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What Is the Difference Between the New SAT Essay and the New SAT Writing Section?

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When changes to the SAT were instituted in March of 2016, there were understandably a lot of questions. After all, the SAT is one of only two high-stakes standardized tests widely accepted as a gauge of college readiness and used by college admissions committees to assess applicants.


As news of the changes trickled back to students, teachers, SAT tutors, and high school counselors, some of the most commonly asked questions centered on the difference between the new Writing and Language section of the SAT and the new Essay section. Previously, the writing and essay tests had been combined and required. Now, they’re separate, and the essay itself is optional.


How does the content of each section now differ from that of its predecessor? What form does each exam take, and what skills does it assess? In this post, we will outline the basics of the new SAT Writing and Essay sections, describe what you are asked to do on each portion of the test, and give you an overview of the skills assessed.


Read on to learn more about the difference between the new Writing and Language SAT and the new SAT Essay section.


What is the format of the new SAT Writing and Language Test?

The new Writing and Language section of the SAT is part of the larger Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test. This section of the test includes 44 questions and lasts 35 minutes. All questions are multiple-choice and all are based on passages.


As you take the Writing and Language test, you will read four passages, each between 400-450 words. There will be one nonfiction narrative, one to two informative or explanatory texts, and one to two arguments. Some passages will be accompanied by informational graphics such as tables, graphs, or charts.


Passages and questions are presented in side-by-side columns with passages on the left-hand side of the page and questions along the right-hand side. Question numbers are embedded in the text of the passage, along with underlining, to indicate which part of the passage is being tested. Some questions may also assess the passage as a whole.


What skills does the Writing and Language Test Assess?

The Writing and Language Test assesses your skills in five primary areas:


Command of Evidence

These questions will ask you to improve the way passages develop information and ideas. For example, you might sharpen an argumentative claim or add a relevant supporting detail.


Words in Context

These questions will ask you to improve word choice, choose the best words to use based on the text, make a passage more precise/concise, or improve syntax, style, or tone.


Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

These questions test your ability to critically read passages about topics in history, social studies, and science, and to make editorial decisions that clarify them or improve their focus.


Expression of Ideas

These questions will ask you to consider a passage’s organization and its effectiveness in expressing concepts, as well as which words or structural changes could improve how well the passage makes its point or how well its sentences and paragraphs work together. 


Standard English Conventions

These questions assess your knowledge of the building blocks of writing, including sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. You may be asked to change words, clauses, sentences, and punctuation, or edit for verb tense, parallel construction, subject-verb agreement, or comma use.


Basically, on the Writing and Language Test, you will be asked to make editorial decisions to improve the passages on both a minute and large scale.


What is the format of the Essay Section?

By contrast, the essay section (which is now optional and is administered after the required sections of the SAT) includes a passage between 650-700 words long that you will read and then critique. You will have 50 minutes to read the passage, plan your writing, and write your essay.


The passage you are asked to assess varies from test to test, but it is always written for a broad audience and taken from published works. Unlike on the Writing and Language test, the Essay passage is not crafted to intentionally include organizational and grammatical errors.


The passage will argue a point; use logical reasoning and evidence to support claims; and examine ideas, debates, or trends in the arts, science, civics, cultural studies, or politics.


Unlike on previous iterations of the SAT Essay, you won’t be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic or to write about your personal experience.


The prompt for the new SAT Essay is always the same or nearly the same:


As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses:


•Evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.

•Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.

•Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.


It’s important to note that since the SAT Essay is based on a published work, you are not likely to identify major grammar mistakes or failures in structure. Instead, you will primarily discuss the specific ways in which the passage succeeds at supporting its claims and identifying methods it uses to build an argument.

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What skills are assessed on the new SAT Essay?

Your essay will be assessed based on how well you understood the passage and how well you used it as the basis for a well-written, thought-out discussion.


Specifically, you will be scored on:



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.



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 and by supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage.



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.


You can see the formal SAT Essay scoring rubric to learn more about how your essay is scored.


Overview of Differences

While there is certainly some overlap between the content area and skills assessed through the Writing and Language test and the Essay test, these skills are assessed in different ways through these sections.


The Writing and Language test asks you to make editorial decisions to improve the content of a written passage and to choose the best answer from multiple answer choices. In this section, grammatical and structural errors are intentionally included in the passage for you to identify and correct.


Meanwhile, the Essay asks you to critique a passage in your own words, identifying areas of strength and weakness and applying your own knowledge of strong written work. The passage on this section is a previously published work and as such, it will not contain the same types of glaring mistakes contained in the passage of the Writing and Language test. 


Both tests assess your knowledge of organization and structure of written work, and the ways in which authors support and develop claims with textual evidence. On the Writing and Language Test you will choose the best ways to improve a passage, while on the Essay section you will have to identify successful sections and author choices and articulate these choices through your own written word.


Where can I find free study materials for the SAT?

If you are preparing to take the SAT, whether or not you are taking the optional Essay section, you should consider the following free study resources.


Start your studying by taking the CollegeVine free diagnostic SAT with customized score report and action plan to help get a better idea of where you’re starting from and the direction that your studying should take you.


Another good place to start is the College Board Student SAT Study Guide, which gives an overview of the test’s content and structure along with a breakdown of scoring and subscores to help guide your studying.


The College Board also maintains a Daily Practice SAT App that provides daily test questions, answer hints, and answer explanations.


Finally, Khan Academy is the official, free study partner of the SAT and provides a number of study materials including study tips and video tutorials.


Once you’ve spent some time learning the material, put it to use on some College Board sample questions or a full-length practice test.


Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.


To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.