Your essay is technically worth ⅓ of your Writing score, but in practical terms it’s worth less than that. That’s because the technical range of possible scores for your essay is 0-12, but most essays fall within a range of 6-10. So all those points that would come from scores 0-6 are basically free points for you, provided you put in the minimal effort needed to score at least a 6. If you’re able to increase your score from an 8 to a 10, say, that’ll append about 40 extra points on your Writing score, assuming your multiple choice score stays the same*.

Your score is determined by two independent readers, who are educators at either the high school or university level who have been hired by The College Board. They won’t know each other’s scores, nor will they know your name. They will each assign a grade from 0-6 to your essay (based on this rubric). Those scores are added, and that’s how you get your score on the 12 point scale. If your readers disagree by more than one point (this is unusual), a third grader is called in to settle the score (not someone in third grade, a third person who will adjudicate your essay).

It’s important to state, right at the outset, that there’s no one way to write a good essay; there are many paths to a good score. However, I’ve found that the following format produces reliably good results.

Sample Essay Skeleton
  1. Intro (2-3 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is your thesis.  Waste no time getting to it!
    2. Sentence 2 (if you like) elaborates a bit on your thesis to make it stronger.  If you’re going to argue that hard work is necessary for success, for example, then maybe you make your second sentence something about failure stemming from lack of hard work. That way you’ve approached your argument from two different angles.
    3. In Sentence 3, mention your examples so your reader knows what’s coming.  
  2. Example 1 – Your stronger example (7-10 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is a mini-thesis.  Basically, it introduces your example again and relates it directly to your main thesis.  
    2. The rest of your sentences are a mix of relevant details (if your example is literature, for example, then you need to mention relevant plot points) and gentle reminders to your reader that these details support your thesis.  See if you can reference your thesis in some way at least twice in this paragraph.  The outline you jot down before you start writing should have at least 3 bullet points for relevant details you want to include about your example.
  3. Example 2 – Your weaker example (7-10 sentences)
    1. Sentence 1 is, again, a mini-thesis.  This one should, however, also contain some kind of transition.  Example (transition from a literary example to a personal one, on the topic of careful planning for important events): “Like the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I was once forced to leave my home because of a giant, never-ending dust storm, so I know firsthand the value of careful planning.”
    2. The rest of this paragraph should again be a combination of relevant details and pointers back to the main thesis.  If this example is a little shorter than the last one, that’s fine, but make sure you still cram in as much specificity as possible.
  4. Conclusion (OPTIONAL, but if you decide to do one no more than 1-2 sentences)
    1. Don’t introduce any new information here, just wrap your essay up with 1-2 sentences by reminding the reader once more what your thesis is, and that both of your carefully chosen examples are strong support for that thesis.  Example: “Both Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and my family’s experience surviving a zombie apocalypse suggest that it is difficult to overstate the value of preparedness for difficult situations.”

For some more ruminations about the essay, click here.

* Increasing an essay from an 8 to a 10 is no easy task, which is why I like to focus more on the multiple choice section in general…that’s where the big points are. But I digress.