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Top 5 Changes to the SAT Essay in March 2016

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Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Sweat lines your brow as you sit at your desk. The last twelve years of your life flashes before your eyes. The rest of your future depends on the next few hours and how you apply all that you have learned to this one test. This single test will determine if you get into that coveted institute of higher learning known as college. Ladies and gentleman, it is time to take the Standard Aptitude Test, otherwise known as the SAT. This year’s exam is fundamentally the same as the tried and true test that has been administered for decades. There are, however, some very important changes, specifically to the essay portion, that test takers should familiar themselves with before the big day. Mainly, the standard Ultius essay help section won't help completely prepare you for what's in store.

A Brief History of the SAT Exam

The SAT’s roots lay in the formation of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900 (GPB).

This organization, set up by presidents of 12 leading universities administers admissions tests. The purpose is to standardize the admissions process administratively and to force New England boarding schools to adopt a uniform curriculum. In 1901, the first College Boards were conducted. Exams were done in essay format for specific subject areas. (GPB)

The history of the institutionalization of the SAT spans decades.

History of the SAT Source: GPB
Read the unique history of the SAT, starting with 1905.

1905: Alfred Binet invents the first IQ test.

World-War I: IQ test are used to select the most intelligent Army recruits for the purpose of officer recruitment.

1923-1926: Carl C. Brigham invents the SAT, and it is administered for the first time to high school students in 1926.

1933: AThe SAT is used to select students for Harvard scholarships.

1948: The Educational Testing Service, or ETS is formed.

1952: The current structure for the verbal portion of the SAT is adopted.

1959: A new organization called American College Testing is formed. It rivals the ETS.

1960: The University of California requires all applicants to take the SAT.

Historically, the SAT has always been comprised of three major sections. These sections and their weight in terms of scoring are:

  1. Reading: 200-800 points
  2. Writing: 200-800 points
  3. Math: 200-800 points (Suh)

A final section, which was included in the writing score, was the Essay portion of the exam. These three sections yielded an overall score of 2400 at maximum. In regard to the test as of March 2016, there are some very important changes that have been made to the essay portion.

#1: The SAT Essay Portion is Now Optional

The first major change to the essay portion of the SAT is the fact that it is now optional. With the old format, the essay was mandatory. One thing that should be taken into consideration when deciding on whether or not to take the essay portion is individual college requirements. While some colleges require the essay portion for admissions, others deem it unnecessary. Again, it is important that test takers consult with their colleges of choice when deciding on participating in the essay portion of the exam. Here is a list of some of the top colleges in the United States and their requirements:

SAT Requirements Summary (by college) Source: College Board
See which schools require the SAT essay.
School Name Required Not Required
University of California: Berkeley X  
Yale X  
University of Florida   X
Texas A&M University X  
University of Virginia   X
Princeton X  
University of Notre Dame   X

Note that the above table is not an exhaustive list as there are hundreds of schools, each with different requirements. We spent some time reviewing the College Board list of schools that require the new essay and found that almost 80% of schools either don't require or don't recommend taking the essay portion. The pie chart below shows the requirement breakdown of more than 550 schools.

2016 SAT Essay - College Requirements Source: College Board
See the % breakdown of how many schools require the essay portion of the new 2016 SAT exam.
2016 SAT Essay - College Requirements Pie Chart

Even if the colleges you are applying for do not require the essay, there are still benefits to taking it anyway. Prepscholar.com lists some of the most important pros and cons of taking the essay portion of the exam even of it’s not required. These pros and cons include:

  • You’re Covered for All Schools.

“Taking the SAT essay means that, no matter which schools you end up applying to, you will absolutely have all their SAT requirements met. If you decide to apply to a new school that requires the SAT essay, that won’t be a problem because you’ll already have taken it.”

  • A Good SAT Score May Boost Your Application.

“Having a strong SAT essay score to submit may strengthen your application a bit, especially if you are trying to show strong English/writing skills.”

  • There is More to Study.

“If you choose to take the essay, that means you have an entire extra SAT section to study and prepare for. If you already feel like you have a ton of SAT prep to do or have doubts about staying motivated, adding on more work can make you feel stressed and end up hurting your scores in the other SAT sections.” Read the Ultius blog post on motivation to learn how to stay fresh.

  • The SAT Exam is Longer.

“If you struggle with keeping focused or staying on your A-game during long exams (and, let’s be honest, it’s not hard to lose concentration after several hours of answering SAT questions), adding an additional hour of test time can reduce your test-taking endurance and make you feel tired and distracted during the essay, likely making it hard for you to get your best score.” (Sarikas)

#2 The SAT Essay Portion is Now More Mechanical and Argument Focused

Another important change that can be expected when taking the essay portion of the SAT is how the essay prompts have shifted their focus. While the old essay portion of the exam focused on more theoretical, opinion based responses; the newer version shifts its perspective to a more argumentative and analytical approach. An example of an old prompt might look like this:

Old SAT Essay Prompt Example Source: Cheng
Read an old version of the SAT essay writing prompt.
Old SAT Essay Prompt Example

While the new prompts will look more like this:

New SAT Essay Prompt Example Source: Cheng
See how the new SAT prompt looks like.
New SAT Essay Prompt Example

This format more closely emulates real world application and showcases the writer's critical thinking versus just coming up with an opinion based answer essay.

#3 The New SAT Essay Portion is Now Scored on a Scale of 2-8

The pre-March 2016 essay portion of the SAT has a score that was factored into the writing portion of the exam. This scoring system is another one of the major changes that the new SAT is adopting. In previous exams the writing portion was scored utilizing between 200-800 points (College Board). Since the new SAT has made the essay optional, it is now scored separately. The following are the new changes that will be taking effect for the new SAT exam:

Two different people will read and score your essay.

  • Each scorer awards a 1-4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing.
  • The scores of each dimension will be added.
  • You’ll receive three scores for the SAT essay – one for each dimension – ranging from 2-8 points. (College Board)

In terms of the three categories that your essay is being evaluated in:

1. Reading:

“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.” Remember that you won't be able to do your own essay research!

2. Analysis:

“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.”

3. Writing:

“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.” (College Board)

The grading rubric for the essay portion of the new SAT is complex and addresses each category in depth. Since the scores can range from a 1 to a 4, the rubric extends to each category and score level.

SAT Essay Grading Rubric Source: Cheng
See the new SAT essay grading rubric.
Score Reading Analysis Writing
4 Demonstrates superior comprehension of central ideas, free of errors of fact, and uses textual evidence. Offers an insightful analysis and sophisticated understanding of task, is thorough, focuses consistently on relevant features. Is cohesive and is highly effective with language, contains no errors, skillful introduction and conclusion, wide variety of sentence structures.
3 Demonstrates effective comprehension of central ideas, free of substantial errors of fact, and appropriate use of textual evidence. Offers an effective analysis and understanding of task, is competent, focuses primarily on relevant features. Is mostly cohesive with language, free of significant errors, effective introduction and conclusion, variety of sentence structures.
2 Demonstrates some comprehension of central ideas, may contain errors of fact, and makes limited use of textual evidence. Offers limited analysis and partial understanding of task, is limited, lacks a clear focus on relevant features. Limited use of language, errors that detract, ineffective introduction and conclusion, limited variety of sentence structures.
1 Demonstrates little comprehension of central ideas, numerous errors of fact, and makes little or no use of textual evidence. Offers little or no analysis and little or no understanding of task, no discernable analysis, does not focus on relevant features. Little or no cohesion and language usage, numerous errors, unrecognizable introduction and conclusion, repetitive sentence structure.

#4 SAT Test Takers Now Have 50 Minutes Instead of 25 Minutes to Complete the Essay Portion

Yet another major change that test takers will see in the new SAT format is the change in the time allotted for the essay portion. Previously, 25 minutes were given to complete the essay, but now it has been boosted to 50 minutes. The essay has also been switched from the beginning of the test to the end (click here to read more about general SAT test preparation guidelines). There are both advantages and disadvantages to the time change for test takers. Advantages include:

  • The most obvious advantage would seem to be that there is double the time available in which to write the essay.
  • Test takers will be given three sheets of paper to write on instead of two. (Ishii)

It is important that we do not forget the disadvantages either. They include:

  • The essay has shifted from persuasive to analytical, so there is more to read.
  • Students will be expected to write more in order to address the analytical nature of the prompt and provide supporting evidence. (Ishii)

#5 The New SAT Essay Requires Test Takers to Analyze the Argument of Someone Else

A final, and possibly the most important, change to the essay portion of the SAT is how the task has to be approached. The essay is now more analytical and opinion based as we have already learned. In the new SAT, instead of coming up with your own argument and general essay topic, the persuasive approach, you will have to analyze someone else’s argument (Kohen). Dr. Robert Kohen, Harvard graduate and personal tutor, says:

“In short, the SAT asks you to describe how the article in question persuades the reader of its point. In particular, you’re asked to consider its use of evidence, reasoning and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.” (Kohen)

High scoring essays will include the following elements:

  • P1: Thesis – author uses statistical evidence, ironic language and emotional appeals to persuade reader natural darkness should be preserved (here, standard essay thesis statement guidelines apply)
  • P2: Statistical evidence examples
  • P3: Ironic language examples
  • P4: Emotional appeals examples
  • P5: Conclusion (restate thesis) (Kohen)

The use of “Document Based Questions” (DBQs) has stepped the essay part of the SAT up a few notches (Calvin). These richer, more applicable essay prompts rely on the use of documents that contain complex and deeper-rooted information. These documents may include:

  • Declaration of Independence
  • Bill of Rights
  • Great Global Conversation (freedom, justice, and human dignity)
  • Other texts that matter and reflect not only what is important for college and career, but what is important for citizenship here and around the world. (Calvin)

Tips for Getting Better Scores on the New Essay Portion of the SAT

Now that we have a clearer understanding of how the essay portion of the new SAT has changed, you may be asking yourself:

What Can I Do to Earn Higher SAT Scores?

