How Does the Essay Affect Your SAT Score?

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Love it or hate it, your essay will influence your SAT score.

Although the SAT essay is going to be optional before long (when the test changes in 2016), as of right now it’s a must. So, love it or hate it, your essay will influence your SAT score, and the admissions offices at the colleges you’ll apply to will see that score. So let’s answer one key question: how much does the SAT essay actually count for?

The Numbers

First, the essay is scored according to its own grading system. There will be two readers—real people, not a Scantron machine!—who read and judge your writing, each assigning a mark of zero to six. Zero is the worst (in case that wasn’t totally obvious), but it’s only used for the absolutely ungradable essays. If you write on a completely different topic than what’s assigned, for example, you will get a zero. That means no memorizing a fantastic essay ahead of time! You have to write on the topic they give you. You’d also get a zero if you wrote in another language, say, or simply put no clear thoughts on paper.

A six, on the other hand, is reserved for long, structured essays that are full of clear, concrete ideas, high-level vocabulary, and correct grammar. There’s a bit more to it, but that’s the gist.

After each reader goes through and marks your essay, the two scores will be added to give you a score of 0–12 (if you actually wrote anything remotely relevant, that’s 2–12).

Then that score, in turn, is added to the raw score from the Writing multiple-choice questions, since the essay is just a part of the Writing Section. The multiple-choice sections count for more points, altogether.

Then, once they have the raw total of your essay score and your multiple-choice score added up, they convert that score into the scaled, 200–800 score.

The Importance of the Essay

The scaled score is a little bit hard to explain—how it’s calculated, I mean—and it’s not worth really getting stuck talking about. All that matters is the zero to twelve score ends up affecting how many hundreds are in that scaled score. And I did say that the multiple-choice counts for more than the essay, but that doesn’t mean the essay isn’t important.

In truth, the SAT essay score counts for around 30% your total writing score—in the ballpark of 200 points, altogether. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a significant piece of the puzzle.

And what about those who say the essay doesn’t matter? Simply put, they’re usually wrong. Most schools were really skeptical of the Writing Section when this version of the SAT first debuted it back in 2005. And sure, some are still not totally signed on, but for the most part it does factor into your admissions. And 99% of the time, you’ll have no idea how much that lady who works in the admissions office cares about your Writing score—you’ll just have to trust that a high score is better than a low one.

And for that high score, you need to put some energy into preparing to write your essay!

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Magoosh SAT This post was written by Lucas Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on SAT prep, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

GMAT, GRE, SAT, and All Things Test Prep

Bhavin-1-closeup-500x500GMAT, GRE, SAT… If one of these tests graces your future, tune in to our interview with Bhavin Parikh, CEO and founder of Magoosh, the leading online test prep company.

Listen to the recording of our conversation with Bhavin for great test prep advice and the lowdown on Magoosh.

00:02:17 – The story behind Magoosh and a word about it’s future.

00:04:10 – Why Bhavin is on a “mission to change the way people learn.”

00:06:09 – More effective than traditional test-prep: How do you know?

00:07:44 – What makes Magoosh different.

00:11:39 – The risks of self-study (Magoosh is like a gym membership).

00:14:24 – Best GMAT (and GRE) prep tips.

00:18:29 – The million dollar question: GMAT or GRE?

00:22:15 – SAT changes ahead.

00:25:43 – The Hansoo Lee Fellowship for Haas entrepreneurs.

00:27:58 – Bhavin’s stand on the debate about the value of the MBA to entrepreneurs.

00:30:18 – Last pieces of advice for applicants.

Listen to the full conversation to learn more!

Admissions Straight Talk Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk in iTunes so you don’t miss a single episode! *Theme music is courtesy of

Relevant Links:

•  Magoosh
•  Should You Retake the GMAT?
•  How to Put Your Best Foot Forward on Test Day 
•  The Hansoo Lee Fellowship
•  7 Steps to a Successful MBA Application

Related Shows:

•  Interview with Chris Ryan of Manhattan GMAT
•  Linda Abraham on Overcoming Weaknesses
•  MBA Admissions According to an Expert
•  CommonBond’s Story: A Revolution in Student Loans

Subscribe to Admissions Straight Talk:

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SAT Aims to Reconnect with the Classroom

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The essay, which is now required, will become optional.

