The SAT Optional Essay – To Write or Not to Write


The SAT Optional Essay – To Write or Not to Write

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
  • Writing
  • 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 25th to 75th 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


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