Too many parents and students can remember a bad experience from school where they felt work was unfairly evaluated. If different teachers look for different things, it seems improbably for a standardized system to grade things like the SAT essay section. Many wonder how SAT essays are graded and how the process could be objective.
SAT Essay Reader Qualifications
In 2005 I was selected as one of the first graders for the essay section when it was introduced on the March SAT. To qualify as a reader one must:
- Hold a bachelor’s degree or higher
- Have taught a high school or college course with writing
- Taught for at least three years
- Not receive payment for SAT preparation from a test prep company or individual students in the past 12 months.
- Satisfy technical and security requirements for grading online.
To be considered or to learn more, visit the College Board’s Professional site.
Grading Standards For SAT Essays
Once approved as an SAT reader, I entered into a process of training and evaluation designed to teach readers what to look for and how SAT essays are graded. Teachers who have graded writing for AP exams or other standardized tests will understand that scores are NOT subjective.
The SAT essay scoring key is available online. It clearly states what readers are looking for and what standards must be met to score anywhere from a 1 to a 6. I had a laminated copy of the grading scale taped to my computer monitor. It was the final word on scoring.
To insure essays are graded according to standards, all readers must successfully complete hours of training and pass multiple grading tests. Every times I logged in to read essays, I had to pass a quiz that required me to accurately score a set of sample essays. Additionally, as I was scoring, my accuracy was tracked. Personally, I found it very stressful for a part-time job that left me reading student drafts for hours on end.
Pearsons Educational Measurement and College Board are concerned with how SAT essays are graded and work to insure consistent and accurate evaluations.
Grading Process For SAT Essays
Beyond issues of what is graded, there are issues of how SAT essays are graded logistically. Once answer documents are sent back, each essay is electronically scanned into the system.
Readers log-in to grade from their own computers and evaluate essays “on screen.” It is different from my days as a teacher where I would sit down with a composition, mark errors, and makes notes before assigning a grade. For the SAT essays I would spend a minute or two reading the essay and comparing it to the scoring rubric. Then I would enter one numerical score—no comments or explanation needed.
Two readers will score each student’s essay. If the two scores differ by more than a point, a supervisor will evaluate and correct the scoring.
How SAT Essays Are Graded: Conclusion
While no system is perfect, I believe how SAT essays are graded is generally a fair and accurate process. Yes, readers will have off days. Yes, some graders may be turkeys looking to cut corners, but most readers are trying very hard to provide scores that follow grading guidelines.
You may also want to read about one of the most controversial SAT essay topics here.
Worried about your messy handwriting? It’s tough not to have sloppy handwriting when you’re given only 50 minutes to read a passage, analyze it, and write an essay. How will your handwriting influence your SAT Essay score? Can it cause a lower score? Or even lead to a score of zero? I’ve got the answers along with more SAT Essay advice.
Can You Get a Score of Zero for Messy Handwriting?
It’s not possible to get a score of zero for any reason on the SAT Essay because the lowest score possible is 2. Your essay is graded on a scale of 1-4 by two readers, and then those scores are added together to give you your final essay score. You could get a 2 because of your handwriting, but it needs to very, very messy. Throughout my years of SAT tutoring, I had many students with handwriting I could barely make out who did find on the SAT essay. My PrepScholar colleagues had the same experience while tutoring.
The College Board doesn’t have an official policy on illegible handwriting. However, in their essay grading rubric, the College Board writes that, for a score of 1, the essay shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing. Your messy handwriting could be perceived as an error that undermines the quality and ability for the reader to understand our essay.
The reality is that all of your handwriting needs to be considered illegible and for you to receive a score of 1. Is your handwriting so terrible that you pick up something you wrote a few months ago and cannot read a single word? I imagine the answer is no. If your handwriting is messy but still legible, you will not automatically receive a 2.
If your handwriting is completely indecipherable, you could end up with a 2, but also, not being able to make out a sentence or word here and there could hurt you as well.
Don't let your handwriting bring you down!
Can You Get Penalized for Some Messy Handwriting?
Yes, it’s possible. As I mentioned before, the SAT essay rubric mentions errors that impede on understanding. Errors that undermine the reader’s understanding can reduce your score; those that don’t will not.
Therefore, you could be penalized if your handwriting was illegible in certain parts of your essay. For example, if your handwriting was indecipherable for one sentence, but that one sentence was a crucial analysis of the passage that supported your thesis, then you would likely be penalized. If the reader couldn’t understand a single word of that sentence, then your score would likely be affected since the error would undermine the reader’s comprehension of your argument.
However, if your messy handwriting doesn’t stop the reader from understanding your argument, then your score probably won’t be affected. If the one sentence that was illegible was in your conclusion and simply summarized a point you’d already made, then you might not be penalized for that since the reader already grasped that point from earlier in your essay.
Also, if you simply have slightly sloppy but still decipherable handwriting, then your score likely won’t be affected since the handwriting won’t affect the reader’s experience.
2 Tips to Improve Your Handwriting
The safest way to make sure you aren’t penalized for your handwriting is to try to make it more legible, but how?
Tip #1: Write Slower
This is an easy way to improve. Just write slower and consciously try to make sure you make sure every letter is legible. Most sloppy handwriting is caused by writing way too fast. I know this is tough with only 50 minutes for the SAT essay. However, you’ll get better slowing your handwriting in this limited time with practice.
Take as many practice SAT essays as you need to until you’ve mastered the pacing while keeping your handwriting legible. If you need more guidance, read our full step-by-step guide to the SAT essay.
Never fear you can better your handwriting!
Tip #2: Switch Your Grip and Pressure
If slowing down didn’t fix your messy handwriting, then you should try switching your grip and/or changing the pressure you put on the page. A tight grip or strong pressure can make the pencil difficult to maneuver. Try to relax your grip and ease up on the pressure on the pencil. Doing so will allow you to have more control over the pencil’s movement and allow you to create clearer letters.
Gripping the pencil closer to the point and farther from the eraser will also help you have more legible handwriting. The closer your hand to the eraser, the harder it is to control the movement of the pencil. Test this out and see the difference. Write the same word with your hand holding the end of the pencil near the eraser and holding the pencil near the point. The latter will be more legible.
Handwriting and Disability: What Can You Do?
Some students have disabilities that make it difficult to write or can cause writing to be illegible. If you or your child falls into this category, you can request for special accommodations on the SAT. Most students with this issue are allowed to use a computer for the Essay and short response questions.
Read more about this special accommodation, including information on how to apply, in our guide to SAT accommodations. Make sure you get this support if you need it!
- You can't get a zero because the lowest SAT essay score possible is 2.
- You'll only get a 2 if your entire essay is illegible.
- However, you might still be penalized if just some of your essay is illegible. If the illegible parts impede the reader's ability to understand your argument, then your score will likely be affected.
- Therefore, you should try to improve your sloppy handwriting by slowing down, relaxing your grip on your pencil, and relaxing your pressure on the pencil.
Want to know more about the SAT Essay? Learn how essay length could influence your score and read our full analysis of the SAT Essay rubric.
Need help with overall SAT prep? Check out our free ultimate SAT study guide with individual section strategy information.
Trying to figure out where you want to go to college? Read our guide to finding your target school. Already know where you want to go? Read our guide to finding your SAT target score.
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