The College Board announced this week that it would be taking measures to restructure the SAT so that it becomes more connected to high school work. Here are some highlights outlined in the New York Times article on the subject:

• Students will no longer be tested on obscure, little-used vocabulary words.
• Math problems will focus mainly on proportional thinking, linear equations, and functions.
• A calculator will not be allowed for all sections of the exam.
• Low-income students will receive fee waivers and will be allowed to send scores to up to four colleges at no charge.
• The College Board in partnership with the Khan Academy will provide practice problems and tutorial videos online for free.
• The test will switch back to the 1600 scoring system from the current 2400 system.
• The exam will be available via computer or on paper.
• The essay, which is now required, will become optional.
• Test takers won’t be penalized for an incorrect answer (i.e. points won’t be deducted for guessing).

According to College Board president David Coleman, the exam should reinforce the skills that students are learning and using in high school, and shouldn’t simply be used to test test-taking tricks.

Many observers view these changes as steps that will make the SAT more like its competitor, the ACT, which has gained market share in recent years.

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Writing an Interesting SAT Essay in 25 Minutes

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A skeleton does not a human make.

A common mistake students make on the SAT essay is thinking that if they stick to a formulaic approach, they will get a good SAT score essay-wise. The thing is using a “cookie cutter” approach to the essay can often result in a dull, predictable—and not at all convincing—essay.

What is this approach, I speak of? Well, many students have the following formula in mind: intro with a thesis, three body examples (topic sentence and final sentence that ties back to the thesis), and a conclusion. They plod their way through the essay with about as much enthusiasm as someone about to go the dentist’s to get his wisdom teeth pulled.  That is not to say you don’t want to follow a general outline. Indeed, that quick formula is about as good as any other. However, a skeleton does not a human make. In other words, you got to make your essay interesting, by keeping your examples fresh and your writing lively.

Below are two excerpts from the SAT essay prompt: Do we need adversity to help us realize our true potential?

Example #1

We need to struggle to improve. Last year, I got a bad score on my history test. It was the first ‘F’ I got. I was very disappointed with myself. Moving on from that time, I studied every day history because I wanted to score well. This time was very hard for me. But I studied all night for the final and I got an ‘A’. Therefore, we need adversity to help us improve.

Example #2

In the sophomore year, the Napoleonic Wars held about as much fascination for me as paint drying on a wall—and it showed: I failed the first history midterm. I had always been at least a ‘B’ student, something I could pull off without too much effort. But history, with all those facts, dates, and names, made my head throb in pain, and attaining a ‘C’ seemed like a feat that would require more than one all night study session. At first, it was worse than I thought. After hours of studying I could only remember a few main themes (okay, the Austrian Empire lost the war); but Mr. Thompson would want to know the exact date and the names of the losers and winners. After weeks of struggle, I came up with a system of memorizing facts that actually worked. For someone with a memory of a sea sponge, this was an incredible accomplishment. I didn’t end up falling in love with history, but through the adversity of actually failing a test, I learned to become a better learner. Oh, and that World History class? I actually ended up getting an A-.

Besides some questionable grammar, what is the major difference between these two essays? The second one actually tells an interesting story. Not one with generic facts (“bad score”, “studied all night”), but with specific and engaging details (“my head throb in pain”, “the Austrian Empire lost the war”, “ended up getting an A-“). Notice the second essay also has some comical phrases (“paint drying on a wall”, “memory of a sea sponge”). That is not to say that you have to write exactly like this student. But learn to inject colorful details and clever turns of phrases to your writing. If you do so, your essay will be more persuasive.

I should note that the second example is not perfect; there isn’t too much analysis on how adversity shapes us. Also, it is a little vague on this pivotal “system of memorizing facts”. I would have liked a bit more on how the process was very difficult and the student felt like giving up, but that he/she stuck with the “memory system”, making them a better student. That said, the second example keeps our attention riveted throughout with its turns of phrases, and would probably be a part of an essay that went on to score a ‘10’ (SAT essay scores are based out of ‘12’ points).

The moral of this story: Don’t get so fixated on structure that you forget to tell an interesting—but relevant—story. And to tell an interesting story, don’t be afraid to use a colorful phrase (or two!).

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magooshThis post was written by Chris Lele, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on taking the SAT, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

Review of BenchPrep’s Online Test Prep Site

Check out BenchPrep!I just logged into the BenchPrep test prep website and am welcomed with their greeting of “Gain an unfair advantage on test day”; I like this – a test prep site with an edge! Let’s continue exploring…

After you sign in and choose your test (see list below), you’ll then choose your target test date. The program then generates a study plan of week-by-week tasks that you’ll need to complete to achieve your optimal preparedness for your chosen exam. Each task has a timeframe next to it, indicating the expected amount of time the exercise should take – a nice touch.

