True or False: Since essay length is not mentioned in the SAT essay grading rubric, it doesn’t matter how much you write in your essay.
Answer: True...but also false. Read on for an explanation of why and how the length of your SAT essay can affect your score.
feature image credit: How long by Martin Abegglen, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped & modified from original.
Why Does Essay Length Matter?
Why would you think that essay length even matters in the first place? As I said in the introduction, it's not as if the SAT essay rubric mentions essay length at all.
Well, there's at least one good reason to think this: essay length is positively correlated with essay score.
Ever since the essay was added to the SAT, current MIT research affiliate (and former director of the MIT undergraduate writing program) Les Perelman has been vocal about how the longer an essay is, the more likely it is to get a higher score. According to this 2005 New York Times article by Michael Winerip, Perelman analyzed the lengths and scores of 54 SAT-approved sample essays and found a nearly 90% correlation. The shortest essays (around 100 words) received the lowest possible score, 1 (or a combined score of 2 out of 12), while the longest essays (around 400 words), received the highest score, a 6 (or a combined score of 12 out of 12). Based on these findings, representatives of the CollegeBoard stated that they would be releasing shorter examples of higher-scoring essays.
This controversy first erupted in early 2005, right after the new SAT essay was introduced. To see if there had been any changes since then, I did my own analysis of the essays in the CollegeBoard's essay scoring guide that were all written in response to the sample prompt. Take a look at what I found:
Bonus graph reading practice for you in this, an article on essays. You're welcome.
As you can see, as essay length (measured by word count in the graph above) increases, the score also increases.
Just because longer essays tend to score better, however, doesn’t mean that you should just write the word “ideology” over and over again to fill up the page. The reason longer essays tend to score better is that students who write longer essays provide more support for their theses.
If this is the essay prompt:
"Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority,"
and all you write is the following:
"It's important to question authority because sometimes authority stops you from doing things you want. Like getting a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony. I want a pony."
for two pages, you'll still get a 0. Maybe a 1, if the grader is feeling generous and thinks that you made some attempt to write about the issue discussed in a prompt. For more on the thought process of essay grading, read our article about insights from real SAT essay graders (coming soon).
Similarly, if you try to drag out one example by writing larger than usual and restating the same facts and information over and over again, it won't automatically get you a higher score. In fact, you may lose points if either of your essay's graders think that your repeating of information leads to lack of coherence in your writing.
In any case, unless you have extremely small handwriting, it’s very difficult to write an essay that presents a thesis and supports it with at least two specific examples in less than one page.
Bad hair day by Brian Snelson, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Seriously, though. Look at that face. Wouldn't you want a pony?
So How Long Should Your Essay Be?
Many factors go into determining essay length, which makes it difficult to give a blanket length recommendation. Here are the most important factors when it comes to length of your SAT essay:
- Vocabulary. Often, the more advanced vocab you use, the fewer words you’ll need to get the job done, which might result in a shorter essay.
- Handwriting size. Students with larger handwriting will naturally take up more space on the page than students with smaller handwriting. This doesn't necessarily mean students with larger handwriting have an advantage, however; in fact, students with larger handwriting tend to run into the issue of having filled two pages and not finished saying everything they needed or wanted to say.
- How fast you can write and think. If you need to take longer to plan out your essay, you might end up writing a shorter essay, simply because you don't have as much time to write. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll do worse on the essay - since an organized essay with strong specific examples will score better than a disorganized one without specific examples - but it does mean that you might end up with less time to write out your ideas.
- How much time you leave yourself to write (vs. how much time you take to plan). This is something you need to figure out for yourself through practice and observation. Over the years, I've realized that I can write fairly quickly, which means that it's okay if I take a little more time to plan out my essay - I'll still be able to fill up those two pages. On the other hand, if you find that you're a slow writer, you might not be able to write enough unless you get very fast at planning your essay.
In general, assuming about 150 words per handwritten page, you need to write at least a page and a half (1.5 pages) to get a 3 or above on your essay (or a combined score of 6 or above). You'll need at least that much space to say what you need to say and support it clearly with concrete examples.
Want to find out more about how to write a good SAT essay? Watch us write a top-scoring essay step-by-step, then check out our tips on how to write a long SAT essay as well as our more general SAT essay tips.
Discover the secrets to getting a perfect 12 on your SAT essay here.
What if you're planning on taking the new SAT? Read our breakdown of the new SAT essay here.
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The SAT gives a rubric for its essay section, which clues you in to the content you’ll need for a high score. But length? They don’t say a word.
Does this silence mean that the SAT doesn’t care how long your essay is? Can you—gasp—write less than a page and still get a passing score? Nope. Their silence on the length issue doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want—unless you want a score of zero, that is. Let’s find out why page length is important and what you need to maintain for an optimum SAT essay score.
Why You Need a Long Enough Essay
The bottom line for this one is simple: statistics. That’s right. Statistics show that the more you write, the higher your score. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but the truth is, you need enough space to get your thoughts out and round them off. You need room to make your point and prove it through examples and analysis. You really can’t do your thoughts justice with a single page of text.
The Length You Should Aim For
All right, so you can’t write just one page. So how long does this essay need to be? Consider that historically, students with a score of 3 or higher had written at least a page and a half. If you want a higher score, you might want to push that to 2 or even 3 pages.
But you also need to consider how large your handwriting is. If you write with very large letters, 1.5 pages probably isn’t enough. And if your handwriting is microscopic, a page and half might be a little long. Take some time to practice at home and see how many words you comfortably fit on one page. The average student writes 150 words per page, so about 225 words is your minimum for a decent SAT essay score.
Bottom line, write what you need to write. Use good vocabulary and real thoughts—in other words, put some effort into this essay to make it sound like you know how to write and follow logic. But don’t worry, you don’t need to write a 10-page paper on the SAT; save that for college.
Sally B. is an online writing tutor as well as a professional writer and editor. She holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature.