Admissions Testing Planning for College

What to Expect on the Writing Section of the SAT


The first thing to know about the writing section of the SAT is you are expected to write a coherent and well-organized essay in 25 minutes. Think about that.

The Time Limits

Only 25 minutes does not allow you to write an in-depth or an extraordinarily thoughtful writing piece. Also you do not have time to write a draft and then polish it. What they are looking for is whether or not you have an opinion, if you can support your opinion, and if you write with organization and clarity so most any reader could understand your writing. Of course, a top scoring essay will have more, but that’s icing. Let’s stick with the basics.

Dividing your time is important.

You should use a minute to read and understand the prompt, a couple minutes to write a statement about the prompt which you can support, the next three to five minutes outlining your ideas, fifteen to seventeen minutes writing, and a minute or two reading it through for glaring errors.

The Prompts

You will see two types of writing prompts on this section of the SAT.

The first prompt type:

Consider the following statement and assignment. Then write an essay as directed.

“I have met many people that have helped me in life, but one person who taught me the most was__________.”

Assignment: Write an essay that completes the statement above. Explain the reasons behind your choice.

Obviously this is the most open-ended type of prompt. It allows you to fill in the blank. That does not mean you have to fill in the blank using their exact wording. You might choose to write:

The most valuable “person” in my life is my dog Ralph because he taught me three important lessons.

The second prompt type:

Consider the following statement and assignment. Then write an essay as directed.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Assignment: Choose one example from personal experience, current events, literature, or any other discipline and use this example to write an essay in which you agree or disagree with the statement above. Your essay should be specific.

Now you have to write your own topic sentence, but you still have choice. Be careful to interpret the quote you are relating to as best you can and then choose an area you know most about, whether it is an era in history, a book or author you know, an experience you remember vividly, or something from the news you know about. If you are not a fan of any of these, you can choose another discipline or topic you have knowledge of—even if it’s bowling.

After writing many essays over the last four years in high school, I have learned writing an essay the night it’s assigned is better than waiting for just the right idea to come along.

The bottom line:

Regardless of which type of prompt, write a simple statement that takes a stand which you can support.

The Scoring

Knowing how readers score the writing prompts on SATs allows you to know what they expect and better prepares you for giving them what they are looking for. The best score is a 12, and the worst is a 0.

Two readers will rate your prompt; each giving it a 0-6. Then the two ratings are added to give an overall score out of 12. If one reader thinks your prompt deserves a 5 and the other a 4, your overall rating will be a 9. If there is more than a one point difference in the two ratings, a third person will look at the prompt. That third person’s score is all that counts at this point, and it is doubled for the overall rating.

Zeroes are given only if there is no writing or if the writing is totally off-topic. A rating of 5 is very good; 6, perfect.

How do you get a good rating? The following explains simply what readers are looking for.

6 – outstanding: insightful content and evidence of superior writing skills (*development, **organization, and ***style)
5 – solid: convincing content and shows strong writing skills
4 – adequate: satisfactory content and satisfactory writing skills
3 – limited: unsatisfactory content and lacks adequate writing skills
2 – flawed: poor content; poor writing skills with numerous errors
1 – deficient: off topic and ideas are vague; poor writing skills to the point that meaning is obscured
0 – given if the writing is totally off topic or if there is nothing written

*Development is support
**Organization is logical ordering and chunking of information with transitions
***Style includes sentence variety, use of vocabulary, and good grammar. Spelling can count, but not heavily.

There are some other things readers like and don’t like.

5 things scorers LIKE

  • Good content: making good points with specific examples
  • Logical structure with clear paragraphing
  • Links between paragraphs to ensure good flow of ideas
  • A clear introduction with a thesis statement
  • Good use of language: varied sentence structure; varied vocabulary

5 things scorers HATE

  • Vagueness
  • Poor language skills
  • Bigoted students (always try to sound like a reasonable, sane and tolerant person!)
  • Illegible writing
  • Essays that are too short

Bottom line? Scorers are looking for what you have to say (write) and how you write it. Development and organization are key elements. The length of an essay should not affect the score. However, better developed essays tend to be longer. Of course, a long essay could get a 3 and a short essay may get a 6. Neatness counts because something difficult to read will interrupt the flow of ideas and poor presentation can speak a volume about how much you care.

Now that you know what to expect you know better how to do well.

Note: The SAT written section was reformatted in 2016. Be sure to read up on the changes and how it will impact your application. Next up, check out our tips for the Critical Reading Test.