As you move through the little icons on the left side of the screen, you’ll encounter some nice features – games (mainly flashcard games – pretty simple and straightforward), practice tests, discussion boards, study groups, and others. Another organizational feature is the table of contents icon which, when you click on it, gives you a very clear outline of your study plan with links to other parts of the site.

There is also a BenchPrep mobile app (Android and iPhone), making this program excellent for test-preppers on-the-go!

One thing I’d like to see more of on this site are videos. There is certainly no shortage of written prep resources here – there are loads of practice tests and explanations and tips, which of course are extremely important. For some people, this may be exactly what they’re looking for, but others – those auditory/visual types – the absence of video will be noticed.

Tests (a sampling):

• AP Exam • GRE • Police Officer Exam
• CFA Level I Exam                       . • LSAT • Postal Exam
• CLEP • MCAT • Praxis Test
• EMT • Nursing School Entrance Exams        . • SAT
• Firefighter Exam • PE Exam


• Ask-a-tutor, and receive an answer within 24 hours
•  Bookmarking and highlighting features
•  Ratings/tracking of your confidence level (so you can go back to review those weak areas)
•  Games
•  Practice tests
•  Discussion boards
•  Study groups

Head to BenchPrep now to check out these features on your own!

MBA Admissions A-Z: 26 Great Tips

So You Aced the PSAT: Should You Still Study for the SAT?

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Warning: A top score on the PSAT doesn’t guarantee anything.

Man, what a feeling. You take the PSAT at the start of junior year and have a higher score than almost anybody you know. You’re set, right? In the clear. Don’t even have to worry about the SAT—it’s pretty much the same thing right?

Alright, so this doesn’t happen to everybody. After all, only 10% of students can be in the 90th percentile. That’s how it works. But let’s say this is you, just as it was me: you’ve confirmed that you’re a good test-taker and you know your stuff, and you’re ready to wash your hands of the whole thing.

Stop there. Don’t get cocky; it’s not that simple. Even if you already know everything you need to know about the PSAT vs the SAT, a top score on the PSAT doesn’t guarantee anything. Yes, if you did well, you’ll probably do well on the SAT, too. But it’s not a sure thing, and this isn’t worth gambling over. SAT scores fluctuate, sometimes by a hundred points or more, and the less experience you have with the test, the more likely that there’s going to be some inconsistency.

Besides that, your reach schools might be looking for scores that are already on level with your PSAT score as it is, even if it is high. And if your PSAT scores drop jaws but your goal schools are only modest, then it’s time to start looking at even higher-tier schools: ivy leagues tend to look pretty good on resumes, and you’ve just shown that your test-taking skills, at least, might be up to snuff.

And if you do decide to go for the gold and apply to the best-ranked schools, then you might need to do some serious test prep to seal the deal, rather than gambling based on your PSAT score. Take a look at Harvard SAT scores, for example: 75 percent of students score over 2100. (If we compare that to the PSAT, that’s around a 200 composite score.) The story isn’t so different with Yale SAT scores, either; top schools expect top scores. Are you absolutely certain you’re going to score that high? If you aren’t—and who is?—then yeah, you might want to study for the SAT. It’s a lot of work to take on when you’ve already got classes, extra-curriculars, and a life, but whatever you can make time for is worth it if it brings you closer to your dream school.

All that being said, I want to make it clear that I don’t recommend serious prep for everybody. If you’re absolutely sure that any and every school you want to apply to has average SAT scores much lower than what you’re expecting based on your PSAT, then there are probably other things you should be focusing on. Your test scores are only part of the package, and if they’re already the strongest part by far, then you shouldn’t spend too much time and energy on them, of course.

But be careful not to write those scores off, either.

Here is what you can do to prep for college in high school.

magooshThis post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on SAT prep, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

SAT Myths Debunked

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Don’t believe all the rumors you hear about the SAT!

The SAT has a deep-seated cultural importance. For many students, it’s the single most significant test they will take in the course of their education. It’s no big surprise, then, that there’s plenty of junk info on the test; people get scared of it, and rumors get spread. It doesn’t help any that there are lots of less-than-upstanding test prep companies with their own agendas to fuel the misconception fire.

Is the SAT basically an I.Q. test?

This is more complicated than either the College Board or most large test prep companies would have you believe. The College Board says that the test is a reflection of your academic achievements—that many of the skills you learn in school are directly tested. That’s half the truth, if even that.

