need to deconstruct in your essay. Writing an SAT essay consists of four major stages: Reading: 5-10 minutes. Analyzing & Planning: 7-12 minutes. Writing: 25-35 minutes. Revising: 2-3 minutes. There's a wide time range for a few of these stages, since people work at different rates.

  24. Standardized Testing : Stanford University

    Test-Optional. ACT or SAT scores are not required at Stanford for first-year and transfer students applying in 2023-2024 and 2024-2025. ... Though we do not require the writing/essay section of the ACT or SAT, if you took the exam with writing/essay, we request that you be honest and transparent and report your score as required by the ...

  25. Return of ACT/SAT College Requirements: What It Means for Students

    Caiaimage/Chris Ryan via Getty Images. Some colleges that were test-optional during the pandemic are requiring SAT or ACT scores again. Those schools have said that having scores will help them ...

  26. SAT and ACT test scores matter. Schools should use them

    State leaders were right to be stubborn (at least about the ACT and SAT). When combined with other traditional tools such as grade point average, student essays and teacher recommendations ...

  27. PDF SAT Suite of Assessments Facilitator's Guide: The SAT Essay

    The SAT Essay is one of the key features of the SAT. The focus of the optional Essay on the SAT is very different from the essay on the old SAT. Students read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience. Students may analyze such aspects of the passage as the author's use of evidence,