Laura Stafforoni with PrepScholar lists a variety of tips that could prove to be invaluable when trying to make the best scores possible on the SAT. These tips include things that the College Board reveals as well as what our own essay writers have told us:

  1. Give a Clear Thesis.
  2. Include Both an Introduction and Conclusion.
  3. Use Effective Language and Word Choice.
  4. Only Use Information From the Passage.
  5. Focus Your Essay on Relevant Details. (Staffaroni)
  6. Don't worry about essay citations or MLA

And a few things that the College Board is not telling students:

  1. Read the Prompt Before the Passage.
  2. Your Facts Must Be Accurate...But Your Interpretation Doesn’t Have to Be
  3. You Should Write More Than One Page.
  4. Be Objective When Reading the Passage.
  5. Memorize and Identify Specific Persuasive Techniques. (Staffaroni)
  6. Use standard best practices and tips for essay writing

Keeping these tips in mind, there are five important ways to produce a top-notch essay in those crucial 50 minutes.

  1. Answer the Prompt
  2. Support Your Points with Concrete Evidence from the Passage
  3. Keep Your Essay Organized (check out the Ultius guide for body paragraphs in essays)
  4. Make Time to Read, Analyze, Plan, Write, and Revise
  5. Practice (Staffaroni)


The SAT has been the primary go to for college admissions since the 1960s. The exam has undergone many changes over the years, but none have been as drastic as the changes to the essay portion beginning in 2016. While the essay was a required component in previous versions of the SAT, it is now an option. It is being used to measure a different breed of students in present times. It appears that the College Board is no longer interested in students creating their own arguments (like in a traditional argumentative essay), but focusing more on analyzing the arguments of some of the most prolific writers in history. Students are being given more time to construct their essays, but the content must reflect a more insightful approach to the content at hand.

Keeping these things in mind, there are things that can be done to prepare for the test and produce the best work possible. Since the prompts will all be structured the same, practicing on essay writing before the SAT could make the difference between scores of 1 and scores of 4. Staying informed on SAT “news” and taking advantage of any test prep resources available could have a tremendous impact on test performance. Do not be afraid to ask questions about the test before hand and, most importantly, stay calm. Remember that the essay is now optional and no longer a requirement. Make sure to use this guide, Top 5 Changes to the SAT Essay in March 2016, as a primary resource in order to gain a better understanding of the essay portion of the new SAT. Lastly, when you are done don't forget to read about ways to de-stress after a long exam period.

Happy Test Taking!

Works Cited

Calvin. "New SAT – The New Essay." College Compass. 18 May 2014. Web. 23 July 2016. http://collegeadmissions.testmasters.com/new-sat-new-essay/

Cheng, Allen. "Complete Guide to the New SAT in 2016." Complete Guide to the New SAT in 2016. 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 July 2016. https://blog.prepscholar.com/complete-guide-to-the-new-sat-in-2016

College Board. "College SAT Essay Policies." SAT Suite of Assessments. 2015. Web. 21 July 2016. https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/register/college-essay-policies

College Board. "SAT Essay." SAT Suite of Assessments. 2014. Web. 22 July 2016. https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/inside-the-test/essay

GPB. "History of the SAT: A Timeline." PBS. 2014. Web. 21 July 2016. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/where/timeline.html

Ishii, Karen Berlin. "5 Tips for a Top Essay on the New SAT." Noodle. 27 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 July 2016. https://www.noodle.com/articles/5-tips-for-the-new-sat-essay-from-a-test-prep-expert

Kohen, Robert. "Dr. Robert Kohen: Personalized Test Prep, NYC & Online." Dr Robert Kohen Personalized Test Prep NYC Online. 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 July 2016. http://www.koheneducationalservices.com/how-to-write-the-new-redesigned-sat-essay/

Sarikas, Christine. "Should I Take the SAT Essay? How to Decide." Should I Take the SAT Essay? How to Decide. 7 Apr. 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. https://blog.prepscholar.com/should-i-take-the-sat-essay

Staffaroni, Laura. "SAT Essay Tips: 15 Ways to Improve Your Score." SAT Essay Tips: 15 Ways to Improve Your Score. 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 July 2016. https://blog.prepscholar.com/sat-essay-tips-15-ways-to-improve-your-writing-score

Suh, Junho. "New vs Old SAT Format." Ivy Global. 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. https://sat.ivyglobal.com/new-vs-old/

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