Meanwhile, Princeton Review gives a different answer to this question: “Your SAT scores reflect how good you are at taking the SAT (as well as how much time you spent preparing)–and that’s about it.” This is different than the College Board’s intention of testing your academic achievements. As you can see, opinions on this topic vary. The reality really lies somewhere in between the two.

It’s true that preparing for the test will raise your scores. It’s also true that many of the skills tested are test-specific. Think about functioning under time pressure, for example—when else in your life will you have a situation like this, other than on standardized tests? Or how about multiple choice guessing strategies?

But what they want you to believe is that they have some magic key that will unlock the test for you—that SAT questions are just sneaky tricks. That’s nonsense. Doing well on the SAT is actually about three things:

1. Knowing the concepts, rules, and academic vocabulary. This is the most important piece, and can come from school studies or test-specific preparation.

2. Knowing how to take a standardized test effectively. The only way to improve this is with test-specific preparation.

3. Innate logical abilities. A monkey can’t be trained to take the SAT and score well, no matter what. Meanwhile, a student who figured out how to solve a Rubik’s cube on their own will do pretty well, regardless of how much attention they pay in school. This is only a piece of the whole picture, but it is there, like it or not.

You can improve, yes; everybody can improve. But the big picture is more complicated than most “experts” will admit to.

How much time do I need to study for the SAT?

There are two common mistakes here, but the most important one to avoid is starting studies too late. Many students only start studying a few weeks before the exam, and that’s not ideal. In a perfect world, in order to be sure that you really built up your math knowledge, vocabulary, and test taking skills as much as possible, you’d have 2 or 3 months to prepare. It’s possible to make an effective one month SAT study schedule, but it takes serious devotion if you’re really going to bring up your score.

Does studying Latin actually help?

It can, but not nearly as much as studying English does. If you want to bring up your verbal score, there’s absolutely nothing better than reading as much high-level material as possible. Word lists and flashcards are useful if they’re used right—you really have to know how to remember SAT vocabulary—but it’s the reading, the natural expansion of your vocabulary, that has the greatest effect on your scores. Most of the reading comprehension questions don’t rely heavily on vocabulary; they test how comfortable you are with difficult texts in general. So that’s what you should be practicing.

That being said, reading takes time. It may even take too much time, depending on your schedule, so cramming English vocabulary can help. But don’t worry about Latin.

How hard is SAT math?

That question’s a bit tricky to answer, but everyone seems to be asking it. So just how hard is SAT math? Well, the core concepts that are tested are no harder than most sophomore high school classes. The majority of SAT takers actually studied every math concept on the test, and many of them finished covering those topics years ago. There’s no trigonometry, no calculus, no serious statistics—it’s mostly just algebra, geometry, arithmetic and number properties. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, not even for students who are taking calculus. This is where the logic I mentioned earlier comes in—the most difficult questions are puzzles. They don’t demand crazy formulas or long, complicated calculations: they test reasoning. Getting better at this is partly just about getting to know the types of puzzles that the SAT uses (and the common traps), so it’s not exactly something you’ve learned in school.

So you might hear one person say that SAT math is easy, and they’re right, in a way: it’s all from relatively basic areas of math. And you might hear another person say that it’s actually really hard, and they’re right too. The tricky questions are really tricky, even if the formulas are basic enough.

High School Juniors: Find out what you can do NOW to make applying to college go as smoothly as possible!

magooshThis post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh, providing online SAT prep. For more advice on taking the SAT, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

2013 SAT Scores by the Numbers [Infographic]

Many thanks to the folks at LA Tutors for this excellent infographic!

2013 SAT Scores by the Numbers

Getting Serious for the SAT

For more SAT prep resources check out our SAT 101 page.

Did you know that guessing on the SAT is not a bad thing?

It’s easy to pick up an SAT prep book and just flip through it every now and then. And this isn’t that bad of thing either: you can brush up on the basics, do some practice problems, and, with barely any sweat on your brow, move on to something else.

One reason students have this attitude is the SAT takes place almost every month throughout the school year. It is easy to shrug off serious prep and tell yourself that you’ll do more later (remember grades and social stuff will intrude!).

But if you want to do your best on the SAT, you got to hunker down. In other words, grab that SAT prep book (preferably the one published by College Board), turn off that smartphone, and find a comfortable place to sit. It’s time to get serious.

Vocab Prep

Many SAT students put off studying vocab to the last minute, thinking that it is just like any vocab quiz they’ve studied before in the past—study for 10 minutes, before and voila, regurgitation time.

With the SAT you have to deal with thousands of words, and the sooner you start the better. But don’t just start going through generic SAT word lists. Using flashcards that come in a set testing the most common SAT words is a great place to start. You can also use to make your online flashcards for those words you encounter while you prep.

Learn the Ropes

Don’t just do practice problem after practice problem. Learn how the test actually works. The College Board book has a great introduction, and you can learn SAT basics from blogs such as Magoosh. Think you already got that part down? Well, did you know that guessing on the SAT is not a bad thing? In fact, guessing—in certain cases—can help improve your score. You’ll also learn how to avoid common SAT traps. Doing so will definitely improve your score.

Timed Sessions

Okay, so you know how the test works, and the way the test writers try to trick you. Then it is time to get serious. Start creating practice sessions. First time yourself on an entire section. Grade the section, try to figure out your mistakes (don’t just look at the answer), and think of ways to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. As you near the big day, you should be able to take an entire timed SAT test (and don’t forget to turn off your phone!).

Need a Hand?

Sometimes, trying to follow a set routine is hard. Hey, after all that is part of the reason you’ve only been able to crack the SAT book open every now and then. But don’t worry—we have devised a three-month SAT study schedule that will help get you into SAT shape (without taking away your social life—at least not all of it!).

magooshThis post was written by Kevin Rocci, resident SAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on SATprep, check out Magoosh’s SAT blog.

4 SAT Study Secrets

Check out our SAT 101 page for more tips.

Get accustomed to reading with a timer.

What exactly is the key to a high mark on the SAT? Many individuals claim hard work, memorization, and practice are the central components to scoring well. While these claims contain some truth, there are also less known and more effective ways to improve your score results. Continue reading this article to learn how even watching television or simply utilizing logic can aid you in bettering your performance on the SAT.

1. Less is more

Ironically, the longer students devote to perusing the passages on the Critical Reading section, the more they often struggle with the accompanying questions. Test-takers typically have only enough time to briefly skim the passages. The key to mastering the Critical Reading portion of the SAT is unlearning many of the typical tactics learned. For instance, techniques that urge students to underline, take notes, and read slowly should all be disregarded on the SAT. Due to the limited amount of time allotted during the exam, students must break these habits that have been instilled in them in order to succeed on the SAT. To do this, you should get accustomed to reading with a timer. Your goal should be to push through the reading, rather than work hard to understand it on a deep level.

2. Learn from unexpected sources 

For many students, vocabulary is one of the most daunting aspects of this assessment. To expand vocabulary, high schoolers can gain a great deal from watching certain television programs. Shows with legitimate historical, legal, and medical themes can be particularly educational, for example. During a single episode of a courtroom drama, the SAT words “erroneous,” “exonerate,” and “vindicate” could all easily pop up. When watching shows that fall into these categories, keep a paper and pen nearby in order to jot down any words that are unfamiliar to you. Compared to memorizing lengthy lists of terms, this method is a contextual, more natural way of learning vocabulary. Undoubtedly, difficult words are easier to understand when displayed in relevant scenarios.

3. Use foreign languages

An additional strategy to excel in SAT vocabulary is to pay close attention in your foreign language class. Spanish, French, Italian, and the other romance languages are all derived from Latin. Knowledge of any of these languages behooves test-takers, as many of the more sophisticated words in English have Latin roots. For example, the SAT word “lucid” is defined as “clear, easily understood, or bright.” This word originates from the Latin term for light, lucidus (luz in Spanish and luce in Italian). Additionally, consider the link between loqui in Latin (“to speak”) and the English words “eloquent” and “loquacious,” which are popular SAT words. The prevalence of similarities between SAT terms and their foreign counterparts is truly astounding. If such a class is available, taking Latin in high school could be even more beneficial. A strong understanding of Latin can help just as much with vocabulary as it can with the sentence corrections portion of the SAT.

4. Employ your natural logic

Considering the sentence correction questions with a critical and rational mind is essential to doing well. For instance, analyze the sentence, “My terrier likes playing fetch more than most dogs.” At first glance, it may seem that nothing is grammatically wrong. However, you should ask yourself if the sentence is logical. The sentence really means to say, “My terrier likes playing fetch more than most dogs do,” or, “My terrier likes playing fetch more than most dogs like playing fetch.” The original phrasing is synonymous with stating, “My terrier likes playing fetch more than he/she likes most dogs,” and we know that is not the message that the author is intending to convey. While familiarizing oneself with English grammar principles is likely to increase one’s score on the SAT, you must not forget that utilizing logic and reason can result in a great difference, too.

Tiffany Sorensen is a professional SAT tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language & Literature from Stony Brook University.